Christina’s Review: The First Emancipator by Andrew Levy


Christina’s Review: The First Emancipator by Andrew LevyThe First Emancipator by Andrew Levy
Published by Random House on 2005
Genres: Colonial Period (1600-1775), History, Revolutionary Period (1775-1800), United States
Pages: 310
Format: Hardcover
Goodreads
three-stars
Robert Carter III, the grandson of Tidewater legend Robert “King” Carter, was born into the highest circles of Virginia's Colonial aristocracy. He was neighbor and kin to the Washingtons and Lees and a friend and peer to Thomas Jefferson and George Mason. But on September 5, 1791, Carter severed his ties with this glamorous elite at the stroke of a pen. In a document he called his Deed of Gift, Carter declared his intent to set free nearly five hundred slaves in the largest single act of liberation in the history of American slavery before the Emancipation Proclamation.How did Carter succeed in the very action that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson claimed they fervently desired but were powerless to effect? And why has his name all but vanished from the annals of American history? In this haunting, brilliantly original work, Andrew Levy traces the confluence of circumstance, conviction, war, and passion that led to Carter's extraordinary act.At the dawn of the Revolutionary War, Carter was one of the wealthiest men in America, the owner of tens of thousands of acres of land, factories, ironworks–and hundreds of slaves. But incrementally, almost unconsciously, Carter grew to feel that what he possessed was not truly his. In an era of empty Anglican piety, Carter experienced a feverish religious visionthat impelled him to help build a church where blacks and whites were equals. In an age of publicly sanctioned sadism against blacks, he defied convention and extended new protections and privileges to his slaves. As the war ended and his fortunes declined, Carter dedicated himself even more fiercely to liberty, clashing repeatedly with his neighbors, his friends, government officials, and, most poignantly, his own family.But Carter was not the only humane master, nor the sole partisan of freedom, in that freedom-loving age. Why did this troubled, spiritually torn man dare to do what far more visionary slave owners only dreamed of? In answering this question, Andrew Levy teases out the very texture of Carter's life and soul–the unspoken passions that divided him from others of his class, and the religious conversion that enabled him to see his black slaves in a new light.Drawing on years of painstaking research, written with grace and fire, The First Emancipator is a portrait of an unsung hero who has finally won his place in American history. It is an astonishing, challenging, and ultimately inspiring book.

I am embarrassed for how long it has been since my last book review and for how long it took me to get through this last book. I have clearly not been on my A-game! However, I am back at it…

I just finished a book I was recommended: The First Emancipator: the Forgotten Story of Robert Carter the Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves by Andrew Levy. I loved the history in the book and the relevance to my work in the Northern Neck at a founding father’s home. In addition, my graduate research focused on freedom suits brought forth by slaves against their masters around the late 18th and early 19th centuries in select Virginia counties. I was looking forward to potential connections I could make from this book and the motivating factors from the period that caused slave owners to emancipate their slaves and the reactions of those surrounding them. I was hoping this book would give me more insight on why Robert Carter made the decisions he did. In the synopsis of the book, Levy noted Carter’s act was “the largest single act of liberation in the history of American slavery before the Emancipation Proclamation.” Carter was a leader… what made him different over other slave owners of the time?

Levy’s book read more as a biography than a thesis-centered piece. Levy began with a background on Carter’s family, from his father, Robert “King” Carter, to his wife and children. He also added interesting insights on the family as recorded by Philip Vickers Fithian, the family’s tutor. (Whose journal is also a well-known and recommended read I hope to get to soon) Overall, the book was good, however, I felt there was not a strong argument or connection that really answered why Carter was a leader in offering the Deed of Gift to nearly 500 slaves.

There was a lot on Fithian, perhaps because his journal contains such well-documented information from the period. There was a lot on Carter’s immediate family, but some of the information I did not find totally relevant. Levy wrote about Carter’s rowdy sons, one of whom was believed to have slid into bed with one of the house slaves, and he wrote about Carter’s troubled wife and her fear of thunderstorms. There was also a daughter who one day shaved off her eyebrow… while the stories of the family members were interesting on their own, they were lost to me and irrelevant to the story as a whole.

The chapter titled “Deed of Gift [1789-1804]” was the chapter I had been waiting for that addressed my questions more directly. So when did this change from slave holder to emancipator begin? From the book, there was not one set event or answer to this question. Some of the factors that may have played a role:

  • Revolutionary sentiments – how can one fight for freedom of tyranny from the British while still holding slaves and denying their freedom?
  • The Enlightenment – Carter did undergo some religious and spiritual transformations like others during this period, and he turned to the Baptist Church.
  • The “Redemption Song” (137) – Taking the ideas above and combining with “a strong marriage, an active church, and an egalitarian government,” according to Levy, Carter became a good man.

In this chapter, Levy noted the news of Carter’s Deed of Gifts freeing 442 slaves, and how this news did not spread far and wide like one may think. (146) Levy also noted Carter’s fascination with death and the end of the world. He noted Carter was convinced he was dying by the 1800s, in addition to the effects of the French Revolution on his emotions. (163) There were so many interesting facts throughout this chapter and the book, but I still did not receive information that made me fully understand Carter’s decision to emancipate his slaves over other founding fathers (with the exception of Jefferson who was unable to due to his debt).

One thing I would have liked to have seen more information on and statistics related to was the 1782 law in Virginia that legalized manumission. The act of manumitting one’s slaves through their last Will, or through a Deed of Gift (as Carter chose) was not even legal until 1782. Carter would not have been able to legally free his slaves prior to this date… it is a significant date in Virginia and in Carter’s history. The story of Robert Carter would have benefitted with more information on this law and perhaps information on the statistics behind owners who freed their slaves following the passage of this law. Carter’s actions were revolutionary, he was a visionary, and more information on the 1782 manumission law and actions taken as a result of this law would have further demonstrated why.

Another fact that would have been interesting to investigate further was Carter’s move from Virginia’s Northern Neck and his home, Nomony Hall, to Baltimore. During his time in Baltimore, his religious loyalties picked up more. Levy noted he had business motivations to move to Baltimore as well as two daughters in the area. However, Levy did not note that Baltimore was in the north and different from other cities. Baltimore was progressive in the free black labor movement. Without exhausting this review, I recommend checking out Seth Rockman’s book: Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore. In his book, Rockman looked at the labor population in Baltimore which consisted of not only enslaved individuals, but also free black and white workers, as well as immigrants. Baltimore had a mixed-race labor population who worked together side-by-side for the same wages, something not seen in many other areas of the country. (Rockman, 47, 56) In my opinion, there may have been more in Carter’s decision to move to Baltimore to live out the remainder of his days.

Overall, The First Emancipator was a very interesting look at a historical leader from Virginia. Robert Carter III has been forgotten by many, so it was refreshing to have a look at his character and influence from Andrew Levy. However, I felt the book needed more… there could have been a stronger focus on the act of manumission itself with more supporting research added to Robert Carter as to his motivations and title as the “First Emancipator.”

Christina’s Review: Mint Juleps with Teddy Roosevelt by Mark Will-Weber


Christina’s Review: Mint Juleps with Teddy Roosevelt by Mark Will-WeberMint Juleps with Teddy Roosevelt by Mark Will-Weber
Published by Regnery Publishing on 2014-10-20
Genres: General, History, United States
Pages: 398
Format: Hardcover
Goodreads
three-half-stars
In the more than two-hundred-year history of the American presidency, there has been one element present in each and every administration: alcohol. In the beginning, there was George Washington, who sold whiskey distilled at Mount Vernon and preferred to quaff a well-crafted port. More than two hundred years later, Barack Obama beckoned some master brewers to advise his White House staff on how to make mouth-watering batches of White House Honey Ale with a key ingredient from Michelle Obama’s beehives.And then there was the matter of the forty-two other gentlemen in between…Journalist Mark Will-Weber strolls through our country’s memorable moments—from the Founding Fathers to the days of Prohibition, from impeachment hearings to diplomatic negotiations—and the role that a good stiff drink played in them in his new book, Mint Juleps with Teddy Roosevelt: The Complete History of Presidential Drinking.So grab a cocktail and turn the pages of Mint Juleps with Teddy Roosevelt for a unique and entertaining look into the liquor cabinets and the beer refrigerators of the White House. Cheers!

I heard about this book when it first came out, and then I saw an interview with the author on a TV news show. I knew I had to add it to my to-read list as a history lover, and tried to get to the read as soon as I could.

Mint Juleps with Teddy Roosevelt by Mark Will-Weber was an entertaining read, and it was a good pick-up and stop read. You can read each president individually if you wish. The book was not designed to be a history lecture. It was fun to learn about the histories of the presidents in a different light, through their drinking, leisure activities and policies related to or involving alcohol during their time in office. The focus was not just on the presidential period for reach president but also included parts of the person’s life before or after the presidency and how alcohol may have had an influence in decisions or events. (For example Ulysses S. Grant’s drinking-focus was a lot on the Civil War period.) Will-Weber also did research into some of the drink recipes the presidents may have enjoyed or had named after them at local bars. There was variety in the writing style and fun stories… I caught myself laughing out loud on occasion while riding on the DC metro.

The book did show some patterns and phases with the presidents and their drinking habits. For examples, Madeira wine was a popular drink of choice for many of the founding fathers. From there, there was a series of presidents who were war leaders and had a Civil War legacy left behind before they entered the office. Teetotaler presidents and activists started to make their way into the book, then Prohibition hit and affected policy and presidents/guests in the White House. As Prohibition came to an end, the drinking stories and presidential habits picked back up. Hard liquor and beer entered the stories more and more.

From this read, I think it would be fun to drink with: Thomas Jefferson (his love for wine and potential for the Virginia wine industry, although he failed at growing wine grapes); Ulysses S. Grant (especially with his cellar of fine wines); Frederick D. Roosevelt (“How about another sippy?” -255); Lyndon B. Johnson (for a night out on the town). As for Teddy Roosevelt and his mint juleps, I will have to try one of these after my next tennis match to attest to its refresh-ness post-court time.  Although, I now learned there is such thing as “pulling a Nixon” and serving guests a cheaper bottle of wine than the one you are drinking…just be sure to wrap a towel around the label when serving to hide this fact from your guests.

I read the book from cover-to-cover, but I did stop somewhere around the middle to start and finish another book. This did not set me back on my read or confuse me. The luxury of this book was that I can be read section-by-section with the ability to skip a president if that is what you want. (I did not) When reading straight through, it can get repetitive at times. (For example, the same sentence on gout and its causes was repeated in multiple sections for the presidents affected) But it was not too distracting. Overall, it was an entertaining read and a different read on the presidents we think we know so well. I recommend having this book on the shelf as a pick-up on the occasion read… the chapters are quick and broken down by different headers. Enjoy it!

I’ll leave you with this great proverb from my Irish ancestors as quoted in the chapter on Ronald Reagan:

“if I had a ticket to heaven and you didn’t have one, I would give mine away and go to hell with you.”

Cheers!

pj - christina

Christina’s Review: Silhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin


Christina’s Review: Silhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth GriffinSilhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin
Published by Milkweed Editions on 2012
Genres: 20th Century, Family, Girls & Women, Historical, Homosexuality, Parents, Social Issues, United States, Young Adult
Pages: 189
Format: Hardcover
Goodreads
two-stars
Silhouette of a Sparrow is an excellent example of an historical, coming-of-age lesbian young adult novel. Written with a deft hand, based in the true history of its setting, and with characterizations that will ring true to any teenager, it is a worthy and enjoyable read for anyone. --Lambda LiteraryWINNER OF THE MILKWEED PRIZE FOR CHILDREN'S LITERATUREWINNER OF THE 2013 PATERSON PRIZE FOR BOOKS FOR YOUNG READERSALA RAINBOW LIST RECOMMENDED BOOKAMELIA BLOOMER PROJECT LIST RECOMMENDED BOOKLAMBDA LITERARY AWARD FINALISTMINNESOTA BOOK AWARD FINALISTFOREWARD REVIEWS BOOK OF THE YEAR HONORABLE MENTIONIn the summer of 1926, sixteen-year-old Garnet Richardson is sent to a lake resort to escape the polio epidemic in the city. She dreams of indulging in ornithology and a visit to an amusement park-a summer of fun before she returns to a last year of high school, marriage, and middle-class homemaking. But in the country, Garnet finds herself under supervision of oppressive guardians, her father's wealthy cousin and the matron's stuck-up daughter. Only a job in a hat shop, an intense, secret relationship with a beautiful flapper, and a deep faith in her own heart can save her from the suffocation of traditional femininity in this coming-of-age story about a search for both wildness and security in an era full of unrest. It is the tale of a young woman's discovery of the science of risk and the art of rebellion, and, of course, the power of unexpected love.

Silhouette of a Sparrow was one of the earlier books selected for our book club to read by a group member. It was a fast-read and contained some mature content (even though it is noted for winning the “Milkweed Prize for Children’s Literature.”)

The book is about a girl, Garnet, who is away from home during the summer of 1926. While away, she picks up a job and meets a girl from a different side of the tracks than herself. Garnet has the opportunity to explore who she is and what other opportunities and adventures are out there for her during this coming-of-age period in her life.

This book allowed for a great group discussion with multiple opinions and directions for conversation to go between the mature subjects and metaphorical references carried on throughout. My main critique: It felt like the author was trying too hard at times to get her message across between the environmentalism and “coming-of-age” experiences. The book felt over-dramatized at times, with numerous “disasters” occurring back-to-back for a book that I thought was intended to be more relatable for younger generations.

However, after discussing this book with my book club, I saw more behind the story I did not appreciate before. For example, the significance behind the bird-cutting hobby of Garnet and how she spread her wings in the end…

It was not a favorite on my list, but others ranked in highly and felt that connection the author intended. It is a light, quick read… probably great for a summer-time pool-side book.

pj - christina

Christina’s Review: The Old Dominion in the Seventeenth Century edited by Warren M. Billings


Christina’s Review: The Old Dominion in the Seventeenth Century edited by Warren M. BillingsThe Old Dominion in the Seventeenth Century by Warren M. Billings
Published by Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia on 2009-01-26
Genres: Colonial Period (1600-1775), History, United States
Pages: 384
Format: Paperback
Goodreads
four-half-stars
Since its original publication in 1975, The Old Dominion in the Seventeenth Century has become an important teaching tool and research volume. Warren Billings brings together more than zoo period documents, organized topically, with each chapter introduced by an interpretive essay. Topics include the settlement of Jamestown, the evolution of government and the structure of society, forced labor, the economy, Indian - Anglo relations, and Bacon's Rebellion. This revised, expanded, and updated edition adds approximately 30 additional documents, extending the chronological reach to 1700. Freshly rethought chapter introductions and suggested readings incorporate the vast scholarship of the past 30 years. New illustrations of seventeenth - century artifacts and buildings enrich the texts with recent archaeological findings. With these enhancements, and a full index, students, scholars, and those interested in early Virginia will find these documents even more enlightening.

This is one of my personal favorite books to keep on my shelf. The Old Dominion in the Seventeenth Century is a documentary history of Virginia from 1606 through 1700. It’s a great read for anyone interested in the history of one of our first colonies and states, and one I reference in research quite a bit.

I was recommended this book by one of my professors who wanted us to read primary research material for an early American history class. Being from Virginia, I jumped on this read. The book is organized with letters, documents, lists, court notes, and more, broken up into the following sections:

  1. “The Beginnings” – including information on the settlement of Virginia, such as instructions given to ship crews, contents of ships, letters of experiences, and more.
  2. “The Evolution of Self-Government in Virginia: The Governor and the General Assembly” – this section dove deeper into the construction of the government by the British and the development of the House of Burgesses, with a look at select Acts, elections and other legislation.
  3. “The Evolution of Self-Government in Virginia: Local Government” – this section dove deeper into the country court systems, deeds, information on commissions and more Acts. This section also contained information on court cases I later used in research, including text on land and debt suits and punishments.
  4. “The Structure of Society” – looking more at census records and land patents. Here the editor also included papers from a Virginia family, the Willoughby Family.
  5. “Bound Labor: Indentured Servitude” – a more in-depth look at indentured servants, including runaways and thefts associated with.
  6. “Bound Labor: Slavery” – this is another section I have referenced for research before on Virginia slavery history. There is information on runaways, slave insurrections, and court cases including freedom suits. More information is also included on laws that defined slavery and its progression in Virginia society.
  7. “Tobacco and Trade” – Virginia’s early economy thrived on tobacco, and this section exemplifies its importance for individuals in society during colonization and early settlement.
  8. “Indians and Whites: The Conflict of Cultures” – more information on Native Americans, including the Anglo-Indian war of 1675-77 is included in this section. Pieces from notable characters in Virginia history, such as John Smith and John Rolfe, were also included here.
  9. “Upheaval and Rebellion” – Virginia’s history contained court cases, riots, and rebellion that defined the colony’s development. Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, led by Nathanial Bacon, was a notable rebellion in early colonial history with documents included in this text.
  10. “Life in Seventeenth-Century Virginia” – This is an overall general history of the settling of the colony, including documentation on travel and promise in Virginia, the development of homes and families, information on religion, as well as leisure activities that entertained early colonists.

Overall, this is an interesting compilation of documents from seventeenth century Virginia that add clarity to the colonial developments of the country. Each section begins with an overview of the topic, followed by suggested readings (primary, secondary and electronic) then a selection of documents that support the topic. It’s educational, at times a quick read, and at others times a little more challenging as the reader confronts old English text. It is definitely one I will keep on my shelf for quick reference on topics of colonial history in Virginia.

pj - christina

Michelle’s Review: Salt and Storm by Kendall Kulper


I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Michelle’s Review: Salt and Storm by Kendall KulperSalt & Storm by Kendall Kulper
Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers on 2014-09-23
Genres: 19th Century, Family, Fantasy & Magic, Girls & Women, Historical, Multigenerational, United States, Young Adult
Pages: 416
Format: eARC
Source: Netgalley
Goodreads
four-stars
A sweeping historical romance about a witch who foresees her own murder--and the one boy who can help change her future.Sixteen-year-old Avery Roe wants only to take her rightful place as the witch of Prince Island, making the charms that keep the island's whalers safe at sea, but her mother has forced her into a magic-free world of proper manners and respectability. When Avery dreams she's to be murdered, she knows time is running out to unlock her magic and save herself.Avery finds an unexpected ally in a tattooed harpoon boy named Tane--a sailor with magic of his own, who moves Avery in ways she never expected. Becoming a witch might stop her murder and save her island from ruin, but Avery discovers her magic requires a sacrifice she never prepared for.

Sea witches is not something that I have had much experience in reading about. But Salt & Storm presents a magic structure that was intriguing and had me interested through most of the book. Each of the Roe witches has their own specialty, something that makes me turn into a little kid, imagining what my own specialty would be. (Don’t ask, I haven’t decided yet.)

If I’m remembering correctly, this book to me had a lot of opportunities to become cliche but avoided most of them. The setting was unique, being both historical and paranormal, on an island somewhere in the northeastern U.S. In some regards, I almost wished for more setting of the world beyond, but it matched the type of isolation Avery was feeling on the island.

The author’s note was perhaps the most interesting to me, which sounds strange, but it really helped tie things together for me. The book had its flaws, and it wasn’t a perfect read for me, but it was definitely an enjoyable one.

pj - michelle

Michelle’s Review: Disunion edited by Ted Widmer


I received this book for free from BEA 2013 in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Michelle’s Review: Disunion edited by Ted WidmerThe New York Times Disunion by ted widmer
Published by Black Dog & Leventhal on 2013
Genres: Civil War Period (1850-1877), History, United States
Pages: 450
Format: Hardcover
Source: BEA 2013
Goodreads
four-stars
A major new collection of modern commentary-- from scholars, historians, and Civil War buffs--on the significant events of the Civil War, culled from The New York Times' popular Disunion on-line journal Since its debut on November 6, 2010, Disunion, The New York Times' acclaimed journal about the Civil War, has published hundreds of original articles and won multiple awards, including

I can be a bit of a history buff. By that I mean I enjoy history and will read a nonfiction book for fun. But here’s the key part of the ‘a bit’ statement: I am HORRIBLE at remembering facts. I used to be amazing at it, but I’d like to believe that I have simply reached a saturation point with what sticks in my brain…

That said, I cannot tell you all the facts that I read this large anthology of articles about the Civil War. They cover all different parts of the Civil War, some lesser known facets and those that have been covered widely. They are written by different people, all with a different voice and perhaps a different understanding of history. The anthology is broken up into different parts of the Civil War, leading up secession, the beginning of the war, expansion of the war, etc.

I found the secession parts most interesting because those are the parts that tend to get glossed over in high school history classes. I learned things about my own state that I didn’t know and I found that fascinating. But really, the whole thing was fascinating, and I’m sure my fiance can attest to the amount of times I would read out parts to him that I was engaged in what I was reading.

At some point, it began to feel repetitive, particularly towards the end. I’m not sure if it’s because the articles were indeed repeating things and covering very similar parts of the same narrative or if it was just reader fatigue.

It’s very long though–probably not meant for a cover to cover read like I did. I believe it’s only half of a collection with articles to appear in a later manual about the end of the war, and so on. I’d definitely be interested in finding that if/when it is published.

pj - michelle

Michelle’s Review: Wonder Show by Hannah Barnaby


Michelle’s Review: Wonder Show by Hannah BarnabyWonder Show by Hannah Rodgers Barnaby
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on 2012
Genres: 20th Century, Action & Adventure, Circus, Family, General, Girls & Women, Historical, JUVENILE FICTION, Love & Romance, Orphans & Foster Homes, Performing Arts, United States, Young Adult
Pages: 274
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
Goodreads
five-stars
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, step inside Mosco’s Traveling Wonder Show, a menagerie of human curiosities and misfits guaranteed to astound and amaze! But perhaps the strangest act of Mosco’s display is Portia Remini, a normal among the freaks, on the run from McGreavy’s Home for Wayward Girls, where Mister watches and waits. He said he would always find Portia, that she could never leave. Free at last, Portia begins a new life on the bally, seeking answers about her father’s disappearance. Will she find him before Mister finds her? It’s a story for the ages, and like everyone who enters the Wonder Show, Portia will never be the same.

I was in the mood for a fantasical circus story when I picked up Wonder Show. I wasn’t disappointed.

Wonder Show has the kind of cover that definitely attracted me to it. Add to it the fun synopsis, and it is definitely a book that screams to be read when you’re looking for some quirky storytelling. I was feeling nostalgic over reading The Night Circus…it’s not terribly similar but I would recommend it for those looking for something at least a little related.

In short, it is a very artfully written story with the kind of aesthetic that would be matched well with some Edward Gorey drawings (my favorite!). It’s a story that you can easily read in one sitting. At the same time, I think it’s appropriate for all audiences, even perhaps some younger middle grade ones. It’s dark without being overwhelmingly dark. It’s a Tim Burton-esque story if that makes sense (and if I can be allowed to make yet another reference).

I’m not doing a very good job in writing this review (I haven’t been the best at putting my thoughts into written words lately, particularly in review-form). But I promise I loved it and this has earned its spot on my bookshelf.

pj - michelle

Christina’s Review: Sensibility and the American Revolution by Sarah Knott


Christina’s Review: Sensibility and the American Revolution by Sarah KnottSensibility and the American Revolution by Sarah Knott
Published by Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia on 2009
Genres: Colonial Period (1600-1775), History, Revolutionary Period (1775-1800), United States
Pages: 338
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
Goodreads
two-half-stars
In the wake of American independence, it was clear that the new United States required novel political forms. Less obvious but no less revolutionary was the idea that the American people needed a new understanding of the self. Sensibility was a cultural movement that celebrated the human capacity for sympathy and sensitivity to the world. For individuals, it offered a means of self-transformation. For a nation lacking a monarch, state religion, or standing army, sensibility provided a means of cohesion. National independence and social interdependence facilitated one another. What Sarah Knott calls "the sentimental project" helped a new kind of citizen create a new kind of government.
Knott paints sensibility as a political project whose fortunes rose and fell with the broader tides of the Revolutionary Atlantic world. Moving beyond traditional accounts of social unrest, republican and liberal ideology, and the rise of the autonomous individual, she offers an original interpretation of the American Revolution as a transformation of self and society.

In Sarah Knott’s words, sensibility was perceived “as a distinctive mode of self” that takes into account feelings and sympathy to connect the self with society. (5) This definition helped to understand Knott’s use of the word in her cultural history, Sensibility and the American Revolution. According to Knott, sensibility was “the fundamental link to self and society.” (1) She followed the transformation of sensibility through the period surrounding the American Revolution and the writing of the Constitution in her “sentimental project.” This term consisted of the transformation of sensibility as the self and society were reconstructed together during this period. (2-3) Looking at this sentimental project, Knott argued the American Revolution was not just about the fight for independence from British tyranny; the Revolution was also part of a key period in the development of the American people, society and politics together. (4) The American colonists had the opportunity to transform society and their selves into a utopian form through social revolution as they fought to separate themselves from British control and write their own Constitution.

To support her argument, Knott focused primarily on the latter half of the eighteenth century in the cosmopolitan city of Philadelphia. While Knott had a number of strengths in her research through her unique use of sources and approach to the period not typically taken by other historians (particularly her research on booksellers and physicians) there were weaknesses that could have used further elaboration: She focused on nervous disease and mentioned the disease did not arrive in the colonies until the decades prior to the Revolution, and when it did arrive, “it flooded.” (92) The reader was left to presume there may have been an influx of British at this time and the monarch asserting control or perhaps the effects of the Seven Year’s War may have led to the arrival of nervous disease. Knott also touched on the use of cognomens. She focused on the private use of cognomens and their significance in journals, but she did not explain the difference in these private cognomens and public aliases found in the Federalist Papers or other political pieces published for mass audiences. These aliases were covered by historians more often than Knott’s journal cognomens. It would have been helpful to understand the difference of the more popular use of masking names over the private use and why these had a stronger effect and reflection on sensibility. Finally, at times Knott presented some cynical assumptions that read more like her opinion than supported her argument. For example, in her depiction of Peggy Arnold following the capture of Benedict Arnold as a traitor, Knott described the theatrical performance put on by Peggy as the officers visited her, noting “she needed to ensure” her innocence through a public display.(177) Perhaps it was theatrics that prompted Peggy to behave the way she did, however, Knott’s mentioning of this event read more cynical and assumptious and was more of a distraction than support for her argument and understanding of sensibility. (92, 110, 177)

Some personal notes: This was a dense book. Knott defined sensibility in Jane Austin’s terms… at times, I am not going to lie (and this is harsh), I felt like I was reading gibberish. My brain was mush and I had to go back and read, and re-read paragraphs and still could not grasp the full content. In addition, I recommend keeping a dictionary close by. This book was a unique turn from the usual Revolutionary histories typically published. I had to read this book for my Revolutionary era class and appreciated the discussion that followed with the group to help iron out the content in relation to the argument and this significance for the time period.

Overall, I felt Knott took a unique approach to the transformation of self and society and its contributions to the historical studies that further the understanding of the period around the American Revolution. However, I would not recommend this book to someone looking for a casual read or for a book to help further their understanding about the revolutionary period in America without further background and in-depth knowledge of the subject. This book was more for those who have a background in literature studies or for those interested in cultural histories and a deeper intellectual understanding of the Revolution. If you do decide to read, I recommend reading with another so you can talk it out and discuss the thesis.

pj - christina