Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Great Novels of the American Revolution

In general, I prefer reading nonfiction to fiction, but there are times I like to kick back with a good novel, especially great novels on American history! And since the American Revolution is my favorite period of history, here are some novels I have thoroughly enjoyed. I recommend the following novels without reservation...

1. Rise to Rebellion by Jeff Shaara

Jeff Shaara's father, Michael Shaara, is the Pulitzer winning author of the classic The Killer Angels, a Civil War novel set around the Battle of Gettysburg. Like his father, Jeff Shaara takes actual historical events as well as the writings (letters, diaries, etc.) of the key figures -- and builds a novel around them.

Jeff Shaara has written several such novels, including two on the American Revolution. Rise to Rebellion is the first in the two-part series, and the main heroes of the book are John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Highly enjoyable.

2. The Glorious Cause by Jeff Shaara

Shaara completes his two-part saga of the American Revolution with The Glorious Cause. In the first part, the main protagonists were Adams and Franklin. In this second part, Shaara shifts the spotlight to none other than George Washington. An excellent book! Highly recommended.

3. To Try Men's Souls: A Novel of George Washington and the Fight for American Freedom by Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen

Even if you're a diehard liberal, you have to give Newt Gingrich credit for being an interesting figure, a credible historian, and an effective writer. Gingrich takes his love of history and his giftedness as a writer and teams up with bestselling novelist William Forstchen to write this novel set during the tumultuous and critical events of December 1776.

This is actually not the first Gingrich-Forstchen project. They wrote three awesome alternative history novels set around the Battle of Gettysburg. (The Civil War is outside the purview of this particular blog, but if you like "what-if" questions of history, you've GOT to read their Civil War novels! Start with Gettysburg, where the authors postulate a successful and daring end-run around the Army of the Potomac by General James Longstreet, resulting in General Meade's decisive defeat. What IF the South had won at Gettysburg? You've GOT to read it, if you haven't!). Gingrich and Forstchen have also written alternative history novels set around World War II.

To Try Men's Souls is NOT alternative history. In terms of the events portrayed, it's as accurate as they come. And it's a captivating novelization of a true story.

So if you like great novels on American history, then consider the above three. They are definitely well worth your time. You can follow the links to get them at Amazon or (better yet) check them out of your local library.

Happy Reading!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

My Top Five Founding Father Biographies

I love reading biographies. As a fan of the American founding era, I've found the following biographies of Founding Fathers to be particularly excellent. I'm not suggesting that these are the very best biographies written, nor am I saying that they are the most scholarly. But they are a great balance between solid scholarship and excellent readability. They are highly recommended.

1. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by the man himself

There's nothing like reading primary source documents. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin remains an all-time great classic of American literary history.

2. John Adams by David McCullough

This Pulitzer Prize winner is one of the most comprehensive and absorbing biographies I've ever read. McCullough is unfairly looked down upon, because he lacks "proper" historian credentials. More evidence of the academic elitism that sadly permeates much of our culture. McCullough is a consummate researcher and a stickler for detail. His scholarship is solid. And he knows how to tap into the human element and tell a good (and accurate) story. I highly recommend McCullough and all his books, especially John Adams.

3. The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin by H.W. Brands

Benjamin Franklin is one of the fascinating characters in world history, and certainly one of our most interesting Founding Fathers. H.W. Brands paints a vivid portrait of Franklin's life. I had a hard time putting this one down. Definitely worth your time.

4. Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington by Richard Brookhiser

This is, by no means, a comprehensive biography of Washington. For that, check out Joseph Ellis' His Excellency (which I recommend with some qualifications) or James Thomas Flexner or Douglas Southall Freeman. However, Brookhiser does a superb job examining Washington's legacy in American popular memory. Very insightful and very interesting.

5. Alexander Hamilton, A Life by Willard Sterne Randall

I confess that I have not yet read Ron Chernow's very popular biography on Hamilton. If I had, I may recommend it, instead of Randall's. But, of the biographies on Hamilton which I've read, Randall's Alexander Hamilton is the superior one. I was swept up in the story of Hamiton's life. He is truly the rags-to-riches story of the American founding. In many ways, Hamilton epitomizes what it means to be an American more than any other Founding Father. Honorable mention goes to Richard Brookhiser's Alexander Hamilton, American.

Also Recommended...

While not a biography per se, I would also highly recommend Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis. The book does a great job showing how the colorful characters of our founding era interacted to produce not only some of the most interesting dramatic episdoes in our history, but also the most successful nation the world has ever known.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Have You Been to the Disney Hall of Presidents Lately?

Walt Disney World's "Hall of Presidents" is one of the longest-running attractions in the Magic Kingdom. First opened in 1971, the Hall of Presidents is a multi-media attraction that honors all those (so far) men who have served as President of the United States. Since the early 1990s, though, the Hall of Presidents has undergone some significant changes. In the opinion of this blogger, not all those changes have been good.

My family and I just got back from vacationing at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. We of course enjoyed ourselves, though it rained much of our time there. (That was kind of a bummer). Still, does anyone actually have a bad time at Disney World? :-)

Though this was my fifth trip to Disney World, it was the first time I saw the redesigned Hall of Presidents. My first time to Disney World was in the late 1970s. I was a first grader and was absolutely blown away by the whole experience. Then, in the late 1980s, my parents took me back while I was in high school. I was older and able to take it in much more. And I had an absolute blast.

Yet the Hall of Presidents stood out as one of the most inspirational and moving experiences I had ever witnessed. Even as a first grader, I remember enjoying it. As an eleventh grader, though, I absolutely loved it and soaked it up. That and Epcot's "American Adventure." This was at a time, when I saw myself going into politics, so it made it all the more exciting.

My wife and I took our first trip together to Disney World (my third trip overall) sometime in 1993, and I once again soaked up the Hall of Presidents. Then, that same year (sometime after our visit) Disney changed the attraction. It would be the first of several.

In 1993, Columbia University professor Eric Foner helped revise the attraction to make it less iconic. His changes, supported by then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner, moved the Hall of Presidents away from Walt Disney's original vision. The most noticeable change was perhaps the diminished focus on Abraham Lincoln, Disney's hero.

The Hall of Presidents has gone through several more updates and changes since 1993, including a speech from the current President (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and now Barack Obama have all spoken - depending on who was President at the time). George Washington now speaks, which is, in some respects, a welcome change. Yet, all these changes have made the Hall of Presidents less than what it once was.

Let me give you an example. In the classic version, the finale had George Washington seated in the center of all the Presidents. He stood during the roll call, surveyed all the Presidents as if he were the leading statesman. When the narrator had finished the roll call, Washington nodded to a seated Abraham Lincoln and then took his seat (as if he, Washington, were the presiding officer, yielding the floor). Lincoln then stood and gave a very moving and patriotic speech, adapted from his famous Young Men Lyceum's address, in which he said "If destruction be our lot, we ourselves must be its author and finisher." It was a great send-off, reminding Americans of their sacred duty to carry on the torch. That's all gone now.

Sure, Washington speaks. But, frankly, having him speak almost makes him less statesmanlike.

No longer is Lincoln's wise and patriotic statesmanship the final send-off. Instead, we're given a generic, feel-good, rah-rah speech from the current President. That's all well and good, but it just isn't the same. Clinton, Bush, and Obama are not Lincoln.

Since 1993, the changes to the Hall of Presidents have frankly diminished it. Gone is that feeling of "wonder" evoked in the original version. Now, it comes off more or less as a multi-media patchwork, trying to cut a balance between highlights from a history book on the one hand and political correctness on the other. This isn't to suggest that the Hall of Presidents has drifted into Howard Zinn territory. (Thankfully, it's still pro-American). Nor is it to say that it's a bad experience. I still like it, but not as much as I once did.

The new Hall of Presidents is like what New Coke is to the Classic Coke. The new Hall of Presidents simply doesn't reflect Walt Disney's classic, patriotic vision like it once did. And I don't think that's a good thing.

If anyone at Disney is reading this, consider this a vote to bring back the classic version.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Revolutionary War Diorama Ideas

Diorama projects are a lot of fun. Diorama projects can also be tedious and overwhelming, especially for the first timer. My first diorama project was such a project. I had decided on a Civil War diorama focused on the Battle of Gettysburg. I got a B. Well, actually, my dad got a B. :-) He did most of the work!

Perhaps you'd like to try your hand at a diorama set in the American Revolution. If this is for a school project, make sure you read your assignment carefully and check with your teacher on any questions before proceeding. If you're doing this as an adult just for fun, well, then, you don't have to worry about any of that.

**Beginners may want to read How To Build Dioramas**

Whether you're a student with a diorama project or just a history buff who enjoys modeling and making scenery, here are three ideas for your next diorama project:

1) Washington Crossing the Delaware -- You've seen the painting. Why don't you make a diorama of it? You'll need a diorama water kit, a boat, some Continental Army soldiers rowing, and - of course - George Washington! Depending on how detailed or "professional" you want this to be, you may have to work hard to find soldiers in the right pose for this to work.

2) British Artillery - This idea may not be very innovative, but there's a British artillery set available from Amazon. Grab the artillery set and a basic diorama land kit, some paint, and you're ready to go.

3) Continental Artillery - Once again, Amazon has the set ready to go. Just grab it, a land diorama kit, some paint, and you're on your way.

If these ideas don't grab you, grab a pictorial book on the American Revolution to help trigger some more possibilities. You can also Google "Revolutionary War diorama" and even check YouTube for other possible ideas.

**See what one elementary class did with Revolutionary War dioramas - Click Here!**

Whatever you decide, have fun!

Oh...and why don't you post a picture of your project online and then let us know in the comments section where to find the pic. We'd love to see it.

Good Luck!