My American Revolution

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Overview

Americans tend to think of the Revolution as a Massachusetts-based event orchestrated by Virginians, but in fact the war took place mostly in the Middle Colonies--in New York and New Jersey and the parts of Pennsylvania that on a clear day you can almost see from the Empire State Building. In My American Revolution, Robert Sullivan delves into this first Middle America, digging for a glorious, heroic part of the past in the urban, suburban, and sometimes even rural landscape of today. And there are great ...

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My American Revolution: A Modern Expedition Through History's Forgotten Battlegrounds

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Overview

Americans tend to think of the Revolution as a Massachusetts-based event orchestrated by Virginians, but in fact the war took place mostly in the Middle Colonies--in New York and New Jersey and the parts of Pennsylvania that on a clear day you can almost see from the Empire State Building. In My American Revolution, Robert Sullivan delves into this first Middle America, digging for a glorious, heroic part of the past in the urban, suburban, and sometimes even rural landscape of today. And there are great adventures along the way: Sullivan investigates the true history of the crossing of the Delaware, its down-home reenactment each year for the past half a century, and--toward the end of a personal odyssey that involves camping in New Jersey backyards, hiking through lost "mountains," and eventually some physical therapy--he evacuates illegally from Brooklyn to Manhattan by handmade boat. He recounts a Brooklyn historian's failed attempt to memorialize a colonial Maryland regiment; a tattoo artist's more successful use of a colonial submarine, which resulted in his 2007 arrest by the New York City police and the FBI; and the life of Philip Freneau, the first (and not great) poet of American independence, who died in a swamp in the snow. Last but not least, along New York harbor, Sullivan re-creates an ancient signal beacon.

Like an almanac, My American Revolution moves through the calendar of American independence, considering the weather and the tides, the harbor and the estuary and the yearly return of the stars as salient factors in the war for independence. In this fiercely individual and often hilarious journey to make our revolution his, he shows us how alive our own history is, right under our noses.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A nostalgic, witty, and always informative topographic retrospective of the sites pertinent to the American Revolution takes Vogue contributing editor and journalist Sullivan (The Thoreau You Don’t Know) to the action seen by the middle colonies especially—New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Years of reflective walks and “site-inspired epiphanies” inform Sullivan’s research, as he traced Washington’s army crossing the Delaware, marching to engage the British at the battles of Trenton and Princeton, and into the winter refuge at Morristown, in the Watchung Mountains. In the second part, Sullivan discourses by turns on the seasons of the revolution, not in any chronological fashion, e.g., spring 1789 marked the inauguration of the new president in a vastly changing downtown Manhattan, which Sullivan reached by his own personal inaugural barge from Elizabeth, N.J., to Wall Street; summer sounded the anniversary of the disastrous rout at the Battle of Brooklyn; autumn ushered a rueful time of remembrance for soldiers and prisoners; and winter brings to mind the appalling hard winter at Valley Forge endured by the army. As infatuated by later decades’ of monuments, statues, and artist’s renderings of the revolutionary landscape as he is by the actual history, Sullivan delights in deep digressions into personal moments of discovery, such as viewing Larry Rivers’s controversial Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art or coming upon the lists of evolving early Dutch and British markets published by butcher turned street historian Thomas F. DeVoe. Sullivan’s historic anecdotes form a loose-limbed, irreverent, surprising take on American history, most fun in the footnotes. Agent: Eric Simonoff. (Sept.)
From the Publisher

Praise for Robert Sullivan:
The New York Times Book Review Sam Roberts

Imagine Herodotus on steroids, not rambling in a roughly straight line from Cyrus to Xerxes, but diverging onto untrodden paths that transmogrify into fluvial streams of consciousness. That sort of detour through history pretty much sums up the quixotic scenic route Robert Sullivan travels in his winsome book My American Revolution. Following up on the captivating volumes about the New Jersey Meadowlands, rats and cross-country excursions, Sullivan has written a provocative Baedeker for a landscape of loss . . . We may never learn for certain what Sullivan himself is revolting against, but it's a good bet that convention and linearity are among his targets. He approaches them with gusto, not only chronicling reenactments of 'Washington Crossing the Delaware,' but embarking on his own 33-mile march to Morristown, NJ . . . My American Revolution gives geography and meteorology overdue recognition as historical catalysts, pointing out, for example, that strategically placed 18th-century signal points metamorphosed into cold war missile sites and finally into 9/11 memorials, in a trajectory that suggests a continuum. A revolution, after all, is something that orbits, or comes full circle, which Sullivan eventually does in a world 'before straight lines ruled the day.' The reader more or less returns to the starting point, but with a brand-new perspective. What a trip!
Booklist

Engaging, humorous, and often surprising . . . Sullivan combines solid historical knowledge, sensitivity to the physical landscape, and a wry sense of the absurdities inherent in mythmaking to provide a thoroughly enjoyable and original perspective.
The Daily Beast Nick Mancusi

Historical reenactors refer to what they do as 'living history,' the idea being that it's easier to learn from a three-dimensional experience than is from a book or lecture, because it establishes a physical connection with the past. It was something like this desire, familiar to most amateur history buffs, that drove Sullivan . . . to relive some of the iconic deeds of American Revolution, such as crossing the East River to Manhattan in a small boat in homage to George Washington's escape after the disastrous Battle of Brooklyn. Sullivan is himself a New Yorker, and his zeal for local history comes across in the way that he treats each task with enthusiastic respect. For him, hiking through New Jersey along the path of Washington's troops is more than a hike--it's a communion with our shared past that bears an importance beyond mere observation. This is half history and half just good fun . . . It's inspiring to watch him attempt to capture even the tiniest bit of the audacity of the American founding."
The Washington Post Jonathan Yardley

Robert Sullivan has interesting ideas, and sometimes he makes interesting books out of them . . . Now Sullivan turns his attention to the American Revolution, though no one familiar with his work will be surprised that his approach to it is almost entirely eccentric. My American Revolution is about as far from a conventional account of that conflict as one could get. Instead it is an episodic portrait of the war as it may have been at the time and as it is understood--or misunderstood--by many of us now . . . This book is about . . . an effort to find the past in the present, to reconcile each to the other. At its best, My American Revolution accomplishes this with grace and humor . . . [Sullivan] certainly accomplishes one of his main purposes: to make us see not merely the revolution but also ourselves in new light.
Businessweek Jeffrey Burke

[An] eccentric, entertaining take on the war . . . He highlights events he can retrace, including the famous river crossing and Washington's subsequent trek to New Jersey's Watchung Mountains, as well as the Battle of Brooklyn and the general's journey to New York for his inauguration. He's a well- informed guide you appreciate as much for his asides and digressions.
author of Brooklyn Colm Tóibín

My American Revolution is a brilliant rereading of an entire landscape. It offers an ingenious approach to history by suggesting that noticing and retracing with care and wit, finding hints and clues, are ways of re-creating the past in all its complexity. It is, on the one hand, a funny book, filled with mishap and adventure, but it is also deeply and seriously engaged with capturing the spirit of a place. It deserves to become one of the indispensable books about New York.
T: The New York Times Style Magazine Stephen Heyman

In his meditative, elliptical way, Sullivan does with the Revolutionary era what Tony Horwitz did with the Civil War in his 1998 book, Confederates in the Attic--he tracks down the re-enactors, amateur historians and oddballs (himself included) for whom the drums of war never really stopped beating.
The Boston Globe Kate Tuttle

It's difficult to resist this eclectic, highly personal examination of America's war of independence . . . [My American Revolution] is as strange and beautiful as the group of porpoises that reportedly escorted ships heading to Manhattan for our first president's inauguration.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune Eric G. Wilson

In his uplifting new book, My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78, Robert Sullivan. . . mixes local history and personal examination. His outcome is . . . ecstatic. Sullivan claims that the real Revolutionary War wasn't fought in and around Boston but in the middle colonies of New York and New Jersey, his lifelong haunts. He scours these areas for the War of Independence that time forgot, 'going out on reconnaissance missions into the landscape that might not seem ancient, camouflaged now as it is by cities and strip malls, by toxic waste sites and high-end commercial properties.' Such historical excursions grant Sullivan a 'more resonant awareness, a deeper realization of the landscape not offered in a sentence, or on a chart, but in [his] bones.' . . . Sullivan restores to their original brightness figures on the verge of disappearing from history . . . Rebelling against mainstream accounts of the war, Sullivan realizes that revolutionary energy still thrives in the peripheries . . . Sullivan's exuberant character sketches are as irresistible as they are informative. He is the history teacher you wanted but never had: funny, unpretentiously curious, able to imagine the past with astonishing vitality--a true poet of living history as well as a consummate subversive, showing us how recoveries of the abandoned past are essential for liberty and justice. The people you never heard of, it turns out, can be the ones you most need to hear.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Evi Heilbrunn

As Mr. Sullivan traverses the forests, mountains and rivers in and around New York City, he provides a glimpse into the historical minutia of the Revolution as a history buff, a 21st-century patron, a father, a son. This is a work about digging up lost facts and understanding their purpose in the larger framework of what the American Revolution was and how it is remembered . . . Writing in a conversational tone, Mr. Sullivan leaves the arguments to the historians, the details of Revolutionary paintings and writings to art and literary scholars, placing his own experiences of crossing the Delaware and Interstate 78 at the heart of this work. My American Revolution is a perfect read for someone looking to learn a few neat details of the American Revolution.
SandPaper David Foster

Wildly different . . . delightful . . . a rambling and often humorous account of [Robert Sullivan's] very personal discovery of the pivotal role of New York City and New Jersey in our Nation's struggle for independence . . . His manner is that of the friendly and engaging guy you run into at the corner bodega who is suddenly talking your ear off about something that happened just down the street 237 years ago--and making you listen, and maybe even agreeing to meet him next Saturday for more poking into the past. In a time when followers of every political persuasion stridently claim to further the cause of the original Patriots, this often very funny book, filled with engaging insights and hilarious misadventures, is a wonderfully mind-clearing companion. A dust-jacket blurb hails it one of the 'indispensable books about New York.' I would edit that to an indispensable book about claiming a vital time and place as your very own.
The Oregonian Nancy Rommelmann

[Sullivan is] a fine, and fun, traveling partner and guide. Also, a superb writer and deeply dedicated historian.
Thesuburbanite.com Brian Lisik

A delightful story-within-a-story by a writer with the talent to both live up to the book's promise that 'you'll never think about the American colonies' war for independence the same again'--and a man in a handmade boat reenacting the famous evacuation of Brooklyn. Along the way, this Henry-David-Thoreau-by-way-of-Chuck Klostermann crosses the Delaware, camps out in New Jersey backyards and enlists his daughter to help him recreate a signal beacon used by George Washington's troops--albeit using a Boy Scout mirror from behind a Dumpster in a parking lot on a Saturday morning. The story is a whimsical yet enlightening field trip, led by the coolest history teacher you never had, putting both the writer and the reader in a front row seat for the story of our country's founding. And through his brilliant melding of history and humor, Sullivan--whether accidentally or on purpose--introduces us to the humanity of our forefathers.
The New York Times Book Review Bruce Barcott

[Sullivan] explains the world amusingly; it's a place where progress is triggered by basic human desires . . . and carried out by clever people in entertaining historical anecdotes.
Library Journal
Sullivan (contributing editor, Vogue; Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants) directs his attention here to the American Revolution through a mix of autobiography, history, and historical memory. His "revolution" is centered on the Middle Colonies—framed largely by what can be seen from the top of the Empire State Building. His approach is wistful, taking in painter Emanuel Leutze's famous Washington Crossing the Delaware, St. John Terrell's reenactment of that event, Thomas F. DeVoe's (a "New York butcher turned historian") massive historical research, philosopher Duke Riley's submarine excursion, the Battle of Brooklyn, the prison ship Jersey, and poet Philip Freneau's death. Interwoven are Sullivan's efforts to reestablish historical sites and reenact historical events (including signaling from the Watchung Mountains in New Jersey) and his reflections on themes ranging from the importance of place, weather, and season for historical understanding to the multiple meanings of fatherhood. VERDICT This book will be entertaining to history buffs, especially those familiar with the American Revolution and/or with the history of New York City and its environs. [See Prepub Alert, 4/15/2012.]—Mark G. Spencer, Brock Univ., St. Catharines, Ontario
The New York Times Book Review
Imagine Herodotus on steroids, not rambling in a roughly straight line from Cyrus to Xerxes, but diverging onto untrodden paths that transmogrify into fluvial streams of consciousness. That sort of detour through history pretty much sums up the quixotic scenic route Robert Sullivan travels in his winsome book My American Revolution…Sullivan's approach is so engaging that readers who don't give a hoot about his tangential diversions—or even about the basic conceit of the book—will become transported in a time warp where anachronisms…genially coexist.
—Sam Roberts
Kirkus Reviews
In a roving, digressive memoir, Vogue contributor Sullivan (The Thoreau You Don't Know: What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant, 2009, etc.) traces Revolutionary War history in and around New York and New Jersey. Looking down from the top of the Empire State Building, the author saw a war landscape he believed to be neglected. Inspired to bring the Revolutionary War history of his hometown into his own present, Sullivan embarked on a long, twisting journey. Though his motives were somewhat muddled from the beginning, his recreational, relaxed plan was to cross the Delaware River, venture into the mountains, and finish the journey by visiting sites and memories inside New York City. Readers are sure to learn plenty from his travels, including little-celebrated battles and long-forgotten soldiers whose stories never made history textbooks. Throughout, the author meanders through his recounting of history, never ignoring a possible detour. In one instance, the fact that a building bearing a Revolutionary War plaque now houses a Trader Joe's store leads to a footnote about colonists boycotting imported English goods and then ends in an anecdote about the kidnapping of Theo Albrecht, the now-deceased former owner of Trader Joe's. Much of the book reads like a journal edited to add more information rather than to streamline thoughts. Considering Sullivan's obvious passion for many of the tangential subjects--associated art and literature, for example--a book of essays might have been a more appropriate project for a general audience. Tailor-made for trivia lovers and readers who don't mind the scenic route. Those looking for a more straightforward narrative are likely to be frustrated.
The Barnes & Noble Review

Because Robert Sullivan has a special knack for making the seemingly banal extraordinary, it is fitting that the subjects of his last three books are New Jersey, rats, and New Jersey — successively. He's carved out a special journalism of the seemingly overlooked but actually vital; and he's also found a way to make places that we otherwise can't or won't see imbued with new luster.

I first came to Sullivan while pursuing a graduate degree in journalism. I was trying to figure out how to make my chosen beat — the pathways traveled by garbage — as fascinating to others as I felt it was to me. Along the way I read and worshipped Sullivan's classic Meadowlands — in which Sullivan explores the ecological center of New Jersey's devastated wetlands by canoe, allowing himself to encounter the rubble and improbable beauty — and the quirky characters and toughened animals along the shore.

Sullivan's My American Revolution follows a similar bent, albeit in a different discipline. Here the historical, rather than the ecological, provides our present landscape with its luminous counterfactual. As Sullivan notes, most of the battles of the American Revolution were fought within a stone's throw of New York City. Looking this way, almost willing the past to erupt into the present, Sullivan declares that "the vista is a great palimpsest of the revolution." He sets out to bring fragments to life, to find some quivering historical reality from the strip malls, amnesia, and occasional historic pastiche that now pave them over.

Sullivan seeks to uncover, for instance, something about the actual crossing of the Delaware behind and beyond its multiple (and sometimes corny) reenactments. But at times Sullivan plays a reenactor himself, as when, following a route between the battles of Trenton and Princeton, he wanders New Jersey in the dead of winter with only a backpack. As well as moving through Revolutionary chronology, Sullivan also traverses the seasons. He takes pleasure in wondering if the ice and snow on the Delaware are as thick as in Washington's time. He delights in the fact that porpoises and bluefish that show up for him in the harbors of today, just as they did for Washington then.

This all makes for a charmingly kooky, if occasionally over-elaborate exploration. At times it is all as slow going as marching across a frozen colony in bad shoes. Sullivan feels a need to dramatize the palimpsest, perhaps too much. Reminding us of the multiple, fragmentary, sedimentary nature of histories, Sullivan punctuates his actual story with digressive marginalia stacked in very long, very small footnotes. At its best this feels artful. The notes — meant to enact to possible readings of parallel histories — also recalled modes of one of the other epic chroniclers of New Jersey, William Carlos Williams.

But at times the accreted weight of Sullivan's notes and routes grew fatiguing. Meanwhile, something about the book eluded me throughout: I only partly grasped the nature of the obsession animating Sullivan, why he — and his reader — should have to keep following George Washington around contemporary New York.

It is hard to bring history to life, to see beyond what's paved over, to crack through pastiche. What emerges from such effort can seem only dreamlike — and Sullivan is clearly enamored of the dream. At one point he quotes the early-twentieth-century mapmaker and collector I. N. Stokes, who seems to have given him the method for his own divagations, and who provides here a little meditation on what it means to dream this way, to envision the past floating over the present:

I usually start from some point in a modern city, and on my way?. I am tempted to try a short cut. I wander over hills and valleys and often through virgin forests, and sometimes come out on the shore of the Hudson?. (I) take great pleasure in searching for landmarks which I know exist — or at least existed at the time pictured in my dream.
For Stokes, like Sullivan, the dreaming is both the process and the reward.

Tess Taylor is the author of The Misremembered World, a collection of poems. Her nonfiction and poetry have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times,andThe New Yorker.

Reviewer: Tess Taylor

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374217457
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 9/4/2012
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 1,039,642
  • Product dimensions: 9.10 (w) x 6.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Sullivan

Robert Sullivan is the author of Rats, The Meadowlands, A Whale Hunt, and most recently, The Thoreau You Don't Know. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, New York, A Public Space and Vogue, where he is a contributing editor. He was born in Manhattan and now lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Read an Excerpt

 

 

WHAT IF RIVERS COULD TALK? What if ancient creeks, crossed hundreds of years ago by tired feet, could bubble up in verse? What would make the skies speak again of battles that had happened as they watched, centuries ago? And do the hills around us remember all that they have seen? Whenever I ponder these questions, or questions like them, or whenever I just want to get out of my apartment for a while and poke around, I buy a ticket to the top of the Empire State Building—especially in the spring, when the city is just turning green. On a bright, clear day, when the sun shines on the still-green hills of Brooklyn, on the plains of Queens, and on the saltwater marshes of the Bronx and Staten Island and beyond, I ride to the top of the Empire State Building and, invariably, find myself looking out across the blaring, ship-dotted panorama that is New York Harbor to see the American Revolution.

I see it across wide rivers and small streams glistening in the warm-weather sun that shines on New York, New Jersey, and the coves of Long Island Sound that eventually become Connecticut. I see it beyond Dutch-named kills, and even past old paved-over creeks in the middle of Manhattan, vertiginously sited below me, though still in many ways a hill-carved island. I see it up toward the Bronx, in the gentle public housing–dotted hills, where both the British and the Americans would have waded across the creek called Mosholu, a word translated variously as “smooth stones or gravel” and “clear water” from the language of the Lenni-Lenape tribes native to the city. The Mosholu was known to troops on both sides of the eighteenth-century nation-establishing battle as Tibbetts Brook. Tibbetts Brook is still there today, less flowing than dumping into the Harlem River, and the stream that will not go away may spend a portion of its course from north to south inside a sewer built with a high-arched brick ceiling, an underground architectural feature that quietly quotes the classical world.

I have sometimes thought, in fact, that from the top of the Empire State Building the harbor is like the shield of Achilles, displaying the ocean-bound strait called the Narrows, off Staten Island, where, in 1776, the British sailed in with forty thousand troops, a forest of masts deckling the edge of Staten Island. Indeed, from the observation platform, the harbor is like a great poem or painting, extolling the East River, which Washington used to escape after being routed by the British out near the big old Brooklyn cemetery visible to the southeast. The harbor sings the story of the shore—near hills in the Bronx and Westchester, where, in subsequent clashes with the British, the Americans did not lose. The harbor sings, too, the story of the Hudson River near the George Washington Bridge, where the Americans did. For a few quarters, the coin-operated, high-powered binoculars sing the race of the newborn American army as it fled through New Jersey, across the marshes that today are demarked by an incinerator’s towers, by power plants, by disused factories and big-box stores and the slow, sparkling pulse of the New Jersey Turnpike.

In this wide prospect, the vista is a great palimpsest of the Revolution, a painted-over canvas of ancient routes walked smooth or transformed into traffic-jammed highways, of colonial villages grown like weeds into great cities, such as Newark, Elizabeth, and New York. If I could zoom in on the backstreets of the old towns on the banks of the Passaic and Hackensack Rivers, I’d see the road markers, on utility poles and street signs, still demarking that 1776 escape: “The Retreat to Victory.” And there is no need for a spyglass or zoom lens to see the New Jersey hills where the Continental troops held dances early one spring, and where, in 1777 and then again in 1779–1780, during the coldest winters known to New York and colonial Americans alike, men built huts and fires and waited out a deathly freeze. It was to these hills that these long-gone troops marched, starting from the Delaware River, which Washington had most famously crossed. As for the crossing itself, it happened at the outer edge of the circle one can see on a clear day from the Empire State Building, a day’s march past a rise that I need binoculars to just make out from the observation deck.* I know this hill from my own attempts to attack the Revolutionary landscape, as well as from ancient maps, where it is denoted as Remarkable Hill.

*   *   *

Because this is where it happened: the Revolutionary War, the newborn American military’s struggle for independence, the nation’s birth. Let Longfellow go on about Paul Revere’s ride to Boston and thereabouts; let Emerson memorialize the shots that rang out at Lexington and Concord. It is within the view of the Empire State Building that the Revolutionary War was fought, and where the first president sat in a chair beneath a ceiling decorated with the moon and the stars and the sun.

Go ahead and take a look at a map of America. Find those first thirteen colonies, the original ones that declared their independence from the British crown on July 4, 1776, the colonies with names you memorized when you were a kid. Remember that Vermont was not yet a state, that Maine was still part of Massachusetts. Recall that there was a line down the left side of the about-to-be-a-nation that more or less followed the peaks of the Appalachian Mountains—an old mountain chain, incidentally, that once would have been among the tallest in long-ago geologic time, before being worn down by that winner of all wars: time. Certainly battles were fought in Canada; and we well know that the British finally surrendered on a peninsula of land in the area of Yorktown, Virginia, at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay.

But look closer to see where George Washington and his army spent their time, where exactly the majority of battles were lost and, less often, won. The action in the Revolution, it turns out, was centered in the area of Connecticut, New York, and Philadelphia, in a patch of territory that, as one contemporary historian has noted, takes about twenty minutes to fly over in a commercial jet—enough time for, say, pretzels and a Diet Coke. The resulting demarcation, if you draw it as a rectangle, blow it up, put it on TV, and stand a meteorologist before it, looks a lot like a local weather map, specifically those you see on news programs in and around New York. Indeed, if the landscape of the Revolution were a forecast, the weatherman would direct the viewer at home to the points of the compass and say: We’ve got the Hudson River valley dropping down from the north, and Connecticut and the Long Island Sound dipping in from the northeast, with a big blast of New Jersey, coming in like a storm from Chicago!

*   *   *

The land on this weather map is the very first Middle America. The Middle America we think of as middle today is not New York and not L.A. and sits at the center of the nation. Likewise, the Middle America that was middle in 1776 was not Williamsburg, Virginia, and not Boston, Massachusetts; it was a place in between. It was also middle in a number of other ways: a mix of cultural affiliations, of income levels, of jobs. There were speculators and fishermen in the cities, and farmers out in the New Jersey countryside, all fighting one another before the war with Britain even began—fighting with absentee landlords in England and Manhattan, fighting for rights having to do with religion and money. As opposed to New England, which was squeezed for arable land and in economic decline (farmers packing up, markets moving elsewhere); as opposed to Virginia, which was mostly in debt, the Middle Colonies were the land of economic opportunity—Pennsylvania was called “the best poor man’s country in the world”—and the Middle Colonies’ newly arrived immigrants crafted a definition of liberty that was characterized mostly by its expansiveness, by its disparate indefinability.

Boston has its Liberty Trail, and Virginia has Mount Vernon, where George Washington farmed and fished, ran a mill, and manufactured various kinds of alcohol. But the British were fought—and, to a large extent, avoided—in the Middle Colonies. Dozens of battles, all of them less well known than the Battle of Bunker Hill, took place in the area of New York; Connecticut and New Jersey were home to hundreds of skirmishes. And New York City itself was the place where Washington officially began the Revolution, as well as the place where it ended, on Evacuation Day, a day celebrated for a century and a half with parades and flags throughout New York City, though no longer. And then, when the war was over and a new government formed and a president inaugurated, that first president took up residence in a house on a plot of land that is today unmarked and frequented by skateboarders. If the Revolution itself were still being described on that local TV newscast, we’d have British troops coming in from Sandy Hook at the mouth of New York Harbor and moving up past Staten Island, with colonial regiments blowing down from New England, via the Hudson River valley and the Connecticut coast. For five years, we’d see the skirmishes between New Jersey loyalists and various New Jersey rebel militias, battles that, if they were denoted by a TV news icon, might be indicated by a persistent dark cloud.

And yet, this Revolutionary landscape is today not so much neglected as forgotten, or rushed by, its founding details mostly lost to constant inspection, trammeled by the machinations of business and real estate. Massachusetts lauds its Minutemen as patriots; in comparison, New Jersey and New York seem insecure, or less certain, despite some encouragement over the years. “I cannot but remember the place that New Jersey holds in our early history,” Abraham Lincoln once said. He recalled being enthralled, as a child, by the story of the Revolution in New Jersey, which, by the time he reached adulthood, was a less-told tale. “In the early Revolutionary struggle, few of the States among the old Thirteen had more of the battle-fields of the country within their limits than old New-Jersey,” Lincoln said.

If Washington is the Father of Our Country, in other words, then this is the country he was first father of—this is the country that he begat, the forgotten first land.

FATHER

Father of Our Country was, after all, more like a job than people today, I think, tend to realize. It was an actual position, in many ways, from which, in a matter of months or even weeks, one guy was fired, another hired, a George for a George, “George” being a name derived from the Greek, meaning “earth worker,” or “farmer.” King George III was the one fired, obviously, and George Washington was the next in line, a shooting star that showed up on cue. Father of Our Country turns out to be a thing about Washington that America did not fabricate later on, as opposed to the story about him cutting down a cherry tree and not lying about it, or the notion of his teeth being wooden, when they were not wooden, in point of fact, but made of gold and ivory and lead, as well as being made of teeth taken from horses, donkeys, and his slaves.

The father position was associated with the writings of a British political philosopher, Henry St. John (pronounced sinjin), better known as Viscount Bolingbroke. Bolingbroke was himself the opposite of what we as Americans have come to think of George Washington as being. Whereas Washington was reluctant to write and speak, trained in the arts of surveying, farming, and animal husbandry, always finding a smart young officer for secretarial purposes, Bolingbroke was urbane and literary, at the center of a circle that included Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. It is written that Oliver Goldsmith once saw Bolingbroke run naked through a park drunk, and the Encyclopaedia Britannica remembers him as “a poor manager of men who tended to lose his nerve in a crisis.”

Bolingbroke saw the British government as a broken and corrupt machine, its power newly vested, under the leadership of his rival, Sir Robert Walpole, in the financial contrivances of the city, in the machinery of debt and credit. Power, he believed, ought to be vested in the landed gentry, whose (to him) benevolent ruling power was derived from their long-lived-on land. His treatise, entitled The Idea of a Patriot King, defined that king as the unique individual who could rise above personal ambition, and whose character, motivated by selflessness and public spirit, would transform society with a disinterested patriotism. Though not well read in England, Bolingbroke was esteemed in the colonies, by John Adams in Boston, and by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington in Virginia.

It’s a long story, of course, and let us not forget that many versions of the Washington story exist. Suffice it to say, though, that when George III took the throne, the American colonists first crossed their fingers for a patriot king, and then, when the English George failed them, they looked to a military hero on the horizon, a George who had been brought up in the tradition of disinterested patriotism, who had spent years enthusiastically practicing the called-for public reluctance. It is astounding to a reader today to see how suddenly the transition occurred, to see the term “country” used in Virginia in the 1760s referring specifically to Virginia, transformed into another “country”—“the Cause of our Common Country.” And very soon, we hear Washington himself speak of “the great American body.”

Oh, how the colonies wanted the king to be their king. Oh, how the place that was about to become America blamed Parliament for their troubles, Washington himself referring to the invading British armed forces as “the ministerial troops.” This is after the Boston skirmishing, just before the war officially commences in New York. At last, though, in January 1776, the king, speaking in Parliament, accused the Americans of revolting “for the purpose of establishing an independent empire.” The colonies were mortified; the colonists disowned King George immediately, renouncing him in newspapers as “an unnatural father.”

“Your name darkens the moral sky and stinks in the nostrils of the world,” said a writer referring to himself as “Soldier” in a broadside. The king was called a monster in human form, likened to Cain.

As I say, it is a long story, and you might read any number of historical accounts of the breakup of the king and his American colonies, the point being that the replacement father began in his post not after the war or after the Constitution or after the first White House or after an obelisk was chosen to represent him in the place that, as it ended up, he himself chose to call Washington, D.C., on account of his plans for the country and his own personal real estate development goals. The replacement father began his fatherhood almost immediately. He took his new position right here, in the middle of the Middle Colonies, within view of an Empire State Building that was not yet built.*

In New Jersey, at the start of long, never-certain war, a Hessian commander was startled to hear a New Jersey couple sing: “God save great Washington! God damn the King!” Even before the first major battle of the Revolution, a town in Massachusetts incorporated and took the name Washington, becoming the first geographical place named in his honor. A few weeks later, in what is today known as the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, Mount Washington was named in honor of the new father; soon afterward, the name Washington showed up as the name of a district in North Carolina, a town and a mountain in New Hampshire, counties in Maryland and Virginia. It is thought that the first time the appellation was applied formally—the first time Washington was referred to in print as the “Father of Our Country”—was in the 1779 edition of the Lancaster Almanack, which, like most colonial almanacs, concentrated mostly on cycles of the moon and growing seasons, less on politics and philosophy. If political at all, almanacs were more likely to deflate kings, to attack pomposity. Here is an example:

Fly not too high my Genius, know thy Wings

Weak-feather’d are, to soar to th’highest things;

Undress’d and Unadorn’d is the Quill;

To please the Critik, deficient is thy skill.

Let not thy fancy aim at things sublime,

High flights do often times become a crime.

The journals of soldiers and officers read to me like accidental eclogues, pastoral dialogues written in the moments between contemplating battlefields and death. Here is an excerpt from the journal of an officer, set on the bank of the Passaic River, in the city we now call Paterson, where he sat with George Washington, ate lunch, filled his canteen at a spring beside an old oak tree, “composed some excellent grog,” and described the falls:

The Pasaic appears to be about 30 or 40 yards broad—but the water does not cover at the falls near this extent. There a smooth and gentle sheet tumbles down into a deep aperture or cleft of the rock, which crosses the channel, while, at the same time, several lesser portions seem to steal thro’ different openings, rudely encountering each other in their descent, till they arrive at the bottom where they all mix together. This conflict and the dashing of the water against the asperities and contrasted sides of the rock produces a fine spray that issuing from the cleft appears at a distance like a thin body of smoke. Near the bottom of the falls it exhibits a beautiful rainbow in miniature. Here the water composes itself as in a large basin of solid stone and then spreads into a pretty broad channel, continuing its course uninterrupted to New-York bay.

I went out to the Passaic Falls recently, on the edge of Paterson, New Jersey, a beat-up city. It was on a day when the river was high, when the falls were raging, and the smoke that General McHenry described was thick. I brought a friend from Boston who couldn’t believe how secret and beautiful it seemed.*

A PLAN OF ATTACK

Like my father before me, I was born in this country, and even now continue to bang around in the vast but forgotten battlefield, a no-longer-so-hallowed ground. I walk and work and ride buses and bikes and subways and occasionally flag down a cab in the very precincts that Washington and his mapmakers surveyed and marked, fortified and ditched and armed with cannons and pikes—the place he studied all through the war with maps, on foot, and with a spyglass, hoping, first, to defend the city (a lost cause, he decided fairly early on, due largely to the city being an indefensible archipelago); and, second, to recapture it, which he never really did. Of course, for the better part of my life, I thought haphazardly about the land over which Washington would have strategized endlessly; I walked like a mindless incumbent in the streets of the First Inauguration, an unwitting spectator to the giant natural coliseum in which the American rebels fought their war, in which they instigated a new nation. But during my time here, I have slowly come to see the past in the place, to attack it more strategically, as far as history goes.

A couple of years ago, I began to work like a scout, going out on reconnaissance missions into a landscape that might not appear ancient, camouflaged as it is by cities and strip malls, by toxic waste sites and high-end commercial properties. Sometimes I went alone, sometimes recruiting family or friends, sometimes escorted by the like-minded—for example, a guy I know who is hoping his elementary school–aged sons might grow up with a sense of the history around them that seems secret. (The day I met this guy, in an office overlooking New York Harbor, he asked me, out of the blue, “Can you imagine what it looked like in 1776, when the British fleet sailed in?”) Like American military strategists during the Revolutionary War, I considered the tactics of the French cartographers, who were highly trained, mapping battles after they were won or lost, entrusted with secrets of great importance, and (most reassuring from my own vantage point) often mapping as they went along.

I might take a subway up to Washington Heights and simply look down a hill that the Americans defended from a British approach. I might ride a ferry with stockbrokers headed from Wall Street to the suburbs of New Jersey, in order to imagine the course of a whaleboat as it raided a Tory stronghold along the Upper New York Bay. Once, I walked the three-day route of the army, screwing up my back in an epic fashion. Another day, at the site of the Battle of White Plains, on the anniversary of the battle’s commencement, I stood in an empty playground in a hilltop residential neighborhood and spotted another man, dark glasses, avoiding eye contact, seeming a little tense. “Battle of White Plains?” I asked him.

“Yeah,” he said, relaxing. It felt as if he were making a confession. “I just read about it in a book.”

*   *   *

Eventually, I formulated a plan of attack on the view from the Empire State Building—a way into the Revolutionary past. This would not be a cut-and-dried chronological assault on the war. After all, the past in the landscape does not come to us on a schedule or in a straight line, but in something more like a circle, or as a rush of water with eddies and pools. It was often that I was reminded of the line by the New England seer: “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in.” In my case, while fishing for the Revolution, I have tended to pull out the history of New York, stories of New Jersey, and in my creel I see big fish representing the history of New York Harbor, as well as small fish that remind me of the story of myself.

As I look back now, I see stages to my years of walks and ponderings and small site-inspired epiphanies, as well as to my more martial and complicated actions in small groups, and I would summarize them as being part of three campaigns. In the first, I ventured out of New York to the edge of the panoramic view, to find a place through which to break back into the city and its layers of history. I chose the Delaware at the point where the Americans famously crossed back, as well as a place to which they continue to return. As historians (and the history programs that run over and over again on television channels) have instructed us, this is, if not the Revolutionary War’s crucial turning point, then a turning point crucial to the construction of America as an idea. In the actual chronology of the war, the Delaware Crossing occurs long after the Boston Massacre and seven years from the Treaty of Paris that formally ended the war. In the chronology of modern America, it occurs every year as one of the oldest reenactments, dating to 1876. It is a place that writers and artists alike have chosen to dwell upon—though perhaps especially artists, who seem most compelled to revisit the Delaware Crossing, often as the clock ticks through centennials and bicentennials, when history is emphatically reconsidered.*

The second front in my first campaign involved mountains, which, like rivers, can serve as a kind of threshold, in a war as well as in life. Thus, after crossing the Delaware, I followed the troops on into their winter refuge, the little-noted Watchung Mountains, which were America’s Revolutionary War capital. That there are any mountains in and around New York City is, like the presence of battlefields and the unrecovered bodies of Washington’s soldiers, a surprise to New Yorkers and all who claim to know New York. Eventually, the Watchungs would become as important to my authorial strategy as they were to Washington’s winning (or, more precisely, his not-losing) of the war.

And when I crossed the Watchungs, I descended back into the city, where I began my next major campaign, which was, like the war itself, dependent on the seasons, the wind and weather, the snow and the sky. For this is how I have come to see the Revolution, as well as the inauguration of the new nation—in terms of the calendar, the times and dates of the Revolution mixed up in the relentless stream of seasons, like an almanac. Summer fog in the harbor reminds me of the American forces making their way across the currents of the East River in August, a historic retreat. The chill of fall reminds me of the war’s end, when Washington, in anticipation of British ships sailing north, and of the British troops’ evacuation, marched slowly down the Hudson Valley, at last returned to New York City, an earthquake marking his first night back. And in the winter, when the wind blows down the river, and salt is thrown on our sidewalks and slush spreads across the city streets, I watch the puddles freeze and icicles fall, and recall the time, in 1780, when the island city became landlocked, frostbitten forces from both sides skirmishing on frozen waterways, guns on sleighs in snow. In the end, the city is a kaleidoscope of times present and times past, a kaleidoscope turned by the winds and the tides.

In my final campaign—perhaps the longest to coordinate, though ultimately less time-consuming to execute and recount—I returned to the mountains, to stake out a point, a moment in time. Perhaps I have spent too much time considering poets and historians, but I think of art as an on-again, off-again partner with the Revolutionary War; statues and markers, paintings, and even poems change the war’s story slowly, like winds or streams, various artistic depictions defining various Americas. To me, historical markers function like the great landscape paintings, invoking faded actions like colors from a palette, to inspire a reconsidered vision of the land at hand. After a while, I decided to create a marker of my own, as I shall describe. It was invisible, in a sense, as well as cumulative, weaving together the Revolution’s wide-ranging and quiet reverberations. Not to give it away, but I signaled.

A CHALLENGE

Sometimes, on my excursions, I was in the rank and file, another person under command—as when, a few years ago, I got a call from a friend, a naturalist named Mike, who wanted to take me to a small hill, a drumlin. “There’s a place you have to see,” he said.

On a spring morning, we headed up to the Bronx, to Pelham Bay Park, situated at the mouth of the Hutchinson River. To get there we drove up along the East River, eventually crossing the Harlem and Bronx Rivers, then on to Pelham Bay. We parked at Glover’s Rock, a big rock with a plaque dated 1960 that stakes out the site as the place where General John Glover, from Massachusetts, held back the British, as the plaque says, “long enough to save Washington’s troops from destruction.” The plaque is, according to local historians, probably wrong about the specific site, but the general idea (rebels held back British troops) is considered accurate.

We hiked farther into the park, Mike stopping suddenly at one point along the side of the road to pick up a small bird, a yellow warbler, just dead, likely hit by a car. He gently touched its chest, indenting the yellow down, then carefully placed it back in the grass.

At Split Rock Golf Course, we crossed a parking lot. As golf carts battled parking cars, we walked up onto a hole, to stand before an old oak—at least two hundred years old, as far as anyone can tell. Its canopy was sixty feet wide, its remaining limbs long and tired. At this moment, the golf-course worker running the concession stand spotted two non-golfers with backpacks and hiking boots, and opened fire. “Hey, hey, you can’t walk here!” he shouted.

Mike talked to the guy and the guy stood down, though Mike did not mention our interest of the history of the place, nor did he mention the Revolution.

“Hey,” the concession-stand guy offered, “did you know you are standing on the site of the Battle of Pelham Bay?” A couple of golfers were waiting back at the concession stand, but the guy was on a roll. “And this tree,” he continued, as if letting us in on a special offer, “was there back then.”

Mike and I walked into the woods on the trail that on colonial maps was marked Split Rock Road. We inspected a salt marsh that had managed to survive improvements and degradations, a little hidden fortress of diverse estuarine ecology; except for the view of Co-op City behind it, the place would likely have been recognizable to eighteenth-century visitors. The ecology of the walk showed off New York’s middleness: the flora and fauna of the park itself, in the most northern portion of New York City, is more New England than places on the southern tip of Staten Island, where plant species are related to those in South Jersey and the Maryland shore.

We reentered the golf course near the fourth hole, where a party was about to tee off. We waited, the ball at last rising up out of the long trench made by a long parallel hill. We crawled up the hill between several fairways, and I became concerned about the approaching golfers, who, I feared, did not see us. Sure enough, a ball was lofted toward us, though it fell safely to our west, near the rough, which looked treacherous from a golf perspective. On top of the hill, we touched an old stone wall. From General Glover’s report: “We kept our post under cover of the stone wall before mentioned till they came within fifty yards of us, rose up and gave them the whole charge of the battalion.”

“This is the place,” Mike said.

From the course description: “A shot-maker’s course, it is a challenge that forces you to use every club in your bag.”

FAMOUS

On many occasions—as I continued my forays into the view from the Empire State Building and the landscape of the Revolution—I was on my own, making brief journeys, not wearing any costume but setting out in a way that was, believe it or not, transformational, if only for me. I surveyed the waters of New York Harbor, seeing signs that George Washington himself saw, and I watched for groups and individuals who seemed somehow revolutionary. I sat down, too, with the notes of the founding fathers of New York City history—the first historians, who have themselves become footnotes in a semi-neglected history.

One summer day, I was in a wistful mood, having driven to Pennsylvania for the funeral of an uncle, my father’s brother. He was a veteran, like my father, and as I helped my father out of the car, a phrase was ringing in my head: old generals. My uncle lived not far from where Washington and the American army had crossed the Delaware. A few months after the funeral, I decided to visit my parents and see the winter encampment of Washington’s troops, out in Morristown, New Jersey, where they were living at the time. I went to Penn Station, passing, on my way, the corner where my father and his brother once ran a liquor store, and took a train out through the industrial swamps of Jersey—bright-white herons playing in gray waters impounded by railroad tracks. Past receding garbage dumps, the Passaic River, running dark through Newark, was traveling from its source in the hills near Morristown, having cascaded through Paterson’s Great Falls.

It was at a time when Morristown was in the news, though not for the Revolution. The mayor had proposed deputizing police as immigration officers, the better to deport illegal aliens, many of whom lived in crowded basements. “They don’t have anything to fear,” the mayor was quoted as saying. “Unless they have something to fear.”

In the Morristown train station’s waiting area, a poem by schoolchildren was written in Spanish and English, printed on posterboard—“Famoso A Tu Manera,” or “Famous in Your Way”:

Famoso quiero ser de manera que recordado sea, por quien yo soy y por lo que hago.…

Famoso quiero por ayudar a la gente que necesita mas ayuda de la que necesito.…

Famoso soy como un lapiz para su artista.…

The translation, hanging alongside:

I want to be famous in the way that I will be remembered for who I am and what I do.…

I want to be famous by helping people that need more help than I need.…

I am famous as a pencil is to its artist.…

Outside the station, day laborers were sitting on the curb, as shiny cars sat patiently in the commuter parking lot, their drivers off for daytime forays into New York City. I walked across the Morristown Green, and, before preternaturally lifelike statues of Hamilton and Lafayette giving Washington the news about French participation in the Revolution, statues constructed very recently, I stood for a moment, a third man.

*   *   *

I started up a long hill that I had never really thought about before, though as a kid I had tested for my driver’s license in an old armory at the top. I passed an office building that I had painted one summer as a high school student, the paint peeling badly now. I proceeded up to Fort Nonsense, during which time I gained my very first strategic insight into the hills that Washington had relied on during the war, the Watchung Mountains—i.e., the hill was a slog. In about half a mile, I met two women walking. They were speaking Spanish, pushing strollers with infants in them, and accompanied by an elementary school–aged girl. Eventually, they turned up a driveway into a garage sale. I followed; I like garage sales. This one was unusual—an odd mix of typical garage-sale odds and ends along with unopened boxes of contact lens cleaner, hair conditioner, office supplies in bulk, and feminine-care products. It was a yard sale–cum–discount drugstore closeout sale.

I bought an old book on George Washington, a volume of the American Heritage Book of the Presidents and Famous Americans series, as well as a relatively recent paperback entitled Everything You Need to Know About Latino History, which included an entry on Bernardo de Gálvez, the Spanish governor of Louisiana who sold munitions to the American rebels during the Revolutionary War and gave them permission to travel through Spanish Louisiana, as well as permission to use the port at New Orleans, all crucial to the rebel effort: “Many of Gálvez’s men were actually Mexican criollos, and most of the money to help the early American revolutionaries came from Mexico.”

The Morristown resident managing the sale was in her forties and was chatting idly with an older woman. In halting English, the two women with strollers inquired about children’s clothes. The woman running the sale smiled and brought out two black plastic garbage bags from behind the display tables. As the women with strollers sorted through the garbage bags, the older woman began talking to the elementary school–aged child. She was speaking very loudly, saying over and over, “Is that your brother?”

“Yes,” the little girl said, politely.

“Hello! Hello!” the woman said to the baby. She woke the baby. “Oh, you’re a big one,” the woman said. The baby was crying now, screaming, startled by the woman who was now leaning down in his face. “You’re a big one, all right. Are you going to play football when you grow up?” The woman looked back at the child’s mother, as she continued to shout at the crying child. “You’re going to play football, right? Not soccer?”

The women with the strollers smiled again, a little anxiously, I thought.

“Football!” the older woman repeated. The mother moved to comfort the crying baby.

REHABILITATE

The walls of the hill spouted little fresh-looking streams as I climbed for about an hour up the road toward the Continental Army’s encampment at Morristown. At last I found a vantage point, and tried to figure out if I could look back to New York City from Morristown—I could not. I was just beginning to understand where Morristown was in the Revolutionary landscape; for my entire life, the meaning of these hills had eluded me, though I thought I recalled hearing something about signals from somebody. George Washington chose Morristown as his winter headquarters not just once, but twice; to scholars, Morristown is known as the Revolutionary Capital of America, though not really to anyone else. “It is not clear—and probably never will be—exactly why Washington chose to spend the winter at Morristown,” a historian wrote not too long ago.

On the other hand, after you set out to hike, and even camp, around New York and New Jersey with the Revolution in mind, and look back toward the Empire State Building, you gain some insight into the Founding Country, at the very least.

On the way down the hill, I came back into Morristown via another old road, past a site that I would eventually come to understand was where the first batch of Revolutionary War wounded were treated, an early hospital. Across from the site, coincidentally, was the building where my father was staying while undergoing some rehabilitation of his own. He was having trouble walking, and when I arrived he was exercising his leg.

Time is at its most visceral when you visit your father in a hospital setting. As the son, you feel young and old simultaneously. I cannot say I know yet how you feel as the father when your son visits you, but I do know that my own father appeared irritated with me when I walked in, for what reason I can only speculate. When I told him that I had just walked from Washington’s 1776 winter headquarters in Morristown out to the hilltop site where the troops spent that winter—a couple of miles—he perked up. “Washington was apparently a ladies’ man,” my father said.

“Martha stayed with him in Morristown—I know that,” I said. I was referring to the fact that Mrs. Washington spent the duration of the Continental Army’s winters in Morristown, living with her husband.

“You know,” my father then said, pausing in his exercise, “there was something about George Washington and these hills.” My father thought for a second. “He used them to signal to New York City,” he said. “So if the British were coming he’d know. Something about fires and the hills”—he paused to lift his leg—“and he had lookouts, I think.”

My father got better and eventually returned home, but I kept thinking about those hills, especially after I spent some time at the place where Washington once rehabilitated himself and his army, the spot, a few days’ march to the south, where he crossed the Delaware.

 

Copyright © 2012 by Robert Sullivan

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Table of Contents

Part 1 The Panorama of the Revolution 1

Part 2 Across the River and Over the Mountains 23

Part 3 The Seasons of the Revolution 95

Part 4 A Signal 229

Notes on Sources 245

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