FRANCES H. KENNEDY, The American Revolution: A Historical Guidebook (Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 2014), 416 pp.

FRANCES H. KENNEDY, The American Revolution: A Historical Guidebook (Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 2014),  416 pp.

Amerikastudien/ American Studies 60.4

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As you hold The American Revolution: A Historical Guidebook in your hands and flip through its pages, you will quickly ask yourself the questions, for whom was this book written and for what purpose. The publisher’s catalogue provides an explanation: Oxford University Press advertises the book, which is edited by Frances H. Kennedy and the Conservation Fund, as the “the ultimate historical traveler’s guide to the American Revolution, written for the vast and ever-growing crowd of history tourists.” I have my doubts that a large part of this crowd would find this guidebook to be at all useful.

In preparing the guide, the author utilizes the list of 400 sites and landmarks connected with the American Revolution that the National Park Service compiled in 1996. One hundred and forty-seven of them are highlighted. Kennedy arranges the entries chronologically, starting with Boston Common, jumping from Bunker Hill to Philadelphia’s Independence Hall and concluding with Fraunces Tavern in New York. Among Kennedy’s selections are the well-known and popular destinations every American student will recognize from standard history textbooks like the already mentioned Independence Hall, Saratoga Battlefield, or Yorktown. Then you will also find places you have probably never heard of, and there may be sites you would miss. Kennedy’s list mainly includes battlefields and forts, and she concentrates on presenting the Revolution as a primarily military event. The guide would have been better balanced if Kennedy had complemented the focus on the military sites with more historic places where you could learn about daily life during the Revolution.

But the question of selection is not my point of criticism. What makes this guidebook really useless is the manner in which it has been organized and the conception of its entries. Presenting the information chronologically is not at all helpful for a guidebook format. A good guidebook should be organized to allow tourists to locate sites of interest within a region and provide them with guidance on how to travel from place to place within that region.  In order to make use of the book as it is designed, you would have to know a specific date associated with a place of interest even before you opened the book.

The entries themselves do not provide any guidance about what a visitor will find at the identified historic sites today. There is no practical information such as directions, visitor amenities, hours of operation, or entrance fees. Instead, the entries consist of abstracts compiled from scholarly works. Kennedy quotes such luminaries as Eric Foner, Mary Beth Norton, Gordon Wood, and Bernard Bailyn, cuts their thoughts into pieces, arranges them so they fit randomly chosen places in the book, and calls the result a “Historic Guidebook.” For example, if you decide to visit Dorchester Heights at Boston National Historical Park, the information in the two-paged entry includes the following:  “Dorchester Heights, the hills south of Boston, was the critical height of land for General Washington’s artillery in March 1776. David McCullough details the patriots’ victory at Dorchester Heights in his book 1776” (81). After McCullough’s short description of the battle, the entry continues: “In Washington’s Crossing, David Hackett Fischer describes General Washington after his first victory in the American Revolution.” You will learn that Washington “was a big man, immaculate in dress, and of so much charismatic presence that he filled the street even when he rode alone” (82 f). At times the entries of this guidebook really read like light satire, but for the sake of fairness the publisher should have tagged it as such.

One would have hoped that this hefty, hard-covered book, which is just too cumbersome to carry it around on a tour, would at least have provided some colored illustrations or maps that would help orient a traveler for a modern-day visit or entice someone to visit in the first place. But even that hope is off the mark. The few low-quality monochrome photographs of historic maps or documents that accompany the text serve to neither illustrate the entries nor provide orientation.

The American Revolution: A Historical Guidebook is a sham because it is really not a guidebook at all. Had the editor titled it a “Reader’s Digest of the American Revolution,” one probably could have gotten something out of it. So, is there nothing positive to say about this book? Well, yes, there is one thing. The Conservation Fund dedicates the proceeds from the book sales to the protection of historic places. But if you want to support these honorable intentions I would suggest you just send a donation directly to the fund and save space on your bookshelf for a real guidebook.

München                                                                                             Jonas B. Anderson

Author: American Studies

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