July 4: The American Revolution Revised
Children’s Books in the Era of the Tea Party
Dressed in colonial garb and looking like reincarnations of Benjamin Franklin or Betsy Ross, members of the political movement known as the Tea Party have gone bonkers about history and link their conservative politics to the Founding Fathers. Reality-based historians, on the other hand, are aghast at this misreading of the past and by the Tea Party’s farfetched assertion that George Washington and Co. were actually proto-conservatives; as historians point out, rather than reactionaries keen on budgetary restraint, Washington, Paine, Franklin, et al. were actually radicals and revolutionaries. Ladies and Gentleman:
Welcome to the so-called “History Wars,” a cultural phenomenon that is even now — bewildering as it may seem — shaping the world of children’s books.
It used to be, as Frances Fitzgerald points out in America Revised, his study of American schoolbooks, that the history of the United States was simple and uncontroversial. Our country was a “melting pot” in which individuals of various races, ethnicities, and religions shed their idiosyncrasies to acquire a single identity and become “Americans.” Moreover, our government was a democracy blessed by progress; as a result, we had something of a moral obligation to share our freedoms and form of government with others in the world who were less fortunate. These were common views through the mid-1960’s and though we may smile indulgently at those notions now, in their time they were widely shared beliefs put forward by people of goodwill.
During the 1970’s, however, activists and multiculturalists challenged these views, suggesting that this vision of American history amounted to an “establishment version” of our past where everyone aspired to be white, male, and Anglo-Saxon. In his now famous A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn asked us to consider the voices and views of others — slaves, for example, and immigrants. He encouraged readers to consider other sides of historical stories: How, for example, did Native Americans see the Battle at Little Big Horn?
But developments didn’t stop there. In the last decade, conceptions of American History shifted even further when historians began discussing “Atlantic History.” Instead of a narrow view of U.S. history alone, they argued that events on our continent should be seen in a wider context of Europe, Africa, and the Americas.
This approach deliberately unsettled conventional pieties. For example, the notion that American colonials were simply victims of a tyrannical England turns out to be too simple; it seems Britain had reasons to complain about folks on this side of the pond. And our schoolbook veneration of American revolutionaries as high-minded and selfless? Well, if the truth be known, a number of our heroes were actually wily merchants engaged in rebellion only because they saw it a key to personal gain.
These developments in the History Wars have engendered four prize-winning books by two authors. Each is a work of historical fiction questioning conventional views of the American Revolution. Each presents “unheard voices” by having their stories told by African-American slaves. And each also offers an “Atlantic History” perspective that can be unflattering both to Americans and the British. These works are remarkable young adult novels that can keep company with the best literature, with Moby Dick (M.T. Anderson) and The Red Badge of Courage (Laurie Halse Anderson).
This novel, a winner of a dozen major awards, stars Octavian Nothing, a slave child given a classical education by a circle of philosophers at the Novanglian College of Lucidity; they wish to discover whether Africans are indeed humans and equal to Europeans. Taking advantage of a smallpox epidemic raging in colonial Boston and following the death of his mother, Octavian escapes his captors and joins the American rebels outside the city. The rebels are fighting for their freedom, too — albeit, of a different kind. In fact, political freedom for colonials does not include freedom for slaves, and Octavian is betrayed and returned to his owners. As this 560-page novel moves to a close, Octavian hatches a plot to escape again, this time planning to join up with the British, who have promised freedom to any slave who deserts and fights on their side. Told in eighteenth-century language, and presenting a story that needs to be traced through maps and other clues, this book is a breathtaking masterpiece.
In this sequel, Octavian takes up residence in British-occupied Boston, a now decadent place where he entertains the Red Coats with his violin. Hearing that Lord Dunmore, a British Commander, is forming an Ethiopian Regiment of escaped slaves and promising them their freedom, Octavian makes his way through rebel lines to Norfolk, Virginia, just as the British are forced to retreat to their boats. There, in the “Kingdom on the Waves,” he keeps company with other Africans, including one who knew Octavian’s mother and her regal history before she was kidnapped and raped. Smallpox eventually breaks out on these anchored ships and Lord Dunmore goes back on his word, getting rich by selling the escaped Africans back into slavery. So, Octavian flees, returning to Boston where the College of Lucidity has gone to ruin and his former owners lie diseased and dying. Out of hope, Octavian decides to escape once again, this time heading towards the Western frontier. Like its predecessor, this novel is an epic work and a dark meditation on the meanings of freedom.
While larger events of the American Revolution occur around her, Isabel, a slave, tells her own story of hurt and betrayal: how she should have been freed but was wrongly sold again, how she was separated from her five-year-old epileptic sister, how she spied for the rebels on the promise of her freedom but never got it, and how she was branded on her cheek with the letter “I” for her insolence. This book is monument to historical research, and each chapter begins with an appropriate epigraph from an eighteenth-century text. Anderson’s moving story about Isabel and her sufferings has deservedly taken home a passel of awards and honors.
This sequel to Chains is told by another slave, Curzon, a character who appears in the earlier novel and becomes a love interest of Isabel. For the most part, Forge concerns Curzon’s hard winter as a soldier, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with other rebels at Washington’s encampment in Valley Forge. As Thomas Paine observed, those were “the times that tried men’s souls” and (thanks to Anderson’s vivid prose) we feel what it was like to be shoeless in the snow, surviving on meager rations around campfires. Many made sacrifices. But despite his own sacrifices, Curzon tragically discovers that his wish for freedom from slavery does not go hand-in-hand with America’s wish for freedom from England.
A version of this essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (January 2011). In my essays for the New York Times Book Review, you can find more detailed information about the novels by M.T. Anderson and Laurie Halse Anderson. On the subject of the American Revolution and mythmaking for the young, see also my related essays on Patriotic Biographies and on George Washington and the Cherry Tree. Finally, an expanded version of the remarks above were the subject of an address given at the conference “Fluctuating Memories and Founding Histories ” at Université Paris 13 in October 2010.
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