Sunday, September 25, 2011

Book Review: "Ethan Allen"

Willard Sterne Randall's Ethan Allen: His Life and Times (W.W. Norton, 2011) is the first full-scale biography of Allen in a generation, and that alone would make Randall's book worth a read for anyone interested in the Revolutionary period (especially someone who might by now be tired of biographies of the usual suspects).

Randall does well at telling the story of Allen's tempestuous life, from his early days in Connecticut during the Great Awakening's theological debates to his pre-Revolutionary paramilitary activities in what would become Vermont, resulting in his emergence as the leader of those in the "New Hampshire grant" area who sought release from the overlapping claims of New York and New Hampshire. The reconstruction of Allen's surprise raid on Fort Ticonderoga, and the subsequent defeat at Montreal which led to Allen being held as a British prisoner of war for almost three years are nicely done, although covered fairly quickly.

The best parts of the book for me were the sections covering Allen's captivity, followed by his years of wily machinations to obtain first Vermont's independence and then statehood, and then his few twilight years (during which he wrote a deist tract, Reason the only oracle of man, which was received very poorly indeed). Allen's early death, at age 51, robbed the young United States of a character who certainly would have played some interesting role had he lived longer.

Randall teases out the myths and legends that have sprung up around Allen's life quite well, picking through the historiographical rubble to get at the heart of the matter, and discovering valuable new pieces of evidence through new archival research. For that, and for its examination of Allen's writings, this book deserves much praise.

Unfortunately, the book, at 540 pages, runs about 150 pages too long. There are lengthy passages of digression which just don't fit; these mostly come in the opening chapters, with seven pages on Anne Hutchinson, for example. The narrative could have been greatly tightened up and the writing improved by another round of editing: too many chapter sections begin with clunky transitional phrases like "By the time ... ," and "At this juncture," and there are a few really wince-inducing lines ("The announcement of the birth of the United States at Lexington and Concord," &c.). Additional silly mistakes (e.g. the number of people killed in the Boston Massacre) and some questionable (and uncited) statements in the Great Awakening section also gave me pause.

I hope that any second edition will correct many of the errors which detract from what would otherwise be a most welcome addition to the genre.

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