Saturday, April 14, 2007

"American Leviathan"

Patrick Griffin, Associate Professor of History at the University of Virginia, is the author of American Leviathan: Empire, Nation, and Revolutionary Frontier.

He applied the "page 69 test" to his book and reported the following:
The answer, of course, is that p. 69 does and does not get to the heart of what this book is about. But that makes the whole experiment interesting. Here's a sample of what I say on p. 69:

"As they transgressed the Line, therefore, settlers also contested the assumptions upon which the Line was drawn. Yet even as they used arguments that betokened stadial assumptions, they were articulating something more troubling. They saw themselves as “white,” after all. And they refused to believe that Indians in the West differed from Indians in the East. They both were uncivilized. The question is were they civilize-able? Unwilling to wait for civility to take hold, settlers refused even to entertain such questions. What had emerged on the frontier was a frightening spectrum of opinion ranging from the genocidal impulses of the few to the darker interpretation of the stadial vision of the many, the merger of the pre-modern and the modern. Frontier settlers did not challenge the bases of British notions of civility — they agreed with them — but in the midst of violence, they contested the implications of the civilizing scheme."

So we get a glimpse of some of the ideas that make the book tick. The book explores the meaning of the American Revolution by looking at its edges, and what this revolution has to do with American character. As such, it charts the ways in which British ideas of empire did not, nor could not, work in America. On p. 69, we join the action in mid-stream, as settlers are refusing to obey British officials who argue that Indians should be protected and their lands inviolate. They have also kinds of sophisticated arguments for making such claims, and settlers -- believe it or not -- operate within the same ideological universe. But they can't right now. What follows, then, is this: all hell breaks loose, and all sorts of Americans and Britons are caught up in an elemental struggle -- of which race, class, and land are elements -- about sovereignty as society collapses in on itself that only the state can rectify. Hence the title, American Leviathan. With the state's involvement, American empire was the ransom paid for American nationhood. The nature of the revolution on the frontier also reveals another important aspect of the book: common people, for better and for worse, stood at the center of these dynamics. On the one hand, as per the cult of the founding father, we should ignore them. On the other hand, we should not romanticize them. I do neither. These dynamics -- encompassing the faceless people who were at the center of things, and the janus-faced nature of the outcomes of revolution -- made America American.

In many ways, the exercise itself reflects the way I hope that readers will engage the book. It can be read as a narrative of revolution, a story of the American Revolution, a tale of Indian/white relations, and a broader narrative about the meaning of sovereignty, empire, and nation. Is this all confusing? Do you want to know more? All to the good. Then read on ....
Visit the publisher's webpage for American Leviathan.

Check out the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue