If Thanksgiving with all its talk of pilgrims and Mayflowers and turkeys has you thoughtful about early America, you’re in luck.
Joseph J. Ellis is the next author up for Writers on a New England Stage at The Music Hall in Portsmouth. Ellis will converse with a New Hampshire Public Radio host on stage Tuesday, Nov. 30, at 7:30 p.m., about his new book, First Family: Abigail & John Adams (Knopf, 2010, 299 pages). Tickets cost $13 and vouchers for autographed books will be sold at RiverRun Bookstore and The Music Hall for $27.95 ($25.15 in advance).
Ellis, a history professor at Mount Holyoke College, is also the author of Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, which earned the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for History; American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic, and Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams. With First Family he zeroes in on the relationship between John and Abigail, as documented by the thousands of letters the two exchanged, and their children.
I’ll admit I found the writing a little hard. Some of his sentences seem to be made entirely of subordinate clauses, which leaves a person desperate to find the point. Then I found an online video of Ellis speaking with Charlie Rose about Founding Brothers in 2001 and I thought, oh dear, he really is dull.
But then I found a video at C-SPAN online of Ellis giving a talk at a University of Virginia conference this past summer, and he was so lively and interesting I say run, don’t walk, to get your tickets to see him. There’s usually a Q&A with the audience at these things, too.
In the meantime you might run across The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History, by Jill Lepore (2010, Princeton University Press, 207 pages), which alternates between John Adams’ time and our own. It offers a down-to-earth perspective via real journalism-style nosing around. In each succinct chapter Lepore, a Harvard historian, puts us on the ground in 1770s Boston, then on the ground in 1970s Bicentennial America, and then on the ground with today’s “tea party” activists. The thrust of the book is an argument against using history superficially to score cheap political points or make yourself feel good, especially if you do it inaccurately. Debate as you will the merits of health care legislation or Social Security, but don’t fall into “historical fundamentalism,” whether it comes from today’s tea partiers or 1970s Jeremy Rifkin. And if you’re going to cite history, you’d better know your context. “In American politics, the story of the nation’s founding will be resurrected again and again, put to one use, and then another,” Lepore writes, providing many examples. This very readable book offers some clarity on the process.
And if you’re still hungry for more, or looking to dodge dishwashing duty after the pumpkin pie, pick up The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies, by Alan Taylor (2010, Knopf, 620 pages), which is a good resource and a fine dip-into, read-a-chapter-here-or-a-page-there book. Taylor, a Maine native and University of California history professor, focuses on the U.S.-Canada border between Montreal and Detroit, an area that usually gets far less attention than the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic at this point in history. The book “examines the peoples on both sides of a new and artificial border,” Taylor says, and he promises a sociological slant: “Although I do narrate battles and do assess the feats and foibles of leaders, I devote more attention to the relationship of soldiers with civilians.” Each side — the United States and the British/Canadians/loyalists — believed the other’s political system would soon fall apart. Meanwhile there was the conflict within the U.S. between Republicans and Federalists, which Taylor also shines some light on. This feels like the sort of book you’d idly pull off a library shelf 20 years from now and end up engrossed in some part of — a big, definitive, information-filled story.