Synopses & Reviews
Americans tend to think of the Revolution as a Massachusetts-based event orchestrated by Virginians, but in fact the war took place mostly in the Middle Colonies — in New York and New Jersey and the parts of Pennsylvania that on a clear day you can almost see from the Empire State Building. In My American Revolution
, Robert Sullivan delves into this first Middle America, digging for a glorious, heroic part of the past in the urban, suburban, and sometimes even rural landscape of today. And there are great adventures along the way: Sullivan investigates the true history of the crossing of the Delaware, its down-home reenactment each year for the past half a century, and — toward the end of a personal odyssey that involves camping in New Jersey backyards, hiking through lost "mountains," and eventually some physical therapy — he evacuates illegally from Brooklyn to Manhattan by handmade boat. He recounts a Brooklyn historians failed attempt to memorialize a colonial Maryland regiment; a tattoo artists more successful use of a colonial submarine, which resulted in his 2007 arrest by the New York City police and the FBI; and the life of Philip Freneau, the first (and not great) poet of American independence, who died in a swamp in the snow. Last but not least, along New York harbor, Sullivan re-creates an ancient signal beacon.
Like an almanac, My American Revolution moves through the calendar of American independence, considering the weather and the tides, the harbor and the estuary and the yearly return of the stars as salient factors in the war for independence. In this fiercely individual and often hilarious journey to make our revolution his, he shows us how alive our own history is, right under our noses.
"A nostalgic, witty, and always informative topographic retrospective of the sites pertinent to the American Revolution takes Vogue contributing editor and journalist Sullivan (The Thoreau You Don't Know) to the action seen by the middle colonies especially New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Years of reflective walks and 'site-inspired epiphanies' inform Sullivan's research, as he traced Washington's army crossing the Delaware, marching to engage the British at the battles of Trenton and Princeton, and into the winter refuge at Morristown, in the Watchung Mountains. In the second part, Sullivan discourses by turns on the seasons of the revolution, not in any chronological fashion, e.g., spring 1789 marked the inauguration of the new president in a vastly changing downtown Manhattan, which Sullivan reached by his own personal inaugural barge from Elizabeth, N.J., to Wall Street; summer sounded the anniversary of the disastrous rout at the Battle of Brooklyn; autumn ushered a rueful time of remembrance for soldiers and prisoners; and winter brings to mind the appalling hard winter at Valley Forge endured by the army. As infatuated by later decades' of monuments, statues, and artist's renderings of the revolutionary landscape as he is by the actual history, Sullivan delights in deep digressions into personal moments of discovery, such as viewing Larry Rivers's controversial Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art or coming upon the lists of evolving early Dutch and British markets published by butcher turned street historian Thomas F. DeVoe. Sullivan's historic anecdotes form a loose-limbed, irreverent, surprising take on American history, most fun in the footnotes. Agent: Eric Simonoff. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Engaging, humorous, and often surprising....Sullivan combines solid historical knowledge, sensitivity to the physical landscape, and a wry sense of the absurdities inherent in mythmaking to provide a thoroughly enjoyable and original perspective." Booklist
"Historical reenactors refer to what they do as 'living history,' the idea being that its easier to learn from a three-dimensional experience than is from a book or lecture, because it establishes a physical connection with the past. It was something like this desire, familiar to most amateur history buffs, that drove Sullivan...to relive some of the iconic deeds of American Revolution, such as crossing the East River to Manhattan in a small boat in homage to George Washington's escape after the disastrous Battle of Brooklyn. Sullivan is himself a New Yorker, and his zeal for local history comes across in the way that he treats each task with enthusiastic respect. For him, hiking through New Jersey along the path of Washington's troops is more than a hike — its a communion with our shared past that bears an importance beyond mere observation. This is half history and half just good fun....It's inspiring to watch him attempt to capture even the tiniest bit of the audacity of the American founding." Nick Mancusi, The Daily Beast
"Robert Sullivan has interesting ideas, and sometimes he makes interesting books out of them....Now Sullivan turns his attention to the American Revolution, though no one familiar with his work will be surprised that his approach to it is almost entirely eccentric. My American Revolution is about as far from a conventional account of that conflict as one could get. Instead it is an episodic portrait of the war as it may have been at the time and as it is understood — or misunderstood — by many of us now....This book is about...an effort to find the past in the present, to reconcile each to the other. At its best, My American Revolution accomplishes this with grace and humor...[Sullivan] certainly accomplishes one of his main purposes: to make us see not merely the revolution but also ourselves in new light." Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
"My American Revolution is a brilliant rereading of an entire landscape. It offers an ingenious approach to history by suggesting that noticing and retracing with care and wit, finding hints and clues, are ways of re-creating the past in all its complexity. It is, on the one hand, a funny book, filled with mishap and adventure, but it is also deeply and seriously engaged with capturing the spirit of a place. It deserves to become one of the indispensable books about New York." Colm Tóibín, author of Brooklyn
"In his uplifting new book, My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78, Robert Sullivan...mixes local history and personal examination. His outcome is...ecstatic. Sullivan claims that the real Revolutionary War wasn't fought in and around Boston but in the middle colonies of New York and New Jersey, his lifelong haunts. He scours these areas for the War of Independence that time forgot....Sullivan restores to their original brightness figures on the verge of disappearing from history....Rebelling against mainstream accounts of the war, Sullivan realizes that revolutionary energy still thrives in the peripheries....Sullivan's exuberant character sketches are as irresistible as they are informative. He is the history teacher you wanted but never had: funny, unpretentiously curious, able to imagine the past with astonishing vitality — a true poet of living history as well as a consummate subversive, showing us how recoveries of the abandoned past are essential for liberty and justice. The people you never heard of, it turns out, can be the ones you most need to hear." Eric G. Wilson, The Minneapolis Star Tribune
About the Author
Robert Sullivan is the author of Rats, The Meadowlands, A Whale Hunt, and most recently, The Thoreau You Don't Know. His writing has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, New York, A Public Space and Vogue, where he is a contributing editor. He was born in Manhattan and now lives in Brooklyn, New York.