Sunday, August 12, 2012

The American Revolution (of 1676)

In Tales from a Revolution: Bacon's Rebellion and the Transformation of Colonial Virginia, James Rice unravels a tangled yarn

The following review has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network.    

James Rice explains in the afterword of this book (parts of which might have served better as a preface) that it is "a story, a narrative, a yarn." Once upon a time, making such an assertion about a work of history would have been tautological. But, he notes in an important counterintuitive observation, "such an approach is more controversial than one might imagine, because historians have a complicated relationship with narrative." Indeed, one might say the story of the profession in the last century has been the replacement of narrative with analysis -- of the what with the why. "Narrative is sneaky," he explains from the point of view of skeptics. "Its writers find it all too easy to smuggle into a story ideas and assertions that would not hold up if they were stated explicitly and accompanied by careful analysis of the evidence." Storytellers, in short, are often liars.

But Rice, a professor of history at SUNY Plattsburgh, asserts that the situation is not that simple. Unreliable narrators tell a kind of truth. Imposing structures on a story has the effect of revealing tensions that otherwise may not be apparent. He's right about that. (It's also a pleasure to find Jane Smiley, a novelist with more than a dollop of historical sophistication, in his footnotes.) Historians may like analysis, but readers need -- in a deep, anthropological way -- narratives. "Show, don't tell," has long been an axiom of non-fiction writing, historical and otherwise. But stories don't get shown; they get told. The key is telling them in compelling ways in which an analytic intelligence -- revealed in the choices the writer makes -- animates, without overshadowing, the tale.

So how does James Rice do in telling the story he does here, part of a Oxford University Press series called "New Narratives in American History"? The answer is quite well, even if his compact tale might have been tighter still.

He's got good, if challenging, material to deal with in Bacon's Rebellion, one of the more vivid and confusing episodes in American colonial history.  The great Edmund Morgan, whose presence looms large here, describes it as "a rebellion with abundant causes but without a cause." In the narrowest sense, Bacon's Rebellion was an uprising contained within the year 1676, when the elite transplant Nathaniel Bacon tapped a vein of populist resentment against local Indians -- essentially all Indians -- and demanded that colonial administration, led by long-time governor William Berkeley, deputize him to push them beyond their existing frontiers. Whether because of diplomatic caution or indifference to the plight of poor farmers (traditional accounts favor the latter, Rice leans toward the former) Berkeley angrily rejected the demands of Bacon and his followers, resulting in a brief but intense civil war that included raids against Indians as well as against the capital of Jamestown. Momentum swung wildly over a period of months, resulting in the exile of Berkeley until Bacon's unexpectedly early death, apparently from typhus contracted in the swampy climate led the insurrection to fizzle.

For Rice, however, Bacon's Rebellion was an event with roots and reverberations far beyond 1676.  Bacon's death represents on the first act of what he has structured as a two-act drama. In the second part of the book, he connects the uprising to a much broader set of issues that include struggles between Catholics and Protestants in late Stuart England and the instability of a single-crop tobacco economy in which low prices fed discontent, resulting in a 1682 incident in which protesters destroyed the crops of their neighbors. He also widens the geographic focus of the story to encompass the political landscape of New York and (especially) Maryland.

For Morgan, as for Rice, the the core source of all this unrest is racial. Morgan focused on African Americans in American Slavery, American Freedom; in Tales from a Revolution, however, Rice focuses on the Native Americans, those he describes as "the people with most at stake in the conflict." Though Indians figure in all accounts of the uprising,  Rice gives the Pamunkeys, Susquehannocks, and Piscataways more sustained and sympathetic attention than any recent account of Bacon's Rebellion. Which is a good and helpful thing in a story that manages to be brief and comprehensive.

It doesn't quite feel cohesive, however. There seem to be a lot of balls in the air here, and Rice's two-part segmentation feels a bit unwieldy and even strained, notwithstanding the fact that contemporaries (usually those defending the status quo) invoked Bacon as a cause of other woes years after his death. The treatment of the events that would culminate in the Glorious Revolution seems perfunctory; the move to incorporate other colonies leads one to wonder why the simultaneous King Philip's War in New England receives only passing mention. More than most events in American history, Bacon's Rebellion defies simple narration. One nevertheless finishes this book feeling like it might have worked better as a seamless garment whose implications were suggested rather than covered.

Still, Rice accomplishes a good deal with this provocative piece of storytelling. As a work of colonial history it is notably user-friendly and resonant. And as a work of historiography it poses pressing questions that all students of history should take seriously.