hand•book: noun; “a compact reference book on some subject; manual of facts or instructions.”
Kudos to the National Park Service and Eastern National. This new handbook on the American Revolution is a gem.
As one who has been deeply involved in a few such projects, I can personally assure you that producing a handbook worthy of respect is difficult, time consuming, and potentially very costly. Small wonder that truly praiseworthy handbooks are so hard to find among the clutter of crappy ones. Folks like you and me have seen so many handbooks produced in haste and on the cheap that the very act of spotting the word “handbook” on the cover of a book we’re handling is sufficient to make us drop it like a hot potato.
Given the pervasive mediocrity of the genre, it’s remarkable that the National Park Service has managed to sustain – at least in recent decades – a high standard of quality in the NPS-sponsored/endorsed handbooks available in the park bookstores, the eparks online store, and related outlets. You get good value when you buy the NPS handbooks, the one at hand being a good example.
How can you recognize a superior handbook when you see one? To earn high praise, a handbook should have a good blend of these characteristics:
• Authoritativeness: It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: only people who really know what they are talking about should be permitted to write material for handbooks. Why should I want a reference work that isn’t authoritatively written?
• Succinctness: To produce a superior handbook you must place a very high premium on efficient writing. Writers who don’t know how to write succinctly should be forbidden to work on a handbook. Editors who can’t make sure that handbook drafts are purged of nonessential details and extraneous words and phrases should find another line of work.
• Readability: Ideally, a handbook should flow well, hold your interest, and give you frequent reason to admire the writer’s “way with words.” The best handbooks are so readable they make you forget they’re handbooks. The worst make you feel that you’ve got to plow your way through them.
• Excellent illustrations: Carefully selected photos, paintings, graphs, maps, and other illustrations boost reader interest and facilitate the communication of essential information. Good handbooks use illustrations liberally and intelligently. Lousy handbooks use them clumsily and sparingly.
• Supplementary Features: The very best handbooks tend to have sidebars, timelines, lists, chapter/section summaries, and other features that supplement the text in useful ways. Of all the writing tasks involved in a handbook project, none are trickier (or more generally underappreciated) than writing good summaries and sidebars.
• User-Friendly Index: A handbook is meant to be a reference work that users can consult from time to time to get or verify information. It beats me why anyone would want to produce a reference work that lacks a good keyword index.
When I got my copy of The American Revolution handbook, the first thing I did was check to see who wrote it. In short order I knew that this handbook is a serious piece of work. President Jimmy Carter wrote the foreword. Five eminent historians did the heavy lifting, each contributing an essay on a key theme.
Charlene Mires (Villanova) wrote the opening essay, “In Search of the American Revolution.” In it she points out that the American Revolution has many complex meanings, and that visiting the many NPS historic properties associated with the Revolution helps us sort out the meanings as well as relate to the past in a more personal way.
In the second essay, “The Path toward Independence,” Pauline Maier (M.I.T.) explains that the colonists sought independence reluctantly, but with good reason. In addition to detailing the various abuses (real and imagined) inflicted on the colonists, Maier points out that the colonists assumed more and more powers of self government until the decision to seek independence became more or less unavoidable.
In one of the book’s best written essays, “The War for Independence,” Don Higgenbotham (UNC-Chapel Hill) tells how, at the cost of 25,000 American lives and immense misery, the colonists managed to defeat the 18th century’s dominant superpower. Higgenbotham has a gift for stating common facts in cleverly nuanced ways. Thus, for example, we aren’t just told that Lord Cornwallis had to abandon his failed military campaign in the Carolinas. Instead, as Higgenbotham puts it, “Cornwallis’s battered and bruised army limped to Wilmington …. He had put a European military machine through stresses and strains too great to bear.”
The next contribution, “Forgotten Americans,” is a thoughtful essay by UCLA historian Gary B. Nash that explores the meanings of the Revolution for blacks, American Indians, women, and the general public. This is complex subject matter, and not without its surprises and ironies. Many black slaves escaped their masters, sided with the British (who promised them freedom), and ended up having to flee to freedom in Canada or Africa. What nearly all blacks in America got in the aftermath of the war was, of course, about eight more decades of legal enslavement. Indians fought for both sides, primarily the British, but in the end their wartime loyalties mattered not in the least. Postwar national expansion cost them their homelands, their independence, and their lives. Women greatly contributed to the war effort, but the Revolution left them subservient to men pretty much as they were before. It would be well over a century before gender equality would begin to take hold. In general, the Revolution had the greatest portent for the American public at large – the “ordinary people,” if you will. Instead of aristocratic rule, people of ordinary means would be voters and officeholders. There would be ongoing “revolutionary reform from below.”
The book’s final essay, “The Revolution’s Legacy,” was contributed by Gordon S. Wood (Brown University) and does pretty much what the title implies. It’s awfully difficult to sum up such complex ideas in a few scant pages, but Wood manages to pull it off. He begins by highlighting something that many seem to forget: “The American Revolution wasn’t just the most important event in American history. It may very well have been the most important event in the modern history of the world.” When it comes to the American Revolution, anyone who confines his conceptual framework to America simply doesn’t get it. Egalitarianism, reform from below (with written constitutions as fundamental law), the separation of church and state, federalism, and other legacies of the American Revolution have spread through much of the world. Because the Revolution made America an internationally recognized wellspring of revolutionary ideology, it is no stretch to say that the Revolution set the stage for the international leadership that the country enjoys today.
I was fully a third of the way into this book before I became keenly aware of the book’s abundant illustrations, finely crafted sidebars, and handy lists (such as iconic objects, landscapes, and buildings in the national parks). These supplementary features are blended into the book almost seamlessly.
My hat's off to editor Ron Thomson: the sidebars he wrote are masterful, and the selection of illustrations is nothing short of superb.
For the record, the book has a very handy 1763-1783 timeline, a decent keyword index, and a comprehensive image sources list.
I do have a few gripes with this book, though none are serious. While the lists of relevant national parks are helpful, Affiliated Areas and National Heritage Areas are indiscriminately mixed in with genuine NPS units. In a number of places (most notably Maier’s essay), the contributors have forgotten their audience and lapsed into “professorese.” But, hey; I’ve done that very thing at places in this review. It’s in the hard wiring.
This fine book is now on sale at the Encampment Store at Valley Forge National Historical Park and at several dozen other NPS units. It’s also available on line, of course, and you can see an interesting 16-page preview of the book online as well.
Traveler tip, no extra charge: If you are more than routinely interested in the American Revolution theme, be sure to visit the official NPS American Revolution website.