Monday, May 18, 2015
1776's greatest value is in its focus. Instead of attempting to cover the whole of the American Revolutionary War, David McCullough focuses instead on one pivotal year, 1776, with some minor establishing elements from 1775 and some lead-out elements from 1777. In the annals of American history, 1776 is remembered for the writing and publishing of the Declaration of Independence, a monumental document which has had an impact on the entire human race. Yet, as with all of history, there is always a different perspective, sometimes less celebratory and often times a lot harsher. 1776 is an intriguing look at the struggle connected with American independence and shows just how dire the chances for the new nation's survival truly was.
1776 is very accessible, albeit lacking much memorable prose from the author. The real luminaries are the incredible figures who were involved in America's war for independence, such as George Washington and his trusted and not so trusted associates. 1776 provides not only a glimpse into the character of these human beings but into the characteristics of human nature. As with most things, the truth is far more complicated than we're usually able to examine and digest with our limited attention. America's first standing army boasted true heroes and patriots but also was afflicted with cowardice, disobedience, and depravity, to say nothing of its material lackings, which were many and debilitating. All of this makes the accomplishments of the Continental Army and its green leaders so much more staggering when viewed in full historical context.
I really enjoyed 1776's very limited examination of America's founding. Often times books of history attempt to provide a scope of information so large it becomes oppressive from a reader's perspective. There are so many places, so many names, so many documents, so many twists of fate, it's impossible to truly follow it all without dedicating a level of attention many readers simply don't have. At the same time, this is not a 1776 for Dummies book nor does it attempt to diminish its subjects simply to achieve brevity for brevity's sake. There is plenty here. Yet, it doesn't try to explore the debate surrounding the Declaration of Independence while at the same time delineating military strategy, choice, and consequence. This book is largely about military events and leaves the in-depth exploration of political events to other books and other authors. In the case of 1776, this works wonderfully.
As already mentioned, McCullough's writing is perfectly adequate; it does lack, however, a distinctive voice. His writing is slightly too utilitarian and doesn't have enough pathos. As important as it is to show history as clearly and unfiltered as possible, these were real people whose story is extraordinary, and they could use an extraordinary storyteller. I have read some incredible non-fiction books, some of which rival literary efforts to impress feelings upon the reader, and David McCullough doesn't have that spark. I'm sure its expertly researched and it's clearly an excellent work of history, but it's a history somewhat devoid of real humanity.
A mark of a great history book is that it not only provides an education on the subject matter at hand but also whets the appetite of the reader to further explore the personalities and events it examines. In this case, 1776 helped me remember, yet again, why I love so dearly American history. I feel a distinct affinity for our American forefathers and founding fathers (as well as our foremothers and founding mothers) and want to know more about them and the lives they lived. 1776 provided an intriguing and engaging look at a very specific point in time of America's history. Although I was somewhat underwhelmed by its prose, 1776 certainly earned its place on my growing list of books relating to the history of the United States of America.