Polk's Folly: An American Family History

Overview

Polk's Folly is William Polk's captivating investigation of his impressive family tree and of the broader American tale it narrates.

Growing up in Texas in the late 1930s, listening to his grandmother's memories of her childhood amidst the Civil War, Polk became fascinated by tales of his family's engagement in monumental moments of our nation's history. Beginning when Robert Pollok fled Ireland in the 1680s, Polk's saga includes an Indian trader, an early drafter of the ...

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Overview

Polk's Folly is William Polk's captivating investigation of his impressive family tree and of the broader American tale it narrates.

Growing up in Texas in the late 1930s, listening to his grandmother's memories of her childhood amidst the Civil War, Polk became fascinated by tales of his family's engagement in monumental moments of our nation's history. Beginning when Robert Pollok fled Ireland in the 1680s, Polk's saga includes an Indian trader, an early drafter of the Declaration of Independence, one of our greatest presidents, heroes and rascals on both sides of the Civil War, Indian fighters, a World War I diplomat, and Polk's own brother, a journalist who reported on the Nuremberg Trials. Full of stunning detail and based on primary historical documents, Polk's Folly is a grand American chronicle that allows history to include the lives that made it happen.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A spirited, broad-scale saga of an American family we ought to remember.”–The New York Times Book Review

“This lovingly constructed history...evokes...the dynamism of the American past.”–The New Yorker

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385491518
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/17/2001
  • Edition description: 1 ANCHOR
  • Pages: 576
  • Sales rank: 989,591
  • Product dimensions: 5.17 (w) x 7.98 (h) x 1.35 (d)

Meet the Author

William R. Polk taught at Harvard and was later Professor of History at the University of Chicago, and he is the founder of the Adlai Stevenson Institute. In the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, he was a member of the Policy Planning Council of the State Department. He is the author of eleven books, including Passing Brave and Neighbors and Strangers, a seminal text on foreign affairs. A native of Texas, he now lives in the South of France.

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Read an Excerpt

Departure: "All the Tryles, Hardships,and Dangers of the Seas"
Brought over from the wild Scottish borderlands to fight in Ireland, Robert Bruce Pollok knew the exhausting and bloody war of the guerrilla all too well. For him, combat became almost a diversion; it was marching that wore men out. Across the mountains and through the bogs that shredded seventeenth-century Ireland, trails were just beaten furrows that stopped abruptly at the many streams and gullies, forcing armies also to stop abruptly because bridges were then more rare than roads. To carry the wounded even a few miles on bullock carts was a wrenching experience which few survived. And to carry food to the soldiers across the rugged land was a tedious and expensive undertaking. As Robert had seen, the only way Cromwell could get food to his troops was off of boats or barges. Indeed, Ireland's first line of defense was its very poverty: no army could live off the land for long, and no army could feed itself at all if it moved far inland. But inland was where the Irish guerrillas were resisting English colonization; so inland the soldiers had to go.

Like most soldiers, Robert probably feared and distrusted the sea. True, he had sailed over from Scotland, but on a clear day Scotland was within eyesight of the northeastern Irish coast; so Robert had never been really out at sea. At least not in a sea like the one he would have heard about from sailors in the port of Derry or seen crashing remorselessly against the desolate cliffs of Dunluce Castle on Ireland's northern coast.
That coast he certainly knew firsthand in fights against the savage bands of robbers, pirates and even ordinary farmers who built bonfires to lure ships onto the rocks so they could prey on the stricken passengers. They were immortalized in the very names of their haunts—Tory ("outlaw") Sound, Bloody Foreland, Horn Head. No matter how strong the ship or how well armed the crew, once the sea and the shoals had done their work, no defense could be mounted against the raiders. Even the soldiers of the powerful Spanish Armada a century before had been stripped, robbed and often murdered; smaller merchant ships didn't have a chance. The fact that many of these robbers were fellow Scots gave Robert no comfort. He had often had to fight against Scots, and the pirates and outlaws on that coast were Highlanders who regarded Lowland Scots like Robert as virtual foreigners. No, there was no comfort in their national brotherhood.

More distant and more luridly painted in the wild tales of sailors were the Barbary pirates who pillaged and kidnapped up and down the Atlantic coast and around Ireland. Wild tales aside, no one could deny the infamous cutthroats who, despite brave talk from government after government, still kidnapped, sacked and burned whole villages. Even the lord deputy, as the English styled the viceroy of Ireland, had been captured by pirates less than fifty years before. Raiders often sailed right up the loughs to attack town walls, although a man who knew how to fight or who took shelter in a strong house could probably protect himself and his family. Ashore, Robert must have felt relatively confident. He was a soldier. But encountering pirates at sea was quite a different matter. Indeed, an encounter with the sea itself was frightening enough.

Chilling tales of shipwreck, starvation and cannibalization were the staple conversation of sailors. Here in Londonderry, such tales were nearly all anyone talked about. Some claimed to have had personal experience. Maybe that was boasting, the way sailors and soldiers will when they measure themselves against one another. But to settle any doubts, a few of the stories had been printed by the famous Oxford geographer Richard Hakluyt.

Although Hakluyt's book Divers Voyages Touching the Discoverie of America had been published some years before, the dire portrait he painted of travel across the Atlantic would present the true dangers for at least a century to come.

Not that Hakluyt had intended to scare men like Robert away from voyages to America; far from it, he even wrote an enthusiastic treatise on agricultural possibilities in the New World. It was because he was engaged in promoting settlement there that he was taken under the patronage of Queen Elizabeth's powerful minister of strategic and intelligence affairs, Sir Francis Walsingham. England was already reaching toward empire, striving to catch up with Spain, and, surprisingly to our ears, was desperately worried about its "surplus" population. Its displaced peasants had begun to create an unruly, hungry and idle urban proletariat, as frightening to the ruling class as Rome's mobs had been to the caesars. Meanwhile, the younger sons of the aristocracy and the new commercial elite were greedy for the spoils of conquest and the riches of plantation; so, not surprisingly, government policy was to colonize the New World and Ireland.

And government policy was popular. Even more than whatever strategic and commercial aims the government espoused, people in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries hungered for knowledge of the world beyond Europe. Some learned men, like John Locke (who was almost exactly Robert's age), avidly studied reports of the explorations. They thought they could find the basis of all human society, and perhaps its philosophical justification, in accounts of the newly discovered primitive nations like the Roanoke Island Indians who, Captain Philip Amadas thought, were living "after the maner of the golden age." For Robert's contemporaries, the new discoveries were even more tantalizing than space exploration in our times. At the other end of their voyages were beings who, however exotic and bizarre their appearance and their actions, were human. How they got together to form communities or how they ruled themselves or were ruled by others was a sort of speculation more likely in the common rooms of Oxford or the drawing rooms of London, of course, than in rustic Ireland. There in Donegal, where Robert then lived, most people just loved a good tale of derring-do. And Hakluyt offered plenty of that. But a few, even in Donegal, thought they saw in the New World opportunity for riches and escape from the multiple tyrannies that afflicted their lives. Catering to each of these desires, and encouraged by government policy, Hakluyt and other paid publicists like the great poet John Donne had produced a stream of highly popular letters, pamphlets and books. Robert might not have read them, but he could not have avoided hearing their message; to him, that message was a mixture of hope and fear.
Whether or not hope was before him, fear was certainly behind him. For his service as an officer in Cromwell's forces, he had become a marked man when the monarchy was restored. With religion setting the parameters of politics, Robert found himself on the wrong side of the divide. The monarchy not only had defaulted on the salaries and compensations of Scots soldiers but now regarded them as enemies. As old scores were being called to account, Robert decided he must leave before disaster struck. Gamble he knew his venture to the New World would be, but in his position gamble was better than certainty.

In this state of mind, I imagine him sitting often on the walls of Londonderry looking down at the little bark moored in the calm, dark waters of the Foyle below, watching carpenters fitting new boards where storms had ripped them from the sides and deck. It would not have been a reassuring sight. And sitting there, he must often have mused over the tortuous path that had led him to this point of no return. It takes an act of imagination to follow him down that path, but from the effort, we can better understand both him and the America he and his family helped to build. So, let us begin where he did, in Scotland. Scotland was the anvil on which was hammered the cultural mold that shaped not only his life but also, in the more distant future, the lives of his descendants and many of the men and women who would form history in faraway America.

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