Review: A new book on rural America avoids the clichés. Why that’s only mostly a good thing
One of the first books I encountered in graduate school was this 1999 work by the historian Richard White, The American Revolution: A History. It had a powerful, if somewhat disorganized, historical sweep.
The book was a hodgepodge, with some chapters on Washington and Alexander Hamilton titled by White himself (although he did have help). But most of the work, especially the first half, was done on a much lesser level. White, it was clear, was aiming to cover a huge number of years (1776 to 1783) with a single narrative. In some ways, it succeeded. Much of Washington’s life and career was covered, for example. The book also covered how Revolutionary ideology grew out of the Constitution, which, in turn, was built on the political and ideological foundations laid during the French and Indian War.
The result is a remarkably detailed account of American history, one that never felt like a one-time event. What’s more, it never felt like a book that was designed to please the reader. At its best, White’s book was an intense political document.
That’s part of what makes the new book, Richard Wehner’s Revolutionary America, so fascinating. Written as a companion to White’s account, Wehner is a historian whose own personal experience of modern America is so stark, so painful, that it makes the most conventional history feel limp and insubstantial.
Unlike White, whose book was based on a relatively small number of primary sources and secondary documents, Wehner relies on a much wider array of sources, all written and produced in the era that he is describing. The result is a book that’s much more coherent, much more detailed and much more nuanced.
White’s narrative is also extremely dense and complex. That’s a good thing, of course. But it also makes his book feel artificial. And that isn’t exactly the same thing as saying that it was better written. I’ll discuss what Wehner’s book is and is not later in the week.
But first, here’s a review of Wehner’s previous