‘Rats’ Hunter Unearths ‘Smellodrama’ Revisiting 1776 War
Robert Sullivan gazes from the Empire State Building and sees history in geography, “the ocean-bound strait called the Narrows,” where “the British sailed in with 40,000 troops, a forest of masts deckling the edge of Staten Island” in 1776.
In “My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I- 78,” Sullivan’s eccentric, entertaining take on the war, he avoids the more-celebrated names like Lexington and Concord, focusing on select events in and around New York, where “the majority of battles were lost and, less often, won.”
Living in Brooklyn, he’s mindful that he walks and works in “the very precincts that Washington and his mapmakers surveyed and marked, fortified and ditched and armed with cannons and pikes.”
Sullivan showed a keen eye for both landscape and research with “The Meadowlands” (1998), his exploration of the strange, storied New Jersey swamp. In what’s probably his best-known book, 2004’s “Rats,” he spent many nights in a slimy alley studying Manhattan’s rodents.
It’s also where he quoted Thoreau: “‘my head is an organ for burrowing,”’ apt for the context and for Sullivan’s brand of hands-on journalism.
With “Revolution,” Sullivan proceeds not chronologically but first along locations in his Kong’s-eye view of the land and then according to the four seasons.
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.
In a sketch of the man who restarted the crossing of the Delaware re-enactments in 1952, he notes his involvement in the 1940s in “a failed experiment with a ‘Smellodrama,’ an invention that released odors as it projected films.” The crossing’s crew for a while included Jack Kelly, brother of Grace and “a celebrated Olympic rower.”
A discussion of the one-man “Turtle” submarine built by David Bushnell to blow up British ships engenders a visit with Duke Riley, self-styled “Artist and Patriot,” who in 2007 launched his homemade “Acorn” submarine to meet the “Queen Mary 2” and attracted “a large fleet of law enforcement officials.”
One of my favorite sideline characters is a New York butcher named Thomas DeVoe, a 19th-century man who delves in his idle moments through old records to chronicle the war’s food markets with extraordinary detail, depicting the “Revolution as a kind of economic crisis.” A great maker of lists, he did one of “all the butchers who ever worked in the City of New York” that ran to 500 handwritten pages.
Another amateur historian was James Kelly, who lived in the early 20th century amid landmarks of the Battle of Brooklyn and undertook a long, frustrating quest to find the burial place of the Maryland soldiers who died covering Washington’s retreat.
As the Kelly episode winds down, Sullivan opens a section with “My fingers all but trembled” as he begins looking through Kelly’s papers in the Brooklyn College archives. You can hear that excitement again -- “I was ecstatic” -- when he discovers in Wall Street’s Federal Hall the stone on which Washington stood to take the oath of office as first president.
With Sullivan’s fact-rich narrative and unconventional organization, I found the lack of an index unfortunate, especially when my notes weren’t clear enough on which Morristown winter I wanted to cite and whether I had got Jack Kelly and James Kelly mixed up. Worse is the lack of a single map in a book steeped in landmarks, routes and topography.
I will cork my whines after a last one on footnotes. Their type is too small and their interruptions annoying, especially when they jump a page. They could have resided comfortably in the main text, with the possible exception of a fun one on spirals that takes in the artist Robert Smithson, Brancusi’s portrait of James Joyce and a quote from Samuel Beckett’s “The Unnamable.”
(Jeffrey Burke is an editor with Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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