Michael Kammen, a Cornell historian and Pulitzer winner, has examined the mode of depicting the Revolution in American art...


A SEASON OF YOUTH: The American Revolution and the Historical Imagination

Michael Kammen, a Cornell historian and Pulitzer winner, has examined the mode of depicting the Revolution in American art and literature from 1776 to the present on the presmise that ""the American Revolution stands as the single most important source for our national sense of tradition--such as it is, and insofar as we can be said to possess one."" That nagging paradox is only the first of the book's many problems. Kammen himself not only wants us to remember the Revolution, he wants us to regard it as indeed revolutionary--and this bias (for preservation of the ""radical"" interpretation of the Revolution as renewable and exportable) colors his evaluation of the artifacts and the conclusion he draws from them: that a conservative bent has largely ""trivialized"" the Revolution, rendering it null. In the section on art, he is misled, moreover, by his evident unfamiliarity with art-historical particulars (e.g., the allegedly significant burst of equestrian statues after 1853 followed from mastery of bronze-casting and extended beyond Revolutionary heroes). Surveying poetry and plays, he fails to distinguish between serious writings and the overwhelming number of sentimental, patriotic works which are conservative by nature. But it is historical fiction that occupies him most and elicits his major contentions. Chief among the books' virtues, he maintains, was anticipating ""some of the best insights and emphases of professional historians""--an exaggerated claim at best insofar as he misdates one after another shift in historiographic interpretation, most seriously apropos of the Loyalists. What he finds critical in the novels, however--as well as most criticizable--is the implication of a recurrent motif: a boy, defying his elders, volunteers for the fight against Britain and thereby, along with his country, makes the transition to adulthood. Construing this theme as a national rite de passage, Kammen sees the Revolution as de-revolutionized: it formed our character at a crucial moment and is unique and non-replicable. Granting the metaphor, one can still question its invariant meaning to Kammen, for traditional literature is strewn with young rebels and their role is customarily exemplary or inspirational. (True certainly of Johnny Tremain, the juvenile prominently cited here.) From the mass of material one is left in no doubt that the Revolution ""has not meant the same thing to successive generations of Americans,"" but the book is neither a thorough, judicious assessment (no colonial Williamsburg!) nor does it decisively demonstrate what the various embodiments of Revolutionary tradition actually represented.

Pub Date: Sept. 25, 1978


Page Count: -

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1978