February 17, 2005

Cranky Llama Book Reviewing

Y'know, I'm increasingly of the opinion that I ought to just stay away from "popular" histories and biographies, because more and more I seem to be getting as annoyed by them as I am enlightened.

Take, for example, Walter Isaacson's Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, through which I am currently plowing. (I mentioned the other day that I thought Isaacson missed a serious opportunity to note the parallels between 18th Century printers and 21st Century bloggers. Afterwards, I noticed on the jacket flap that he is a former chairman of CNN and managing editor of Time magazine. That explains it.)

Anyhoo, what I've noticed as I progress through this work is that Isaacson has a bad habit of periodically shifting his language, going in a flash from a moderately academic tone to one that is, what, street smart? Hip? Homey? Once one becomes aware of it, the effect is quite jarring.

Another thing I'm noticing is that Isaacson is quite repetitive about certain things. If I've read once about the domestically comfortable yet romantically barren relationship between Franklin and his wife Deborah, I've read it a dozen times. Okay, Walter, we get it.

Both of these literary sins are matters that a competent editor should have stamped out. I strongly suspect they were passed on the grounds that Isaacson is trying to connect with "the people" instead of a small group of eggheads who, you know, expect books to be well-written.

On a more substantive note, I notice a certain amount of PC-ism. (Yes, Lawd knows this is not the sole province of popular historians.) For example, Isaacson duly notes Franklin's efforts to coordinate frontier defense after the disasterous Battle of Fort Duquesne and his manueverings during the wrangling between the popularly-elected Pennsylvania Colonial Assembly and the Govenors appointed by the Penn family over who was going to pay for it all. But he fails to give any sense of the near-panic Pennsylvania was in over the extremely aggressive and savage Indian raids into the western and central portions of the colony after the death of General Braddock and the disbursal of British Army forces.

On the other hand, Isaacson goes to more considerable length to paint the cruelty of the Paxton Boys, a gang of frontiersmen who murdered groups of unarmed Indians in retaliation for the depredations of Chief Pontiac's uprising, and then later marched on Philadelphia looking for more blood.

So - Enemy Indian Tribes - just something requiring a few frontier blockhouses. Frontier vigilantes? Up to their elbows in innocent gore.

Is it just me, or is this view of the world slightly skewed?

Posted by Robert at February 17, 2005 01:50 PM

Me, I wasn't so bothered by it.

I think, on balance, Isaacson did a decent job. I mean, he could have made the Paxton Boys the focus of the whole book as some in academia might have. Isaacson is PC to a point, but imagine the Ward Churchill version of this, which is no doubt being peddled in American History 101 on college campuses across Amerikkka as we speak. For real PC a mere journalist won't do. You need academic credentials, man. Masters from Sangamon State with an undergrad degree in Woodcraft from Simon's Rock of Bard -- or better.

Fight the power!

Posted by: The Colossus at February 17, 2005 02:03 PM

Yeah, I may be over-reacting just a bit. But I'm all ginned up on the French & Indian War at the moment, so the thing immediately caught my attention.

Having suffered through the Hobsbawn World View through most of my undergrad days, I know it can be a whoooooole lot worse.

Posted by: Robert the LB at February 17, 2005 02:11 PM

I'd never heard of the Paxton Boys, but I had an ancestor who served under George Rogers Clark, and then took part in a similar incident after the war, the massacre at Gnaddenhutten, so this is interesting to me.

Posted by: Brian B at February 17, 2005 09:03 PM

Your complaints parallel mine exactly. I got so annoyed with it that I put it down, about 2/3 of the way through. I almost never put down books to never try again.

Posted by: John at February 18, 2005 12:47 AM
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