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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Saturday, July 22, 2006

Aronson's Real Revolution reviewed

A while back I asked on the Child_Lit listserv about history books for young readers that discuss the field as an ongoing, controversial investigation of the past, rather than simply narrating one consensus version of events. Monica Edinger of the Dalton School recommended the books of Marc Aronson. I knew Aronson first as a magazine and book editor. I knew his book on Sir Walter Ralegh [his spelling] had won awards, but I'd gotten the impression that it was a picture-book biography. In fact, Aronson writes for a high-school readership, and late last year published The Real Revolution: The Global Story of American Independence.

Aronson's book is the first I've read for any readers that explores the connection between the British Empire's conquests in India and its defeats in North America. The British East India Company seized and negotiated large parts of India for itself (not quite for Britain) in 1748-1765. The Tea Act of 1773 was designed to benefit the same company, which owned the tea destroyed in Boston harbor. That's not simply a coincidence, Aronson argues, but a symptom of how similar social and economic tensions played out differently in two parts of the world.

Aronson explores how ideology, self-interest, and personality combine to motivate people, creating a more nuanced portrait of historical individuals than many history books offer to young readers. I've previously written about the possibility of applying psychiatric insights to historical figures. Aronson doesn't shy from considering how Robert Clive's personality—and in particular the swerves "between melancholy and indefatigable determination" that strike me as matching the symptoms of manic-depressive illness—contributed to the British East India Company's financial crisis of 1773. Though Clive was cleared by a Parliamentary inquiry demanded by Col. (later Gen.) John Burgoyne, he committed suicide the next year.

The Real Revolution is also rare in telling young readers about how historians use sources and arrive at different interpretations. It evaluates source material and previous accounts for biases, use of sources, and readability. A lot of that commentary appears in the extensive endnotes. More is in the excellent captions to the illustrations, which discuss what the drawings are supposed to depict, their more or less subtle propaganda messages, and how those images came about. In most children's history books, the illustrations are a hodgepodge of old-fashioned public-domain engravings, some from well after the period they're supposed to depict. (See my complaining about one such book here.)

Aronson's main text, however, occasionally falls into the "narrating one consensus version of events" approach I described earlier—never more so than when he talks about the political conflicts in pre-Revolutionary Boston. Aronson makes his preferences clear on page 206:

For myself, I am more interested in ideas and articulate leaders than in violence and destructive mobs, no matter how planned and calculated their acts. Mobs may be the voice of the silenced people, but that voice is all too often one of rage, prejudice, and intimidation.
Of course, articulate leaders also express rage, prejudice, and intimidation too often.

This anti-crowd attitude becomes obvious in remarks about the Boston politicians who had the most popular support. Aronson says Sam (rarely Samuel) Adams was "better known...for drinking than for studying" and "never did well in any of the series of jobs he held" [127-8]. No matter that Adams was said to be a good student and earned a master's degree, that several classmates got into more documented trouble from drinking than he ever did, and that after 1765 he was a full-time office-holder, doing uncommonly well at that job. Similarly, Aronson calls John Hancock a "notorious smuggler" [131]. John Tyler's Smugglers and Patriots offers documentation for smuggling by several politically active Boston merchants, including Hancock's uncle Thomas (who died in 1764), but Hancock himself doesn't make Tyler's list. The British authorities tried Hancock for smuggling in 1768, but dropped their weak case.

With that attitude, Aronson abandons his usual recognition of at least two sides to every story when it comes to the Boston Massacre [137-8]. The first violence on King Street that night came when the British sentry, Pvt. Hugh White, clubbed a teenaged apprentice named Edward Garrick for speaking disrespectfully of an officer. Aronson uses the passive voice to implicitly pin the blame on Garrick: "a Boston boy insulted a soldier and got beaten up for it." Samuel Adams had long argued in newspapers that stationing troops in the middle of town would inevitably lead to friction and trouble. Aronson omits that view and says only: "The violence and intimidation that Adams used had its inevitable result." About the murder trials that followed, Aronson writes, "Sam's cousin John...took the unpopular case and spoke the truth." Sorry, but neither prosecution nor defense in a complicated case that ended in a split verdict had a monopoly on "the truth." Indeed, in making his argument that the shooting of Crispus Attucks, among others, was justified, Adams invoked the same sort of "prejudice" that Aronson disdains in mobs.

Aronson's global perspective also leads him to make an unusual choice in describing the start of the Revolutionary War. He never mentions Lexington & Concord (nor Bunker Hill). Once Parliament issued the so-called "Intolerable Acts" and the colonies formed the First Continental Congress, The Real Revolution implies, war was so inevitable that its actual start is trivial. The only Revolutionary War battles that Aronson names are Saratoga and the siege of Yorktown—because those had the biggest impacts on global politics.

In sum, I think The Real Revolution offers its readers a valuable perspective on U.S. history in a global context; on how individual ambitions, social movements, and government policies interact; and on how historians analyze and critically interpret accounts of the past. At the same time, I think readers should be equally critical in thinking about what this account sometimes says. Put yourself in Edward Garrick's shoes, as well as Pvt. Hugh White's.

Here are some additional links with information about The Real Revolution:

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