Robert Sullivan

, Star Tribune


, Star Tribune


By: Robert Sullivan.

Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 259 pages, $26.

Review: These exuberant character sketches are both irresistible and informative.

Re-imagining a vivid past

  • Article by: ERIC G. WILSON
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • September 1, 2012 - 6:12 PM

In Hitchcock's "Vertigo," Scottie, a detective, asks his friend Midge if she knows an authority on San Francisco history. When she mentions a professor at Berkeley, Scottie retorts, "Not that kind of history. The small stuff! About people you never heard of!" Pop Leibl, a bookstore owner, is versed in this sort of local lore. He renders a tragic tale that compels Scottie toward obscure parts of the city and his own psyche -- a journey that ends with his downfall.

In his uplifting new book, "My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78," Robert Sullivan, an actual person, also mixes local history and personal examination. His outcome is much happier, even ecstatic. Sullivan claims that the real Revolutionary War wasn't fought in and around Boston but in the middle colonies of New York and New Jersey, his lifelong haunts. He scours these areas for the War of Independence that time forgot, "going out on reconnaissance missions into the landscape that might not seem ancient, camouflaged now as it is by cities and strip malls, by toxic waste sites and high-end commercial properties." Such historical excursions grant Sullivan a "more resonant awareness, a deeper realization of the landscape not offered in a sentence, or on a chart, but in [his] bones."

Sullivan attends a re-enactment of Washington's Delaware River crossing; backpacks Washington's post-crossing march (30 miles long) through the Watchung Mountains; and flashes a signal, as Washington did, from the Watchungs to New York City.

Through these activities, Sullivan restores to their original brightness figures on the verge of disappearing from history -- men such as Philip Freneau, a prisoner of war who wrote mediocre battle poetry before freezing to death while stumbling home from a tavern, and Thomas F. DeVoe, a butcher who wrote a history of New York's public markets.

Rebelling against mainstream accounts of the war, Sullivan realizes that revolutionary energy still thrives in the peripheries. Take Duke Riley, an experimental artist from Red Hook. He builds a crude submarine modeled on a Revolutionary War prototype and navigates it along the New York coastline. His goal is to sneak past Homeland Security agents.

Sullivan's exuberant character sketches are as irresistible as they are informative. He is the history teacher you wanted but never had: funny, unpretentiously curious, able to imagine the past with astonishing vitality -- a true poet of living history as well as a consummate subversive, showing us how recoveries of the abandoned past are essential for liberty and justice. The people you never heard of, it turns out, can be the ones you most need to hear.

Eric G. Wilson is author of "Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can't Look Away" and "Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy."

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