Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Thoughts on After the Revolution

After the Revolution is Joseph Ellis's meditation on the formative development of American culture.  That's the ambition, anyway.  Mostly it's a repetition of wild ambitions and popular beliefs that didn't happen quite the way our forefathers imagined, mostly because they didn't seem to recognize how messy their emerging country really was.

I need to stress that Ellis has a terrific thesis, but he seems to have been overwhelmed by the project.  He devotes two chapters and most of the words in the books to a few lines often repeated with little variation, that many colonists and Western civilization as a whole pretty much assumed that the center of culture was soon going to plant itself in America, and that maybe this didn't happen because many people believed that this only happened in societies on the decline.  If you want to know how messed up and conflicted thought was at the time, this is a wonderful illustration of contradiction.  Each of the four men Ellis writes about were eventually swept up in patriotism or nationalism, and were completely blinded by their belief that they could have their cake and eat it, too.

Ellis published After the Revolution in 1979, when he would have been thirty-six, roughly five years older than I am now.  It is perhaps not surprising that he made his real contributions to literature nearly twenty years later, when he finally got to the business of writing about the founding fathers themselves (notably in Founding Fathers, which I read upon its release in 2000), since he seems not have warmed to the task quite yet.  Clearly having done his research, Ellis met his failing in his inability to write anything substantial either about his topic or his four subjects, each of whom are buried in an effort to crudely match his thesis to their lives, touching on numerous contradictions but failing to reconcile them, believing that the period in which they lived adequately explains how they entered and failed to emerge from what was in essence a national quagmire and development.

I had no initial inkling that his aim was to expound on the formative steps of American culture, certainly not from the back cover, which makes the book sound exactly like Founding Brothers, for the generation that succeeded the Revolution.  Yet each of these lives cross paths with the war, to varying effect, and if anything speak to a population that while growing was still small enough for everyone to pretty much know everyone, so that the new country comes off as more of a small town than an influential nation.  That would be why it was hard to get anything done, once the truly meaningful task of codifying its own existence was accomplished, a task that seems incidental to the narrative in this book.

Ellis lacks perspective, which is presumably the opposite of what After the Revolution was meant to accomplish.  Still, it is a fine survey of the times, and covers details your ordinary schooling experience will likely have ignored.  It's just, it could have been better.

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