Robert Sullivan has interesting ideas, and sometimes he makes interesting books out of them. His subjects have included the Meadowlands of New Jersey, known mostly as home to the New York Giants and Jets pro football teams but, as seen through Sullivan’s lens, also home to an unexpected variety of flora and faunae; New York City’s rat population, the life patterns of which he explores at length in “Rats”; Henry David Thoreau, his self-evident hero, who he insists was a far more complex and surprising fellow than is suggested by his popular image as the hermit of Walden Pond; and travels including a cross-country motor trip he took with his wife and children, and a whale hunt conducted by Native Americans off the coast of Washington state.
Now Sullivan turns his attention to the American Revolution, though no one familiar with his work will be surprised that his approach to it is almost entirely eccentric. “My American Revolution” is about as far from a conventional account of that conflict as one could get. Instead it is an episodic portrait of the war as it may have been at the time and as it is understood — or misunderstood — by many of us now. A native of the Mid-Atlantic and a resident of Brooklyn, Sullivan argues that this is where the war was really fought:
“Boston has its Liberty Trail, and Virginia has Mount Vernon, where George Washington farmed and fished, ran a mill, and manufactured various kinds of alcohol. But the British were fought — and, to a large extent, avoided — in the Middle Colonies. Dozens of battles, all of them less well known than the Battle of Bunker Hill, took place in the area of New York; Connecticut and New Jersey were home to hundreds of skirmishes. And New York City itself was the place where Washington officially began the Revolution, as well as the place where it ended, on Evacuation Day, a day celebrated for a century and a half with parades and flags throughout New York City, though no longer. And then, when the war was over and a new government formed and a president inaugurated, that first president took up residence in a house on a plot of land that is today unmarked and frequented by skateboarders.”
As that extract suggests, Sullivan is as interested in how we have forgotten the revolution as in how it was fought. In the course of his wanderings through Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, he encountered more historic markers than he bothered to count, yet many of them were in out-of-the-way places rarely if ever visited by tourists and accompanied by no evidence, apart from the markers, of the war itself. He devotes a good deal of attention to the Battle of Brooklyn, fought in the summer of 1776 — interest in which “remains low . . . for two reasons: (1) it happened two centuries ago; and (2) the Americans, outnumbered by about five to one . . . lost, big time” — but in 21st-century Brooklyn he found, to all intents and purposes, no remains of it.
He began his tour in northeastern Pennsylvania, at a village called Washington Crossing on the Delaware River. There, on Christmas in 1776, Washington led his ragged troops across the river en route to their “winter encampment spot in Morristown, New Jersey, on the flanks of New Jersey’s Watchung Mountains — the place from which the newborn Americans observed and obsessed over New York. It’s not to be confused with Valley Forge, to which Washington took his army a year later and which, for whatever reason, Sullivan did not visit, though it underscores his argument about the importance of the Mid-Atlantic during the revolution. He did want to watch a reenactment of the crossing, which turned out to be a useful “introduction to the landscape of the Revolution and all its iconic associations, its changing popular traditions.” In the course of the play-acting he was able to reflect upon the mythology stirred up by “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” the stupendously famous painting — “the egg to the chicken of the contemporary idea of the American Revolution” — by the German artist Emanuel Leutze. The painting bears virtually no resemblance to the realities of the crossing, such as we know of them, but as inspiration for a heroic myth, it has few rivals in the country’s history.
From the New Jersey side of the crossing, Sullivan followed, on foot and by himself, the 33-mile trek that Washington and his soldiers made to Morristown. Given that the weather was frigid and the terrain often difficult, it was a certifiably insane undertaking for a middle-age man accustomed to 21st-century comforts. Indeed, it left him with his back “essentially destroyed,” but it was a contribution to “my personal version of historical reenactment, quiet and contemplative, less about what might have happened, more about the place,” one that took him “away . . . from well-known moments in the Revolution and toward lesser-known ones, through the ripples of the war’s impact, the local histories before and after.”
Eventually he worked his way back to New York: to the Battle of Brooklyn and the incredibly brave men from Maryland, perhaps 400 of them, whose to-the-death battle against the British enabled other American troops to escape; to the ghastly British prison ships anchored in New York Harbor and environs, aboard which “it is estimated that as many as 11,500 prisoners died”; to the voyage that Washington made in 1789 from New Jersey to New York to be inaugurated as the infant nation’s first president. Preparing to retrace this voyage took Sullivan to Staten Island:
“I suddenly realized that I could see a panorama . . . of the Revolutionary War, a water-level before, during, and after. I could see the Narrows, and the view to the open ocean. I could see the hills near Sandy Hook, where the British fleet came in one summer. I could see Brooklyn, and the hills on which the battle of Britain had been fought. Moving around tourists, I could look up the Hudson, past Manhattan’s bristle of real estate, to see the George Washington Bridge, the modern steel structure that traces the start of the ancient escape route to New Jersey where the Continental Army, trounced by the British, began the long retreat to the Delaware. . . . And then when I looked west I saw clearly the Watchung Mountains. I saw the edge that descended to the Raritan River and the Millstone, both of which, after my own crossing of the Delaware, had led me from Princeton to Morristown, winter headquarters. I could see it all, in other words — the history of the war in the view of the land. It was the opposite of a moment of decision. It was a moment of topographic retrospect, an epiphany of place, through which the past looked different.”
I quote that passage at length because it summarizes what this book is about: an effort to find the past in the present, to reconcile each to the other. At its best, “My American Revolution” accomplishes this with grace and humor. At its less-than-best, it skirts perilously close to the fey. Sullivan can be an agreeable companion, but he is also a garrulous one; I could have done without most of his long footnotes, asides that are not always as interesting or revealing as he clearly imagines them to be. But he certainly accomplishes one of his main purposes: to make us see not merely the revolution but also ourselves in new light.
MY AMERICAN REVOLUTION
By Robert Sullivan
Farrar Straus Giroux. 259 pp. $26