Americans tend to think of the Revolution as a Massachusetts-based event orchestrated by Virginians, but in fact the war took place mostly in the Middle Colonies—in New York and New Jersey and the parts of Pennsylvania that on a clear day you can almost see from the Empire State Building. In My American Revolution, Robert Sullivan delves into this first Middle America, digging for a glorious, heroic part of the past in the urban, suburban, and sometimes even rural landscape of today. And there are great adventures along the way: Sullivan investigates the true history of the crossing of the Delaware, its down-home reenactment each year for the past half a century, and—toward the end of a personal odyssey that involves camping in New Jersey backyards, hiking through lost “mountains,” and eventually some physical therapy—he evacuates illegally from Brooklyn to Manhattan by handmade boat. He recounts a Brooklyn historian’s failed attempt to memorialize a colonial Maryland regiment; a tattoo artist’s more successful use of a colonial submarine, which resulted in his 2007 arrest by the New York City police and the FBI; and the life of Philip Freneau, the first (and not great) poet of American independence, who died in a swamp in the snow. Last but not least, along New York harbor, Sullivan re-creates an ancient signal beacon.
Like an almanac, My American Revolution moves through the calendar of American independence, considering the weather and the tides, the harbor and the estuary and the yearly return of the stars as salient factors in the war for independence. In this fiercely individual and often hilarious journey to make our revolution his, he shows us how alive our own history is, right under our noses.
“A nostalgic, witty, and always informative topographic retrospective of the sites pertinent to the American Revolution takes Vogue contributing editor and journalist Sullivan to the action seen by the middle colonies especially—New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey . . . Sullivan’s historic anecdotes form a loose-limbed, irreverent, surprising take on American history.” —Publishers Weekly
“Engaging, humorous, and often surprising . . . Sullivan combines solid historical knowledge, sensitivity to the physical landscape, and a wry sense of the absurdities inherent in mythmaking to provide a thoroughly enjoyable and original perspective.”—Booklist
Historical reenactors refer to what they do as ‘living history,’ the idea being that it’s easier to learn from a three-dimensional experience than is from a book or lecture, because it establishes a physical connection with the past. It was something like this desire, familiar to most amateur history buffs, that drove Sullivan . . . to relive some of the iconic deeds of American Revolution, such as crossing the East River to Manhattan in a small boat in homage to George Washington’s escape after the disastrous Battle of Brooklyn. Sullivan is himself a New Yorker, and his zeal for local history comes across in the way that he treats each task with enthusiastic respect. For him, hiking through New Jersey along the path of Washington’s troops is more than a hike—it’s a communion with our shared past that bears an importance beyond mere observation. This is half history and half just good fun . . . It’s inspiring to watch him attempt to capture even the tiniest bit of the audacity of the American founding.” —Nick Mancusi, The Daily Beast
“Robert Sullivan has interesting ideas, and sometimes he makes interesting books out of them . . . 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 . . . 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 . . . [Sullivan] certainly accomplishes one of his main purposes: to make us see not merely the revolution but also ourselves in new light.” —Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
“[An] eccentric, entertaining take on the war . . . He highlights events he can retrace, including the famous river crossing and Washington’s subsequent trek to New Jersey’s Watchung Mountains, as well as the Battle of Brooklyn and the general’s journey to New York for his inauguration. He’s a well- informed guide you appreciate as much for his asides and digressions.” —Jeffrey Burke, Businessweek
“My American Revolution is a brilliant rereading of an entire landscape. It offers an ingenious approach to history by suggesting that noticing and retracing with care and wit, finding hints and clues, are ways of re-creating the past in all its complexity. It is, on the one hand, a funny book, filled with mishap and adventure, but it is also deeply and seriously engaged with capturing the spirit of a place. It deserves to become one of the indispensable books about New York.” —Colm Tóibín, author of Brooklyn
“In his meditative, elliptical way, Sullivan does with the Revolutionary era what Tony Horwitz did with the Civil War in his 1998 book,Confederates in the Attic—he tracks down the re-enactors, amateur historians and oddballs (himself included) for whom the drums of war never really stopped beating.” —Stephen Heyman, T: The New York Times Style Magazine
“It’s difficult to resist this eclectic, highly personal examination of America’s war of independence . . . [My American Revolution] is as strange and beautiful as the group of porpoises that reportedly escorted ships heading to Manhattan for our first president’s inauguration.” —Kate Tuttle, The Boston Globe