Monday, January 21, 2013

Book 9: The Whites of Their Eyes

I'm remember reading an article about this book when it first came out, and thinking it sounded incredibly fascinating.  This book has now sat on the floor in my bedroom (two different bedrooms in two separate states, actually) for so long that I can't even find the blog post that first mentioned it because I think that blog switched servers - assuming I'm even correct as to where I first heard about this book.  Additionally, it seems like the Tea Party is slowly peetering out.  Oh, there are still plenty of super conservative people around, but I don't think they are rallying to the call of the Tea Party anymore.  Of course, I could be mistaken here but does seem to be the impression I get based on news, blogs and election results.  So yes, while this book certainly takes a look at an interesting topic (the misappropriation and misinterpretation of history), the specific moment the author is exploring may already be past.
While I quite liked the premise of this book, I have to say the execution left me slighlty dissatisfied, and that I believe has a lot more to do with me than the book.  I think Lepore was attempting to start a discussion, and this slim volume would certainly do so.  However, I was left wanting more details about both the present interpretations of history and the past, the actual events that happened.  Of course, this book never claimed to be about the history of the Revolution and its events; she mentions several events focusing on the Boston and Massachusetts area (I admit while I was reading about all the grievances regarding events in Boston, I kind of started wondering why the rest of the colonies agreed to go to war as well - there was certainly nothing listed about grievances that the rest of the nation faced), and talks about how certain events were barely remembered until later brought back into focus.  For example, the Boston Massacre Anniversary (the colonials certainly had a good grasp on propaganda - an armed, riotuous crowd does not an innocent assembly make) was always celebrated, but the anniversary of the destruction of the tea wasn't even really noted until many years later when one of the last survivors was used by a political party.  Similarly, no one paid much attention to Paul Revere's ride or remembered it until Hawthorne wrote a poem prior to the Civil War.  The book is full of interesting tidbits like this, and overall when she digs into a discussion or argument, it really is interesting.  I just wish there had been more.
She also argues that some of the problems with history right now go back to the Bicenntennial when academic historians failed to put a proper meaning to the anniversary - something that academia might not find necessary but something that the American people perhaps needed.  Academia has lately been much more focused on the social movements, rediscovering lost voices and discussing these types of more problematic pieces of history so that the far right and popular historians have taken over the idea of the "Great Man," publishing various biographies that basically make every single founding father (a term that didn't come into use until Woodrow Wilson) singlehandedly responsible for the course of history and the American Revolution.  Of course, this means some of the more problematic fathers are either dismissed by certain political elements (such as Thomas Jefferson) or only parts of their history survive, such as Thomas Paine.  Somehow his writings on his lack of interest in religion aren't really addressed when people try to argue that our nation was founded as a religious nation.
She introduces the men involved in the Revolution as complex, flawed men with conflicting opinions, and says that it is absolutely not correct to try to determine what they would do in current situations.  After all, by setting up this nation they were very definitely not looking to their forefathers.  The other parts I liked were when she discussed how the American Revolution has been interpreted and used in the past - after all, the Tea Party are not the first to make history fit their own design; it was done by both sides during the Civil War and various other groups before and since.
Overall, it isn't a bad book at all, but it seemed like there was less about the Tea Party than I expected there to be.  Certainly most of the topics she addresses could be turned into much larger books on that topic alone - for example, I would now love to read a book that tracks how history or certain events have been interpreted over the years.  There were also quite a few fun pieces of information that I wasn't completely aware of before, not that I think trivia would ever get that specific.  Unfortunately, I think I wanted more meat, otherwise I probably would have enjoyed this more.


Anonymous said...

Great choice for your first keyword. I'd like to read more political or historical books this year. I think about four years of studying history, I was glad to take break from it last year. I think I'm missing it all now, though.

Jen K said...

I also feel like I should incorporate more nonfiction than I do but sometimes the books are so hit or miss. I'll think a topic sounds interesting, and then just not be that engaged by the style. And nonfiction generally takes a bigger time commitment so it's even worse when it's disappointing than a regular novel.