Thursday, January 26, 2012

My Library: Alden's American Revolution

Three books in and we've already hit something on my wall of shame. My library includes a few non-fiction books and some of them I didn't buy for a college class, but for some light reading. Here's a tip: don't let me loose in a museum gift shop without also giving me a sharply defined spending limit. I spent more than $100 on books when I went to DC. I learned a lot about cats and pre-Columbian American history. And dinosaurs. And recreational math.

Anyway, I've actually had John Alden's A History of the American Revolution for almost a decade now and I've never been able to pick it back up. I consider that I put it down for a very good reason. I did a little digging on the book and the author before I wrote this (I didn't want to try reading it without a bit more info) and, in retrospect, I should have guessed it wouldn't exactly be my cuppa. Dr. Alden died in 1991 at the age of 83, which should tell you something about the book. To confirm any suspicions you might have, the book was published in 1969. To put it bluntly, it's dated.

As you might expect from a man who lived through two world wars, Dr. Alden was something of an antiquated antiquarian. He's not charitable to non-caucasians (calling Native Americans "savages" is so pre-King). I'd guess he'd harbor similar sentiments for non-Christians. I know for a fact he wasn't charitable to the British. I suspect that, like many, Dr. Alden made the loving of his country like unto a secular religion. Perhaps, like many, it wasn't all that secular.

It takes a great deal to make me put down a book. I may scoff and roll my eyes and frequently shout, "Oh for the LOVE OF SHIT.", but I'll keep reading. In high school I read a book by a Velikovskyite that I disdained from start to finish. Velikovsky believed that all myths could and should be explained as the result of astronomical phenomena. Fair enough, but his proposed phenomena were horse shit and betrayed a fundamental ignorance of physics, astronomy, biology, and geology. When a 14 year old can explain and provide documented evidence for why your Earth-as-a-moon-of-Saturn hypothesis is nonsense, your theory is crap from start to finish. Nevertheless, I sat through all of 2012 and I read that book.

But it seems I hold non-fiction to a higher standard. I put down Alden's book after 88 pages, because this is what I encountered on the 88th page.

The British aristocracy produced some extraordinary men in the eighteenth century, but none more remarkable than Charles Townshend. ... He was much admired as a speaker in the House of Commons. He was a tall, heavy man with a loud voice, a modicum of wit, a gift for mimicry, and a penchant for abusing all and sundry, whether friend or foe. He was famous for his effrontery. In an age when British politicians were constantly inconstant, he shifted his allegiances so swiftly that he was noted for his fickleness. Behind a fa├žade of health and vigor he was both physically feeble and psychopathic.

Emphasis mine.

I have no doubt that politicians in the late eighteenth century were venal as a rule, short-sighted and ignorant, and frightfully barbaric in their morality (by today's standards), but Alden seems to have been hell bent on portraying the British as actively villainous and disposed not merely to wrest profit from the colonies but to positively grind them into the dirt. I'm certain that the boorish, provincial, classist, racist, half-educated barbarians that populated the British Parliament were no paragons and that they would have felt the colonies to have been at best a distant second to the home Isles in concern, but, even in the sixties, psychopath was a clinical term. Townshend may have been an asshole, with documentation to back up that assertion, but to step from there to an accusation of psychopathy was enough to make me put the book down and is still enough to dissuade me from picking it back up.

I may do so at some point and try to work my way through it. Apparently Alden has a clear style that is quite informative and easy to follow, but I don't know if I really want to try and learn my history from racist grandpa.

Next: Walter Alvarez's T. rex and the Crater of Doom. What a kwinky dink! This is one of the museum books I was talking about up top.
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