Thursday, April 16, 2015
April 16, 2015: New AmericanStudies Books: Chinese Yankee
[Another entry in my biannual series on interesting and impressive new releases in AmericanStudies. Add your favorite works, new or old, in comments for a crowd-sourced weekend reading list!]
On the book that helps correct a significant historical omission—and why that’s not its best effect.
In the first of a series of Veteran’s Day posts I wrote for the great We’re History site, I highlighted a number of stories of Chinese Americans who fought in the Civil War. As I highlighted in that post, I had been led to that topic by (among other texts, but hers was certainly the most prominent) historian and novelist Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s book Chinese Yankee: A True Story from the U.S. Civil War (Design Enterprises of San Francisco, 2014). As of that writing I hadn’t had a chance to read McCunn’s book yet (it was released on Veteran’s Day); now that I have, I can confirm that she tells the truly remarkable story of Thomas Sylvanus (Ah Yee Way) with power and skill, employing both a historian’s skill at providing details and contexts and a novelist’s talents for story and suspense. And indeed, I would argue that both the historical and the novelistic sides to McCunn’s work are worth highlighting—but that the latter is particularly noteworthy.
Historically speaking, McCunn’s book can help fill in some serious gaps in our collective memories. One of the central arguments of my Chinese Exclusion Act book was that Americans don’t remember at all our originating multicultural community and identity, as exemplified by our collective sense of the Chinese American community as a 20th and 21st century one (as opposed to its continuous presence here since the late 18th century); remembering prominent individual mid-19th century Chinese Americans like Sylvanus would be an important first step in correcting that broader omission. Similarly, I think we’ve been terrible at remembering the multicultural histories and stories connected to our wars and conflicts—that would include the hugely diverse army that fought and won the Battle of New Orleans, for example; and is likewise illustrated by Chinese American Civil War soldiers such as Sylvanus and the others about whom I wrote in that aforementioned post. Given the prominent role and status which we accord military leaders and heroes in our national narratives, better remembering these multicultural soldiers and stories would be a particularly effective way to broader our understandings of American identity overall.
It’s not enough just to say we have to better remember figures or histories, however—we also have to find ways to highlight and narrate them compellingly enough to draw and sustain our collective interest and engagement. And on that note, McCunn’s novelistic side offers a potent illustration of the importance of finding and telling good stories in achieving those effects. I’m far from the first observer to note that academic writing would benefit from a far more consistent and central role for storytelling, but I would most definitely agree with that assessment. I know that story can seem the antithesis of analysis: simple and streamlined rather than complex and layered, for example. But it’s not either-or, as McCunn’s historically rich and layered yet novelistically narrated book nicely illustrates. And by keeping the story and its telling central to her purposes throughout, she does the thing that all writers hope and need to do: engage with her audience, draw them into her work and guide them through its different moments, elements, and ideas. I can think of no more crucial effect for any book, AmericanStudies or otherwise.
Last new book tomorrow,
PS. What AmericanStudies books would you recommend?