J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Choosing Seven Characters to Tell a Revolution

Today Boston 1775 welcomes author Ray Raphael as a guest blogger, discussing how he approached his latest book on the American Revolution.

All of us who live part of our lives in Revolutionary America have a story to tell, a journey. My path has taken me from the under-reported common people (People’s History of the American Revolution) to the amazingly forgotten Massachusetts Revolution of 1774 (First American Revolution) to a realization that what we choose to remember (and what we therefore forget) is unduly shaped by narrative demands, nation-forming, and ideological slant (Founding Myths). From there, though, I found myself at a crossroads: should I just throw up my hands and admit that good stories are bound to distort history, or should I try my hand at weaving an honest national narrative that is more genuinely true to the people and spirit of the times?

Any good story, we all know, requires lead characters, and that has been part of the problem, for we hear from grade school on that a handful of very special men bequeathed us a nation. We in the Revolutionary War community understand how limiting and destructive that is. But can we do any better? Could we possibly choose a different set of individuals to anchor a broader tale, one that is more representative yet still personal and intimate?

That’s what I tried to do in Founders: The People Who Brought You a Nation. I’ve chosen seven diverse characters, some high and some low, from different classes and regions and ways of thinking, who had a strong impact on the American Revolution and the shaping of the young nation. By interweaving these real-life stories, I hoped to access some of the deeper meanings—and also reveal the concrete, local, and very personal experiences of real people of those times.

Clearly, the selection of characters in this experiment determines the shape of the story, so my choices for the lead roles were critical. I looked over dozens of contenders and finally settled on my cast. In some sense it was arbitrary, but in another sense not, for there were serious criteria to consider:

  • Candidates needed a written record to follow over an extended period of time.
  • They had to appear and reappear at critical junctures so they could anchor the larger story.
  • Their stories needed to overlap in some way, at least thematically and preferably in actual events, so we could gain multiple perspectives.
  • They had to reveal that power passed both ways during the Revolution, from the bottom up and from the top down.
Are you with me so far? If so, given these parameters, whom would YOU choose for this experiment?

One of the characters is a given: George Washington. There is absolutely no way we can tell the larger story of the war and the nation’s founding without him. We know this. But who else?

Try this: Transport yourself to December of 1781, after the battle of Yorktown, and imagine you are pondering the historical significance of the amazing drama that has encompassed America. Which individuals, you wonder, will stand out in stories told by future historians? In other words, try to forget what happened since and ask, as a person of that time: who are the most powerful and significant players in these grand events?

I asked myself that question, and that’s how I came up with another of my central characters. One man, virtually unknown today, was undoubtedly the most powerful non-military figure in Revolutionary America. Like George Washington, he had to be in the story, for nobody else could play his role.

Beyond that, though, the choices were many. I needed to include people who were not high and mighty, for surely such folks carried their fair share. I made my final selections, and you can judge for yourselves whether these true Americans lead us to new corners, help us understand the multiple perspectives of the Revolution, and above all, make those times spring to live for us today.

But I don’t want to prejudice the case. Please “try this at home,” before looking at my book or hearing my spiel. Then, we can share and discuss our choices and reasons. There are no “correct” answers, but some choices are better than others to the degree that they open the inquiry, and all choices, I contend, will help expand the narrow textbook version that simply cannot represent the whole. We owe it to ourselves and our country to think outside that box, because until all the stories are told, we cannot sit back and say, “This is who we are as a nation.”

I’ve got a copy of Founders, so I know which people Ray chose. But tomorrow I’ll ponder how I might have tackled the same task differently (just to be perverse), and I’ll post all the suggestions and commentary you folks share. And later in the week we’ll reveal the six individuals beyond Washington that Ray focused on.

Ray Raphael will be speaking on
Founders and signing copies at three historic sites in Massachusetts this week: After that, Ray’s schedule will take him to Saratoga National Historical Park on the 17th, Independence National Historical Park and Valley Forge National Historical Park on the 21st, and the Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C., on the 22nd.

1 comment:

Bloomfield Bob said...

Sounds fascinating. I, for one, hope James Otis is a character! I'd love to learn more about this guy.