Friday, February 22, 2013

Revolutionary Roundup!

Spies of the American Revolution: The History of George Washington’s Secret Spying Ring by Howard Brinkley
His Excellency George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis
Founding Mothers: Women of American in the Revolutionary Era by Linda Grant DePauw
1776 by David McCullough
DK Eyewitness Books:  American Revolution by Stuart Murray
Daily Life During the American Revolution by Dorothy Dennen Volo and James M. Volo
“Perhaps the greatest use of history is that it teaches you compassion for both sides and especially compassion for ordinary people caught up in great events.” –Linda Grand DePauw
Reading a number of books on the American Revolution for a writing project I hope soon to reveal, I decided to write one huge review rather than each book individually.  Good luck getting through it!

Published in 2005, the Eyewitness Books version of the American Revolution can hardly be said to be at the forefront of historical research.  Nevertheless, it is a great visual tool—I’m the kind of museum junkie who loves to see objects from historical periods and speculate on the people who owned them (one reason that the Dennis Severs house, though very expensive, was definitely worth it).  It also gives a good overview of the entire war, which is, of course, lacking in David McCullough’s 1776and, to some extent, even in Joseph Ellis’ His Excellency George Washington.  Some of my favorite objects from the book that tell a story include an officer’s writing set from the Braddock campaign of the French and Indian War in 1755 (to which we’ll return); a beautiful red and white glazewear “No Stamp Act” teapot made in Williamsburg in 1766; a quite enjoyably dour portrait of Patrick Henry; Ethan Allen’s compass; Jefferson’s travel writing desk; a terrifying straight razor carried by a soldier in the 1770s; a lovely painting of Washington directing the crossing of the Delaware; a Patriot frontiersman’s long knife (no wonder they were nicknamed the Long Knives); ice creepers, cleat or crampon-like metal attachments to men’s shoes for winter weather work; Benjamin Franklin’s gift of a crabtree walking stick to George Washington in 1790; Deborah Champion’s beautiful red cloak which she wore while carrying secret messages to rebel troops in Boston; a lavish colonial child’s doll; the hat of Connecticut militiaman Phineas Meigs who was 74 in 1782 when summoned to East Guilford; and, of course, Washington’s last set of false teeth.

Jamie had asked me something about being “the enemy” in 1776 while I was reading itand I had to think—well, actually, not so much.  Although historians always make choices about whose stories they tell, whose they have to discount for time and space or for other editorial reasons, McCullough seems to be quite even-handed regarding anyone who frustrates the main action, posed impossibly on the can-take-it shoulders of Washington.   He opens the book with a sympathetic portrayal of King George III, celebrating his love of beautiful music, architecture, and his almost unparalleled library (it forms the basis for the British Library’s collection).  But, by simple definition of the fact that he felt it was his duty to be King, he needed his wayward subjects to come back to him and stop rebelling.  His generals and politicians took the view that the rebels were blackguards and raggedy-arses; King George only seemed to regard them as badly behaved children. 

And who can blame them?  In Ellis’ words, “No matter how glorious the cause, the prospects of thirteen disparate and contentious colonies defeating the most powerful army and navy in the world were remote in the extreme” (71).  In 1775, Washington seemed the Continental Congress’ best hope, but he was no military genius.  He could be overconfident and aggressive, but he was also composed, indefatigable, and could learn from his mistakes.  “He was convinced that he was on the side of destiny,” as Ellis proclaims, and, highly unusually, “even his critics acknowledged that he could not be bribed, corrupted, or compromised.  Based on his bravery during several battles, he apparently believed he could not be killed” (a preternatural fearlessness we will see repeated time and again in the various books) (74). 

No wonder Americans, in the coming 19th century, held so strongly to Manifest Destiny.  Based on what I’ve read, I don’t mind generalizing:  the Revolution was a miracle and Washington its remarkable miracle-worker.  No wonder he inspired real-life friends and colleagues, like Joseph Reed, Henry Knox, Nathanael Greene, and Alexander Hamilton—as well as fictional characters devoted to him in an almost idolatrous way—to near-worship.   I knew prior to reading this book that Washington had almost been set up as King rather than the first President; I didn’t know that he was addressed as “His Excellency” during the War.  Ellis outlines after dinner sessions in the commander-in-chief’s wartime headquarters where conversation was encouraged while he ate nuts and drank a glass of Madeira.  Among his educated “surrogate sons,” Alexander Hamilton stood out for his “dashing, out-of-my-way style that imposed itself ostentatiously, much in the manner of the bayonet charge he had led at Yorktown” (199).  Briefly, Ellis makes much of Hamilton’s financial genius—yet for the Jefferson fan, Hamilton has always enjoyed a rather chequered reputation (though I do remember from middle school that Hamilton’s calves were exceptional in an age of knee-breeches and stockings).   

McCullough even resists apportioning out the blame during the lost of New York City in the second half of 1776:  “But in fact a British victory had been certain all day, no matter what the Americans did.  The struggle might have lasted longer, the cost to the British might have been greater, but outnumbered by such superior troops and without control of the sea, Washington and his army never really had a chance—and this quite apart from the far greater experience of the British command” (194).

Almost no one remembers the debt nascent America had to France, personified in the 19-year-old Marquis de Lafayette.  “In the presence of Lafayette the famous Washington aloofness melted into pools of candor and intimacy,” announces Ellis, “and the letters addressed to ‘My Dear Marquis’ are the most expressive, playful and unprotective in the entire Washington correspondence” (116).  He liked to tease Lafayette that the reason he hadn’t permitted his wife to come with him to America was the fear she would fall in love with an older man, namely Washington himself. 

But to return to the unlikelihood of such a conflict ever being won by George III’s ungrateful subjects, McCullough—while never adding a gloss of nicety to it—seems intensely proud of the farmers, shoemakers, saddlers, carpenters, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, coopers, tailors, and ship chandlers who made up the bulk of the enlisted men within what became the Continental Army.  “It was an army of men accustomed to hard work, hard work being  the common lot.  They were familiar with adversity and making do in a harsh climate.  Resourceful, handy with tools, they could drive a yoke of oxen or ‘hove up’ a stump or tie a proper knot as readily as butcher a hog or mend a pair of shoes.  They knew from experience, most of them, the hardships and setbacks of life” 
(McCullough 34).  The same resourcefulness and rough-and-readiness that eventually became the Patriots’ asset was also a source of repugnance early on for Washington—“It was dirty, hard labor, and there was little chance or the means ever to bathe or enjoy such luxury as a change of clothes” (McCullough 32).  Washington believed that a standing army was necessary to win the war, and after the war was won, the nation could have the luxury of comparing the standing army to the issues that prompted the Revolution in the first place. Furthermore, despite the term “minutemen” which is often bandied about these days, the Battle of Saratoga was one of the few occasions when militia lived up to its name of Minutemen.

Furthermore, we must never forget that the American Revolution was also a civil war; indeed, as the Volos point out, more New Yorkers fought for George III than for George Washington.  Patriots managed to hold Delaware only by suppressing the majority of the population (how’s that for heroic?).  This is one reason The Patriot(2000) annoyed me so much; it painted everything in black and white.  As in the Civil War of the 1860s, families and neighbors could be divided over which side they chose to support, and people who might otherwise never meet were thrown together.  For example, Rhode Island, by a general’s own admission, had “Negroes and Indians” in its regiments—the Volos believe that perhaps as many as 8% of New England’s soldiers were Black.  The British Lord Dunmore in 1775 welcomed free Blacks and slaves into his Ethiopian Regiment, whereas Washington’s initial reaction to Blacks in the American army was discomfort.   Unfortunately, Blacks found to have served “while a fugitive” in the American army were routinely denied pensions afterwards.

“They have all the simplicity of ploughmen,” wrote a native New Yorker of the Patriot soldiers in 1776 (so, snobbery is timeless).  According to the Volos, an observer in New York City before the war noted he heard English, High Dutch, Low Dutch, French and several Native American languages on a daily basis in his business. Pennsylvania had English, German, Dutch, Welsh, Gaelic, and Swedish immigrants.  The rest of the colonies contained pockets of French Huguenots, Flemish Walloons, German Lutherans, Dutch Reformed Hollanders, and Anglicans.  The famous “American melting pot” is equally timeless. 

One of McCullough’s greatest qualities is when he lets the people of the era speak for themselves, eliciting surprising and amazing insights.  “ ‘When I visited them [the prostitutes of Holy Ground, New York City] at first,” wrote Lt. Isaac Bangs of the New York City campaign in mid-1776,  “ ‘I thought nothing could exceed them for impudence and immodesty, but I found the more I was acquainted with them the more they excelled in their brutality.’  How any man could desire ‘intimate connection’ with such ‘creatures’ was more than he could comprehend” (125).  We have another colloquial voice from Col. Loammi Baldwin of Massachusetts, one of the officers dispatched to deal with drunken or unruly soldiers during the New York City occupation, which he called “hell’s work.”  As I suggested earlier, as well, McCullough is less inclined than Ellis to pass judgment on the actors in this big drama; quite impartially he relates the case of Lord Rawdon, who expressed happiness at how many of his men were being court-martialled for rape around the New York City area because it showed they were in good spirits.  Furthermore, accounts of British, Scottish, and Hessian soldiers bayoneting Americans after they surrendered were commonplace, but no mass atrocities were committed, at least as far as McCullough has found out.  This information, along with the description of British dragoon commander Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, known as “Butcher” for taking no prisoners, allows me to have a little more patience with Col. Tavington, the sadistic oh-so-British villain of The Patriot.  Perhaps there were men like him.   

But, as McCullough explains, the great majority of British soldiers were from rural England, Scotland, and Ireland.  Farmers, laborers, and tradesmen, they, like their American counterparts, were recruited with the promise of clothing[14], food, and pay.  On average they were in their late 20s, about 5 years older than the average American soldier.   The Volos suggest that among white males in New England, literacy—the ability to write as well as read—was as high as 90% (women could almost certainly write their own names), there are ways other than journals and letters to know the bulk of the recruits on either side.  Records of the appalling conditions for POWs is one.  “Feeding and equipping the armies came before caring for captured enemy soldiers, so prisoners from both sides were poorly treated,” writes Stuart Murray.  “Always short of money, both Congress and Parliament tried to avoid war expenses as much has they could.  This meant ignoring the needs of prisoners, who were too often treated inhumanely” (50).  The Volos have compiled an intriguing list of the rations in the British and American armies; generally similar, the British soldier was allotted 1 lb of bread or biscuit; 6/7 oz butter; 1 lb beef or 9 ½ lb pork; 3/7 pint pease; 2/7 oz flour of ½ oz rice or oatmeal; 1 gill vinegar; 1 gill rum ration. Congress’ ration was 1 lb beef or ¾ lb pork or 1 lb salt fish; 1 lb bread or flour; 3 pints pease or beans per week, or veg. equivalent; 1 pint milk per man per day; 1 half pint rice or 1 pint Indian meal per man per week;  1 quart spruce beer or cider per man per day, or 9 galloons of molasses per company of 100 per week. 

I find food history to be fascinating, and Founding Mothers obliges on this subject more than any of the other sources, given that food preparation was a woman’s responsibility in the 18th century.  Worth noting is that a typical colonial meal was fish or salt meat, corn cakes and whiskey or rum with water; colonists generally ate salty meats and needed to wash it down with a lot of rum or whiskey (as no one seems to have drunk water on its own until the 20th century!).  Interestingly, men in the Continental Army were ordered to combine their meat and veg in stews but ignored this and roasted meat, letting drippings go to waste[15].  (The image of abandoned heavy iron kettles dotted across the landscape is an amusing one.)  Furthermore, the Volos trace the surprising story of Christopher Ludwick, director of baking for the Continental Army, who by the end of 1779 was producing 1,500 loaves of fresh bread daily but felt this process was wasteful.  He convinced Washington to go to hard bread (like biscuit in the old naval sense) and then produced 6000-8000 lbs of hard bread daily until 1781.
I’ve extolled a few of the virtues of McCullough’s book, but probably its most notable one is extreme readability.  It gives basically the campaigning story for the American Army in 1776, and it moves along at a dazzling pace and one that inspires a great deal of awe and fervour.  I don’t know if I would read it in the same way if I weren’t American, but to my surprise, it really generated a real “go-get-‘em, colonials!” feeling to the point I was biting my nails wondering how Washington’s army was going to pull through.  I knew they did, of course, (otherwise I guess I wouldn’t be here today) but the “how” and “why” was delightfully related by McCullough.  One of my favorite incidents—about which I knew nothing prior to reading 1776—was Washington’s protégé Henry Knox and his amazing coup during the first few weeks of 1776.  He suggested the idea of going after the cannon at Fort Ticonderoga and bringing them down to the siege at Boston—of course in an era long before cars, planes, trains, helicopters, tanks, etc (though it was much a surprise to me, the submarine had been invented—in 1776, the one-man submarine Turtle attempted to attach a bomb to a British war ship but failed in the attempt, causing further submarine plans to be abandoned). Despite rough forest roads, freezing lakes, blizzards, thaws, and mountain wilderness, Knox, accompanied by his brother left the main encampment in November 1775. Once they arrived at Fort Ticonderoga, they had to transport the guns by boat down Lake George with the help of local soldiers and hired men.  Knox’s words were an understatement: “It is not easy to conceive the difficulties we have had.” 42 heavy sleds had to be built, and on hand at Fort George, with 80 yoke of oxen.  Nearly a dozen sleds crossed the Hudson before one cannon fell through—a day was lost retrieving it.  Despite this, the intrepid Knox brought his cannon to Dorchester Heights, surprising and entrancing the world:  “It was an utterly phenomenal achievement,” writes McCullough. “General Heath was hardly exaggerating when he wrote, ‘Perhaps there never was so much work done in so short a space of time” (93).  Likewise, the British couldn’t believe their eyes.  The eventual result was that General Howe ordered the evacuation of Boston.

Given what we know of Washington not being a strategic genius, it isn’t surprising that some of the most stirring moments of 1776 (at least as filtered through McCullough’s book) have to do with failed initiatives, “strategic retreats,” and sheer force of manpower.  For example, during the failed attempt to hold New York City, Lord Stirling and Major Mordecai Gist led 250 Marylanders against General Cornwallis – “The fighting was the most savage of the day.  Driven back by a glaze of deadly fire, Stirling’s men rallied and struck again five times.  Stirling himself fought ‘like a wolf.’   The Marylanders, who until that morning had never faced an enemy, fought no less tenaciously than their commander” (177).  This is all the more amazing considering the only moment during the war when Washington was, to coin a phrase, known to lose his sh*t was in mid-September during the battle of Harlem Heights when he was exasperated by the total disorder of the frightened and inexperienced troops.  The British were battle-hardened; it would take years before the Americans could achieve the same battle-readiness.  

Another extraordinary moment in 1776 was a secret retreat from Brooklyn Heights, orchestrated by Mifflin, Heath, and Hughes, along with John Glover’s seaworthy Massachusetts sailors and fishermen.  They were several hours behind their plan but, miraculously, just at daybreak a heavy fog covered their movements.  In a single night, 9,000 troops escaped across the river, and not a single life was lost.  The reaction of the British was, once again, astonishment.  This all sets us up for the third act of 1776:  after a great deal of despair, we have the Christmas Eve attack at Trenton (which even I had heard of before reading the book).

When McCullough records Knox as saying, “The general [Washington] is as worthy a man as breathes, but he cannot do everything and be everywhere,” Ellis provides us with an example of this from much later in the war—October 1781, to be exact, when young sergeant Joseph Plumb Martin is digging a trench line outside Yorktown, Virginia.  “While digging away in the mud, a stranger appears alongside Martin’s squad in the trench and urges the troops to work quietly because British sentries were nearby, and if discovered and captured to avoid divulging valuable information.  Martin thinks this is well-intentioned but useless advice, since, as he later puts it, ‘we knew as well as he did that Sappers and Miners were allowed no quarter,’ meaning that they would be shot if discovered.  Then a group of officers crawl into the trench and Martin hears them address the stranger as ‘His Excellency.’  This prompts Martin to wonder why the commander-in-chief is so needlessly and casually exposing himself to danger” (136).  Though this vignette takes place in 1781, Washington’s devil-may-care or courageous attitude (take your pick) is poignantly illustrated in McCullough’s book in a meeting with Dr. Benjamin Rush right before the Delaware attempt.  Washington kept writing something on small pieces of paper – “Victory or Death”—which was the password for the night. 

Again, Trenton is a bit of a small miracle considering all the factors. Only one of the three attacks planned ultimately went forward and was three hours behind.  The men faced cold driving rain, sleet, snow, hail .  If they stopped marching, they would be frozen to death.  The attack began just after 8 am—the storm continued with violence, but the men pressed on.  “His [Washington’s] 2,400 Americans, having been on their feet all night, wet, cold, their weapons soaked, went into the fight as if everything depended on them.  Each man ‘seemed to vie with the other in pressing forward,’ Washington wrote” (280).  In forty-five minutes, twenty-one Hessians were killed, 900 prisoners were taken, and no Americans had been killed.  How’s that for a morale-boosting victory?   
The victories at Trenton and Princeton, it seems, were achieved through the efforts of one of Washington’s first intelligence agents, Irishman John Honeyman (if we are to believe Spying:  The Secret History of History).  As I discovered from Brinkley’s book Spies of the American Revolution, spying during this particular war was extremely rudimentary:  “No one in the 18th century, for that matter, had yet developed any strong ideas about what military espionage could mean in the big picture” (6).  The 1821 deposition of Enoch Crosby about his Revolutionary War activities shows just how amateur the whole thing was (or could be), while Brinkley names some of the best-known agents sponsored by Washington (as far as documentation can tell us).  Brinkley’s book is, unfortunately, very basic (check carefully before you buy books on Amazon) but at least identifies John Adams’ numeric code for the American spies in order not to use their real names.

Meanwhile, Washington—about whom I knew relatively little compared to Adams and Jefferson—took center stage in 1776, winning my affection and my trust.  “ A man of exceptional, almost excessive self-command, rarely permitting himself any show of discouragement or despair,” Washington’s stoicism and uncanny ability to do the right thing are highlighted strongly in 1776.  I wondered if, having become so strongly attached to the heroic Washington McCullough had teased out of history, it was wise to read Ellis’ “warts and all” biography.  In the end, not only did I grow to know Washington as a person—an extremely unusual occurrence, given his literally monumental status in American culture and history—the marble man in Don Giovanni has more humanity than the traditionally spotless Washington handed down to us—I grew to love and admire him even more. “Appearances aside,” Ellis has determined, “he was an intensely passionate man, whose powers of self-control eventually became massive because of the interior urges they were required to master” (38).

Ellis, who has written biographies of other American presidents including Adams and Jefferson, has a style of writing that seems more personal, slightly more jaded, and more full of bite than McCullough, epitomized in his introduction: “Jefferson, it seemed, was like Jesus, who had come to earth and spoken directly to us. Washington was like God Himself, levitating above it all.  Or, as I eventually came to describe him, Jefferson was like one of those dirigibles at the Super Bowl, flashing inspirational messages to both sides.  Washington was aloof and silent, like the man in the moon” (x).  Ellis has cleverly also attended to the twin pitfalls of writing about Washington, “from Parson Weems’s fabrications about a saintly lad who could not tell a lie to dismissive verdicts about the deadest, whitest male in American history” (xi) .  By this, I’m sure he alludes to the aspects of Washington’s personality that are immediately flagged up as non-PC.  These are generally to do with the fact he was a slave-owner and that he did not champion the plight of the Native Americans insofar as he had no qualms about fighting them in the French and Indian War.

Perhaps Ellis’ greatest achievement with His Excellency is to illuminate the young Washington.  There’s no rubbish about cutting cherry trees here.  I find myself extremely drawn to the flawed young Washington and wish desperately I had the means to write and produce a mini-series about his early life with the same kind of clout and clarity as the HBO John Adams.  I doubt such a thing would ever get made as the American Revolution is not currently fashionable and portraying Washington is taboo; it is worth noting that one reason cinematic depictions of the American Revolution have historically remained rare is the tradition of American reverence for the founding fathers, causing their depiction as human beings to be circumscribed. There’s so little that remains of Washington’s youth on paper that we can never know for sure, but I think Ellis makes a good case that “the interior regions of Washington’s personality began to take shape within the interior regions of the colonial frontier. . . . And both of them put a premium on achieving mastery over elemental forces that often defied the most cherished civilized expectations” (7).

The most surprising thing I learned during the entire book was Washington’s probable conduct during the campaign that made him during the French and Indian War. At what became known as Jumonville Glen, it seems, French troops, surprised and outgunned, threw down their weapons.  Joseph Coulon d Villiers (Jumonville), head of the French force, tried to explain to acting-head Washington he’d come on a diplomatic mission.  Washington’s comrade-at-arms, Tanacharison, Seneca chief, who spoke French, stepped up to the wounded Jumonville and in French declared, “Thou art not yet dead, my father,” then sank his hatchet into the Frenchman’s head, split open his skull, pulled out his brain, washed his hands in the mixture of blood and tissue.  Shocked and hapless, Washington looked on.  The reason, I expect, no one ever tells this anecdote is that it gives us a fallible, extremely culpable commander-in-chief.  He spent later letter-writing sessions “rationalizing the massacre to himself” (14).

Though this sets up Washington as far from a perfect human being, one unique aspect of his character, at least related by Ellis, is that he had the capacity to grow and change his morality.  Much later, in 1790, working closely with Knox, Washington devised a policy designed to create several sovereign Indian homelands. Treaties would be respected.  “He sought to avoid the outcome—Indian removal—that occurred more than forty years later under Andrew Jackson.  Instead, he envisioned multiple sanctuaries under tribal control that would be bypassed by the surging wave of white settlers and whose occupants would gradually, over the course of the next century, become assimilated as full-fledged American citizens” (212).  Yet key here is that Washington expected Native Americans to assimilate. He believed his beloved Ohio Country, where he had great tracts of land and was willing to challenge any authority in order to maintain them, “was open to settlement; the British government believed it was closed; and the Indians believed it was theirs” (55).

Another example is Washington’s attitude toward slavery.  Remember earlier when I noted McCullough’s affirmation regarding Washington’s discomfort toward Black soldiers in the army?  In 1783 Lafayette began urging Washington to free his slaves.  Others brought this issue to his attention in the intervening years. “Whether his motives were purely moral, or mainly a fixation on his future reputation, or some seamless mixture of the two, is equally unknowable.  But he was now [1786] on record, at least in private, endorsing slavery’s eventual end” (164).  So why did he tarry until after he was dead?  Ellis speculates the reasons were tied up in practicalities:  his wife Martha’s dower slaves did not belong to him; Mount Vernon’s eldest slaves were dependents; he refused to break up families (Mount Vernon slave families were inter-married with others in the area).   A 1790 petition sponsored by Quakers and endorsed by Benjamin Franklin, his last public act put Washington in a tight spot, as he “shared Franklin’s views on slavery as a moral and political anachronism” (201).  Yet, like Franklin, he left it as posthumous righting of a wrong.

I reflected as I was reading 1776 and indeed all of these books that one had to really be dedicated to some kind of cause, if one was going to support the Revolution. You couldn’t really be half-and-half about it (neutrals were harassed by both sides and the Society of Friends cast out Nathanael Greene for taking sides). Washington’s conviction to me was key here, given that he was practically everything an English gentleman was supposed to be.  Why did he risk so much? “His protest on this score was more personal than ideological; that is, it derived less from any political convictions about colonial rights than from his own disappointment that neither he nor his regiment were sufficiently appreciated” (26).  For Washington, opposing the tyrannical hand of Mother England began even earlier than the Stamp Act and was primarily a deep-seated distrust of economic dependence.  He was an almost immediate critic of the consignment system and thought he was being cheated on his tobacco prices.  He in fact abandoned tobacco farming in 1766, turned to wheat, and constructed his own mill.  (One of my few memories of visiting Mount Vernon was seeing what was probably his wheat mill.  Ellis remembers seeing his dentures on display.)  “It seems safe to conclude that Washington understood the rules of the aristocratic game, felt obliged to play by its rules to further his career, but often came off as the provincial American incapable of mastering the deferential vocabulary” (30) .  Ellis has suggested that he could follow orders but was much better at giving them.

 “Washington’s wealth and way of life,” McCullough records in 1776, “like his physique and horsemanship, were of great importance to large numbers of the men he led and among many in Congress” (48).  So why was Washington the obvious choice in June 1774 to lead the army?  Politically they needed a Virginian and he was the most eligible Virginian.  Also, as John Adams once joked, he was the tallest man in the room.  But Ellis feels it essential to note that Washington had considerable trouble acknowledging his own ambition.  Hamilton was a keen, cutthroat businessman from our own era.  Washington still had a very 18th century attitude in that no gentleman would act ambitious or even acknowledge that he was. Nevertheless, Ellis suggests it was his self-control and lack of rose-colored glasses that helped him see “that a fervent belief in the worthiness of a crusade was no guarantee of its ultimate triumph” (71).  His swift response to smallpox crisis and his support of inoculation are, in Ellis’ mind, some of his greatest achievements as a general.

Like the bombshell about Jumonville, within the first quarter of His Excellency your ideal of Washington has been shattered again.  Why had I never in my entire life reflected that “the Father of our Nation” had no biological children of his own?  Ellis suggests that he was probably sterile.  Ellis never goes out on a limb where there is no evidence—because Martha Washington destroyed all of their correspondence, we can make almost no assumptions about her and about their relationship.  Ellis has steered clear of that territory with determination.  Nevertheless, he has added another strong incident to my Young Washington mini-series.  In 1758, Washington fell in love with Sally Fairfax, the wife of his best friend.  He was in “such emotional disarray that his grammar and syntax lost their customary coherence, in part because he deliberately used imprecise and elliptical language to prevent any prying eyes” (36).  However, instead of following his passionate impulses, Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, a rich widow, and he and Sally seem to have “behaved themselves.”  It’s tempting at this stage to imagine the smoldering passions of the charismatic and physically impressive Washington, but Ellis says no: “Later efforts to suggest that Washington’s marriage lacked passion, and that the slogan ‘George Washington slept here’ had promiscuous implications, have all been discredited by most scholars” (42). 
Nevertheless, what must it have felt like to have been in that position?  Surely when people were criticizing Washington during the various points in his career (and there were plenty of accusatory whispers), it might have been difficult to shrug off their taunts along with the knowledge that he would have no biological legacy.  The fact remains that he was a kind and good stepfather to Martha’s children, though unfortunately they came to untimely ends as well.  It’s difficult to imagine the American public taking kindly to a Washington who, in his early 20s, was “awkward, even oafish, and paralyzingly shy”; by 1783 at his farewell ball, he danced every dance as the ladies lined up in rows “to get a touch of him” (11).

Ellis patiently—and surprisingly briefly—takes us all the way through Washington’s years as general, his semi-retirement, his years as first President of the United States, and his eventual death (just a few days before the end of the 18th century in one of the saddest biography chapters I’ve ever read).  This is all fine, but Ellis’ legacy is a graceful and sharp window into Washington’s character and soul which, as I said earlier, makes me admire him all the more. “He was incapable of illusion . . . For Washington, the American Revolution was not about destroying political power, bur rather seizing it and using it wisely . . . the image of a volcano Washington seething with barely contained emotions and ambitions . . . Unlike Julius Caesar and Oliver Cromwell before him, and Napoleon, Lenin, and Mao after him, he understood the greater glory resided in posterity’s judgment.  If you aspire to live forever in the memory of future generations, you must demonstrate the ultimate self-confidence to leave the final judgment to them.  And he did” (275).

I learned an astonishing amount from the densely-packed Founding Mothers, a confident, cohesive and readable book which seeks to give anyone a window into the (until recently) ignored and shadowy figures of the women behind the Founding Fathers (and all women, really, involved in the American Revolution in some way or other—I had either forgotten or never known that Betsy Ross’ involvement with the Stars and Stripes was a fiction).  I’ve alluded to its contents where appropriate in the rest of the review, but its perhaps most enduring legacy is reminding this pampered First World white girl how hard our ancestors had it.  We take so much for granted and reading about the struggle for survival on the colonial frontier sure sobers a person up.

Women’s work, especially, was circumscribed and very difficult.  This involved maintaining the cooking fire year-round, slaughtering cows and pigs in the fall, cooking, baking, salting meat, pickling and preserving, caring for children, making soap[16], making clothes.  This latter, interestingly, was the only popular leisure activity for women that DePauw mentions.  It was certainly not easy, involving steps for spinning, bleaching, dyeing, and sewing, (making a man’s suit by loom could take a year) but women could express their creativity using different natural dyes.   Nevertheless, it isn’t to say that women didn’t pursue “careers” in the sense that they set up as blacksmiths, tinkers, sextons, printers, milliners, and the great example of this is Nancy Rumsey who set up a traveling restaurant for lawyers in Georgia which sold hard cider, gingerbread and chestnuts.  She did so well she was able to set up her own tavern.  Another interesting example is ex-slave Catherine Ferguson of New York, who purchased her own freedom and established Katy Ferguson’s School for the Poor in 1793 which taught both Black and white children.

Perhaps the most difficult thing to accept about the 18th century as depicted in DePauw’s book is the relationship with children.  Apparently no one on the frontier had read Rousseau, as (at least in white households; Native American and slave children, it seems, were afforded more of a “childhood” in the sense we know it) childhood was nasty, brutish, and short, a painful step on the way to adulthood that included beatings, working from about the age of three, and lack of affection.  Almost as difficult to reconcile is the misogyny and chauvinism.  Under common law a woman was considered legally dead once she married. A man who murdered his wife would hang, but a woman who killed her husband would be burnt alive for petty treason.  Still, there was hope:  in the Carolinas, Virginia, and Maryland, couples who wished to separate divided property in mutual agreements published in newspapers. A (male) writer warned married women not to express affection for her husband in public or annoy him by complaining she missed him (Abigail Adams obviously didn’t listen).  Interestingly, at the beginning of the 18th century in a way educated women stood more of a chance of being taken seriously rather than later when novels became more widely available.  Why translate the New Testament from Greek when you could read The Petticoat Plotter, The Cloister, or Amours of a Jesuit and a Nun?
The book, not surprisingly, gives so much more information on Black and Native American women than I had access to in the others.  Sadly, Phillis Wheatley, the well-known poet, actually had quite a miserable life, it turned out.  She was purchased in 1761 to serve as a kind of pet.  By the age of 12 she was translating Ovid, writing poetry by 14. She didn’t fit in with white society nor with slaves; her lonely life ended at 31 in extreme poverty.

As many as ¾ white captives preferred to stay with the Indians, according to DePauw—and who can blame, them, really?  (By Indians, DePauw is making generalizations about Iroquois- Mohawk, Oneida, Tuscarora, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca.)  These peoples protected their skin with vegetable and animal fats, which DePauw acknowledged must have “smelled rather odd” yet they were no worse than the filthy colonists whose clothes and hair would have been crawling with vermin.  Though they didn’t require clothes for modesty, Native Americans  expressed themselves through clothes, wearing earrings, bracelets, necklaces, belts, copper breastplates, and wampum belts. Marriage, moreover, was a personal matter between two individuals.  Native American women certainly worked hard—they raised all the food crops, cooked, sewed, built wigwams, dragged home carcasses after hunts—and equally the men worked hard as their primary function was to hunt.  In non-hunting seasons, they participated in vast fitness competitions/games to keep them in great shape.  Whites, of course, found all of this difficult to take in. 

With all this emphasis on day-to-day survival, I found it quite impressive that colonial women had any energy left to take a stand as either patriots or loyalists.  Quaker Lydia Darrah carried intelligence to the Patriots without her husband knowing—assuring General Howe that all the family was in bed while his staff was discussing their plans.  Later she said, “Husband and wife are one, and that one is the husband, and my husband was in bed.”  Sarah Bache, Henrietta Bonde Hillegas, Anne Willing Francis, Mary Bonde Clarkson, Susan Blair used money collected by women all over the country to buy men at the front shirts— 2,200 of them!  I’ll also have you know that tea was a hard thing for colonists to give up—it was one of the first luxury items they purchased when economically able.

Founding Mothers perhaps had to cram in many sweeping generalizations but to get a general overview it was truly a superb work. 

[14] Though the clothing not so much in the Continental Army.
[15] DePauw’s book makes the point that colonial women were generally reckoned bad cooks and one reason Black cooks were so much better was that whites discarded “pot-likker.”  Saving the water vegetables were cooked in was one technique Black cooks had to improve taste of food. 
[16] I love that DePauw explained that the reason people in 18th century portraits have rosy cheeks is because the lye soap was so abrasive!

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Art of Eating

I took many good courses on creative nonfiction at the college level.  I read some of the most interesting things in those courses because there was a less of a “canon” than in fiction or poetry.  I decided that if I ever teach creative nonfiction, one text I will use is MFK Fisher’s The Art of Eating.  This colossal book, first published in 1954, is a collection of Fisher’s books from the 1937 Serve It Forth to An Alphabet for Gourmets.  From reading these books, I have become a devoted fan and would happily read anything Fisher wrote.  Like the best gastronomic writers, she writes sensually and with precision and humor, and like the best memoirist, she masters understatement and the unique link between the sensual and the emotional.  I loved every minute of The Art of Eating and can’t recommend it highly enough. If you find yourself pressed for time, however, and can somehow find An Alphabet for Gourmets separate to the other four books, I would recommend starting with that book, simply because it is the apotheosis of Fisher’s style and repeats some of the anecdotes, scenes, and wisdom from her previous books.  

I love Fisher for many reasons.  As a confirmed gourmand and aspiring gourmet, her philosophy if not her technique is within my grasp and, moreover, her strictures regarding the settings for eating well—regarded by some, no doubt, as snobbish—strike resounding chords.  I love eating and always have.  I wax sentimental and sensual about good food and consider the fact I lost a lot of weight proof of the deepest of my darkest bout of depression.  However, I do not consider myself a good cook and while I used to be a good baker, I have sort of lost the knack.  So it’s nice to know that Fisher thought, “cooking in itself is, for most women, a question less of vocation than of necessity.  . . . they cook doggedly, desperately, more often than not with a cumulative if uninspired skill.”  She acknowledges some cooks need “the radio” or a “phonograph” to keep them company, but “Most of all I need to be let alone.  I need peace.”    

One could argue Fisher is hopelessly old-fashioned and stuck in a bygone era of American culinary experience.  She did, after all, predate Julia Child and all television chefs; her childhood in the early years of the 20th century give her a very different background in terms of “staple American diet” than we know today.  Furthermore, much in her books could be considered quaint—especially How to Cook a Wolf.   Her discussion of the horrors of an early evening meal—“there is a fairly good play, a passable movie, a game of bridge—surely some way to kill a few hours”—predates the invention of TV.  Her description of a dream kitchen anticipates modern conveniences we now take for granted:  “dream-like rooms where glass walls and metal sinks compete with electric dishwashers and mixers of cake for the fascinated reader’s favour.”  Despite the multitude of good, solid, common sense advice in How to Cook a Wolf, and her 1950s addendums to 1940s writing, Fisher can’t really be considered “Jamie Oliver-esque.”  She came from a moneyed class and spends a great part of each book discussing dining on ocean liners, an antiquated and snobbish (it seems to me) custom (she reserves bile for a plane flight she took in the 1950s to Mexico).  Her activities in Dijon, Strasbourg, and in various restaurants across the US seem to have all the gaiety of the 1920s.  Her second book is Consider the Oyster, for Chrissakes. (Having never eaten oysters and not being in a rush to do so, I admit I read rather quickly through this book, though it was quite interesting.) 
Yet her call for variety must have been fairly radical in a time when “it is likely more neurasthenics and downright homicidal maniacs have been formed by roast-on-Sunday, fish-on-Friday, than by any other social custom.”  Personally, though I have ever been in awe of the English Sunday lunch, I find it daunting and a bit desperate.  The “vegetable snobbism” she speaks of has never really reared its ugly head at me, though I admit to being unfamiliar with some vegetables I now eat much more often.  “My mother, who was raised in a country too crowded with Swedish immigrants, shudders at turnips, which they seem to have lived on.  And yet, there she ate, week in and week out, corn meal mush and molasses[1], a dish synonymous to many Americans with poor trash of the pariah-ridden South.”  

How to Cook a Wolf was written to help the women of America cope with wartime shortages, based sometimes on the British model, sometimes coming from other sources.  “You can make scrambled eggs ‘go a lot further’ by putting bread crumbs in them when they are a little more than half done.”  Anyone who has ever tried to live on Pot Noodle, breakfast cereal, or bread and tea (I confess to the latter) will appreciate the story of a mother who got herself and 5 children through the Great Depression through economy.  “I have occasionally thought of her and her system, and have wanted, in a faintly masochistic mood, to see what five years rather than five months of farinaceous vegetables and cheap spaghettis[2] and breads would do the teeth and innards of her brood.”  There is even a good chapter on what to feed your pet when money/fuel/food is scarce.  (“There is one eccentric and wealthy old lady in Cornwall, the kind who is often the victim in mystery stories, who was stoned in 1940 because she had refused to kill her cat and her terrier.  Moreover, she had turned her cellars and her air-raid shelter into a haven for every pet she could rescue from the panicky village.  That seemed terrible to the people, to feed and protect brute-beasts while little children were bombed and might be hungry too.  The old lady was most unpopular, in 1940.  But in 1941 she was not.”)  However, I took a lot of useful recipes from this book.   Though the suggestion raised an eyebrow from Jamie, I love the idea of a supper consisting of just baked apples and hot buttered toast!
I like Fisher because she is perverse and funny.  “How [it] soup was discovered is best left unpondered except by radio script-writers (!) and people who try to interest children in the Stone Age[3].”  “I have tried to be callous about slugs.  I have tried to picture the beauty of their primeval movements before a fast camera, and I have forced myself to read in the Encylopedia Britannica the harmless ingredients of their oozy bodies.  Nothing helps.  I have a horror, deep in my marrow, of everything about them.  Slugs are awful, slugs are things from the edges of insanity, and I am afraid of slugs and all their attributes.
                “But I like snails.  Most people like snails.”  

She announces in the introduction to her first book, Serve It Forth, that she will include no recipes, and by the middle, she has cheerfully broken her cardinal rule, in one of the most amazing chapters in the entire tome, waxing incredibly lyrical about Dijonnaise gingerbread.  It’s a subject she returns to later, but the sensual experience of reading these pages is almost as good as smelling or tasting the gingerbread (I surmise).  “At art school, where tiny Yencesse tried to convince the hungriest students that medal-making was a great career, and fed them secretly whether they agreed or not, altar smoke crept through from the cathedral on one side, and from the other the smell of pain d’épic baking in a little factory.  It was a smell as thick as a flannel curtain.”  In the character of English-born Bavarian governess Miss Lyse, we are privy to an elegy on tea-drinking, and one of the most amazing creative nonfiction parts of the book.  

In the extensive introductory material, Fisher’s fourth book, The Gastronomical Me, is called oblique.  At first I had no idea why anyone would think that.  The first half is incredibly rich in memoir material of sharp, delightful detail and emotion.  “The first thing I remember tasting and then wanting to taste again is the grayish-pink fuzz my grandmother skimmed from a spitting kettle of strawberry jam.  I suppose I was about four.”  This scene, from a storm of canning going on in Mary Frances’ grandmother’s kitchen in 1912, is the first that indicates a background not unlike the one of the girls in Meet Me in St Louis.  1918 brings a bonding experience with her father over hot peach pie told in incredible, corporeal detail.  “There was a quart Mason jar, the old-fashioned bluish kind like Mexican glass, full of cream.  It was still cold, probably because we all knew the stream it had lain in, Old Mary’s stream.”  There’s a fantastic, almost unbelievable tale about a frustrated cook who becomes a murderer.  

However, it’s her first oyster, in 1924, when she’s a teenager at Miss Huntingdon’s School for Girls, that is the pièce de résistance of The Art of Eating.  Beautiful, clear-eyed physical detail is remember alongside the story of teenage awkwardness and the strange social gap between the girls, their families, and the staff. It’s a haunting, almost cinematic tale that will change your life.  Perhaps one reason I love Fisher and feel like I know her almost as well as if I’d met her is because she’s an all-American girl who nevertheless went abroad once (to France, no less) and caught the bug, traveling back and forth between Europe and America for the rest of her life.   “I had never travelled more than a twelve-mile trip home from school for vacations; I lived in the country outside a very small California town; I had almost no friends there, because I had been away a long time and grown very shy and rather snobbish; I was as sexless as a ninety-year old nun.  . . . And there I was suddenly, big moody, full of undirected energies of a thousand kinds.”   When she goes away to college with her cousin, delightful, heady excess is the name of the game:  “we could have four waffles and unlimited coffee or a five-course meal for forty cents.  Then we would go to the theatre and eat candy; there were still small companies playing Smilin’ Through and Seventh Heaven then, or traveling magicians.  And after the show we’d have another waffle, or two or three cups of hot chocolate. . . . I shudder wholeheartedly and without either affection or regret at what we ate, nine tenths of the time we were there, and remember several things with great pleasure:  Mr Cleary, of course; the dishes of pickled peaches like translucent stained glass, at the Inn when we were taken there for Sunday dinner; best of all, probably, the suppers Nan and Rachel and I would eat in their room.
                “Now I think we ate  them the way puppies chew grasstops. They probably saved our lives.
                “We would buy ginger ale, rolls, cream cheese, anchovy paste, bottled ‘French’ dressing, and at least six heads of the most beautiful expensive lettuce we could find in that little town where only snobs ate anything but cabbage, turnips, and parsnips for the winter months.
                “We would lock the door, and mix the cheese and anchovy together and open the ginger ale.  Then we ould toast ourselves solemnly in our toothbrush mugs, loosen the belts on our woollen bathrobes, and tear into that crisp cool delightful lettuce like three starved rabbits.
                “Now and then one or another of us would get up, go t oa window and open it, bare her little breasts to the cold sweep of air, and intone dramatically, ‘Pneu-mo-o-o-onia!”  Then we would all burst into completely helpless giggles, until the we had laughed enough to hold a little more lettuce.  Yes, that was the best part of the year.”  

During the early 1930s, Fisher meets her first husband, Al, crosses the Atlantic for the first time, they settle in Dijon, and she has the culinary adventures now a dime-a-dozen in A Year in Provence-type rip-offs.  There are some fantastical episodes in this section, including some on the unnamed coast of a South American country which take on dream-like qualities.  Al veers in and out of the book, eventually disappearing (we don’t know for a long time whether it’s divorce or death, as her second husband, Chexbres/Dilwynn dies of cancer).  This is certainly Fisher at her most oblique, in regards to men, where she reveals some surprising, sometimes downright shocking thoughts, yet keeps us all at arms’ length in a haze.  There are occasional glimpses into a Hollywood studio (!) and/or radio (!) writing career, her third husband, and her daughters.  Fisher seems like she may have been a difficult mother to have.  

She isn’t afraid of saying that she’d rather dine alone than with dinner guests who make the meal a hell (I’ve endured far too many of these myself to disagree).  “Sharing our meals should be a joyful and trustful act, rather than the cursory fulfilment of our social obligations.”  Instead of giving you endless models of mixers, spoons, gadgets, and must-have items, she admits, “there is not one [kitchen] I would willingly accept unchanged.”  “I was beginning to believe, timidly I admit, that no matter how much I respected my friends’ gastronomic prejudices, I had at least an equal right to indulge my own in my own kitchen.”  She is far kinder to gluttons than anyone writing about cuisine has been for the last 30 years—for example, in the story of Biddy, who spends a holiday in Los Angeles eating breakfast for four hours in Spring Street, drinking coffee, eating Viennese tarts, sweet pickles, etc.  There are a number of crazed characters like this in The Gastronomical Me and An Alphabet for Gourmets.  One of the strangest incidents is Fisher’s trip to Mexico where her brother David is caught up in a strange ménage-à-trois with a transvestite.  

An Alphabet for Gourmets is the most assured of the works, less personal but also full of kindness, sharing, practical advice, recipes—in short, a condensed and judiciously edited combination of the four works that preceded it.  One of the highlights is Aunt Gwen’s fried egg sandwiches, under H for Happy.  Aunt Gwen was not her aunt but an English neighbor who used to go behind Mary Frances and her sister Anne’s grandmother’s back to make them fried egg sandwiches which were put in dress pockets and eaten on a ridge above their Californian homes while they sang rousing hymns.  “Group happiness is another thing.”  K is for Kosher is a very interesting look at a Gentile’s view of Jewish cooking and the practical reasons behind Moses’ dietary laws.  L is for Literature is a joy because it makes the link between writing and eating and cooking, and Fisher confesses to reading novels about food as well as hundreds of menus and cookbooks.  Although not a good cook, as mentioned, I enjoy reading menus and cookbooks (but I am not really a TV cookery person.  I can only imagine it’s because I enjoy the act of reading more than the TV consumption route).   She also explores eating as catharsis, as in the case of an everyday man who’d just gone to his wife’s funeral and afterward stopped at every diner along  the highway and eaten everything he could possibly want.  

You wonder what Fisher would have made of today’s TV cooking and dining shows, of organic food, of microwaves and preservatives, aspartames and Atkins diet (she died in 1992).  In her reappraisal of How to Cook a Wolf, she writes disparagingly of “sealed cans filled with milk-solids, nitrous-oxide gas, and suchlike, which spit out a ‘dessert topping’ vaguely reminiscent of whipped cream when held correctly downwards, and a fine social catastrophe when sprayed, heedlessly upright, about the room.”   I am planning to try Fisher’s recipes and see if they hold up after 50 years, which I’m sure they will.  I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

[1] Long an American staple, since at least the 18th century. 
[2] This makes me think of those TV shows where people eat nothing but Hoops for years.
[3] Anthony Coburn, then.