Monday, July 9, 2012
July 9, 2012: American Studies Beach Reads, Part One
[Having spent many a youthful summer’s day with Tom Clancy’s latest, I’ve got nothing against a good low-brow beach read. But there are also works that offer complex, compelling, and significant American experiences along with their page-turning pleasures. This week I’ll be highlighting some of those American Studies beach reads—and please share yours for the weekend’s crowd-sourced post!]
Why you should read about a shoemaker on the beach this summer.
For those of us who are interested in writing works of American Studies scholarship that will be engaging for a broad public audience, it can be particularly difficult to find great models of that style. There are plenty of hugely popular works on American history, but I would argue that most of them—such as David McCullough’s books about the Revolutionary era, or Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City—are explicitly written as narratives, focused on telling their interesting and important stories. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, but once an author makes that choice, I would argue that it’s very tough for him or her to also include the kinds of analytical questions and themes with which American Studies scholarship engages. So when we can find a book that does address such questions while still creating a page-turning narrative—well, that’s a good American Studies beach read!
Near the top of that list, for me, is Alfred F. Young’s The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution (2000). Young’s book definitely highlights a compelling story, that of Boston shoemaker George Robert Twelves Hewes, a man who both took part in the city’s pre-Revolutionary 1770s events (the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party) and later led some of the 1820s efforts to commemorate those events. Yet while telling the multiple stages of Hewes’ story, Young likewise—and just as engagingly, for this reader at least—highlights and engages with some pretty crucial American questions, of historical and communal memory, of contested commemorations, of the origins of the Founding Father narrative and other Revolutionary images, and of how American stories and histories developed in the Early Republic period. Needless to say, such questions remain pretty salient today, not only with the rise of our 21st century Tea Party but in a moment when how we remember and tell the stories of our past is so crucially tied to where we go in the future.
But I’m making Young’s book sound more appropriate for the classroom than the beach. So let me be clear—this is a great story, and Young tells it very effectively; when he uses that story to address his American Studies questions, he moves between those levels smoothly and successfully, and never loses sight of what makes the story engaging and meaningful for a broad American audience. Young begins his book by asking “How does an ordinary person win a place in history?”, and he not only answers that question (and many others) very thoroughly, but exemplifies a parallel idea: that history can and should be written for audiences well beyond those trained in academic historiography. Those are key lessons for any public American Studiers, but they also make for a book that you’ll be entirely comfortable reading while sunbathing, drink in hand.
Next beach read tomorrow,
PS. Nominations for American Studies beach reads, for the weekend’s crowd-sourced post? Bring ‘em!