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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Friday, November 29, 2013

“Such a boring account of such an epic war”

As long as I’m quoting Sgt. Joseph Plumb Martin’s memoir of fighting in the Revolution, I can’t resist passing on this assessment of the book from April on Goodreads:
The author said in the beginning of the book that this was his story and it was not remarkable, I very much agree with him. I had to read this book for history class but nevertheless I was excited to hear about a real account of the revolutionary war. Throughout the book it was a constant repetition of procuring piece of salt pork, stopping to rest, marching. I expected some action, but was thoroughly disappointed. One has to wonder why he even bothered writing down such a boring account of such an epic war.
Lest we think that April missed the point of the book, in this essay at Common-place William Huntting Howell argues that she identified Martin’s point exactly. The veteran, he argues, was writing an “anti-narrative” to counter the heroic depictions of the war. Of course, Howell uses many more words and goes into much more detail to make that point, viz.:
Martin’s prior descriptions of military engagement pale in comparison with his descriptions of the beef, its preparation, and its consumption; measured in terms of detail, the emotional (and extra-narrative) weight of the dinner far exceeds the emotional (and narrative) weight of the fighting. Only as an afterthought does he add the following: “We had eight or ten of our regiment killed in the action, and a number wounded, but none of them belonged to our company.”

Moments like this one proliferate: whenever the text threatens to fall neatly into a standard military story, Martin’s appetite drags it back out.
The main point of Howell’s provocative essay seems to be that Martin didn’t expect his memoir to be the first and only history of the Revolutionary War that people would read. But it might have to be the second.

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