Saturday, June 13, 2009

Book Review: "American Heroes"

American Heroes: Profiles of Men and Women Who Shaped Early America (W.W. Norton, 2009) is leading historian Edmund S. Morgan's new collection of (mostly) previously-published essays. Of his choices for inclusion, he writes "The people I have selected here, whether public heroes or simply my own favorites, have all surprised me in one way or another. Something about them has sent me looking at the records they left behind, often looking for a second time, having second thoughts" (p. xiii). He adds that he sees many of his characters as heroes or heroines by virtue of an "ability to say no ... in resistance to what society or its custodians demanded of them" (p. xiv).

The book, drawn as it is from very disparate essays, seems a bit of a hodgepodge. A chapter on Christopher Columbus which focuses on the clash of cultures and motives between the "conquerors" and the native Caribbean islanders they encountered is followed by a (wonderful) piece on the Yale College library and its power to shape young minds (more on this below). In "The Unyielding Indian" Morgan pays homage to the native people of North America for their resistance to European "absorption" and their high valuation of individual freedom ("we see in him what we might be if we carried some of our avowed principles to their logical conclusion", p. 53).

In a pair of essays both originally published in 1942, Morgan examines the stereotype as Puritans as sexless prudes (and finds it misses the point, as later works have continued to show), and delves into one of the most fascinating legal battles of 17th-century Boston, the long feud between heiress Anne Keayne and her impotent, money-grubbing, sometime-husband Edward Lane. He profiles Anne Hutchinson and Michael Wigglesworth ("the puritan's puritan"), and declares his admiration for Salem witchcraft players Giles Corey and Mary Easty.

Two pieces compare Yale presidents Ezra Stiles and Timothy Dwight, and Ben Franklin and George Washington, and Morgan delves further into Franklin's pragmatic streak in a separate essay. In the final two chapters, he examines the "fiction" of representation as a political reality, and discusses the vital role of the Antifederalists in the creation of the American government as we know it. Finally, he closes the book with an appreciation of his own teacher, Perry Miller.

All of these essays are written with the clarity and strength of composition which have made Morgan's works so accessible and interesting over the course of his long career (his first book was published in 1952; the first essay included here is from 1937). He can turn a phrase, and sometimes even gets off an excellent joke in the process (in the essay on Salem, he says of Cotton Mather's pre-Salem 'victory' over the devil in the case of a possessed girl "he could not refrain from from giving way to his most conspicuous weakness: he had to write a book about it", p. 118). His sense of irony never fails, and it is remarkable how timely these essays remain even though many of them first saw print more than a half-century ago (although I have not compared them to the original versions to see if they have been heavily edited for re-publication here).

For reasons obvious to those who know me, I was most taken by Morgan's chapter on the early library at Yale ("Dangerous Books," from 1959). He waxes poetic on libraries here, calling them "the great hothouses of change, where new ideas are nursed into being and then turned loose to do their work" (p. 24). He concludes the essay thus: "While libraries exist, where students and scholars can go to the original sources and discover the facts for themselves, all efforts at control will be futile ... I hope your library and mine will continue to be dangerous for many years to come" (p. 38). Hear hear!

My one quibble with this volume is that I would have liked to see the original publication information for the essays at the beginning (it is, instead, on the back of the title page in tiny print, with only the date at the end of each essay). Other than that minor detail, it was a delight.

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