Friday, August 14, 2009

The American War for Independence: Pulp Fiction?

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze

I am reading a book right now called Washington's Crossing by David Hackett Fischer. It occurs to me that The Revolutionary War is a pulp story that even the best writers could not imagine: one that if written as fiction today would have been rejected by publishers as simply trite with too many coincidences to aid the heroes. But it happened; we are a nation today because of unbelievable circumstances combined with determined men and women that stayed the course to make independence happen.
Anyone who knows me knows my passion for this period and those that created this nation. But this is not a blog on history or politics and none of this information is new, Joseph Ellis and many others have written numerous volumes on the Revolution. I was just thinking of what to post it occurred to me that I need to write pulp adventures set in the Revolution. This is actually not a new idea; there are several novelists who have written fantasy and romance in this era. I could compile quite a list.
Let's take the figures that are most prominent: Washington and Franklin.
George Washington: Commander and Chief of the Continental Army, first President of the United States, and pulp action hero. No? Many have called him America's First Action Hero long before me. Think of the man's life, Louis L'amour could have written this character! He was the right man at the right time, with the right experience and skill set to see this war through.
George Washington was a big man, standing at about 6'4", immensely strong, active, and sat a horse as if he were a centaur. As a young man (seventeen years old) he was a surveyor in the wilds Virginia. At twenty-two with the Virginia militia he fought in the Seven Years War, taking in French strength in the Ohio frontier. He took command of troops that had been routed through the inept leadership of General Edward Braddock. He had two horses shot out from under him and afterward found four bullet holes in his uniform coat, but had come through without a scratch!
After his brother's death he inherited wealth and land, securing his position in society with his marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis, adding her wealth and land to his own holdings. He was a brilliant business man, cunning in his political dealings, and had the uncanny ability to lead men. During the war he showed time and again, despite interference from Congress, he knew that the war would be won by wearing down the stronger, larger British army. He knew too that he needed victories, such as Trenton when his forces crossed the Delaware on that fateful Christmas.
Like true pulp fiction, a convergence of events aided Washington's victory as well as ramped up the tension which left success in doubt; from the mud and wet that bogged down Washington, to the storm that hit as he was trying to cross the Delaware trying to hamper his attack, putting the pre-dawn timing in question. This storm aided Washington because the weather kept the Hessians from posting the sentries that would have been on duty. As well as the British continental style of battle called "Winter Quarters". Howe having a mistress in New York helped hamper pursuit of Washington's army as well, but that is another story.
The battles that immediately followed were just as harrowing, from the Battle of Assunpink Creek to Princeton where Washington fought with guile to beat General Cornwallis. These battles were turning points of the American Revolution, giving Congress the confidence they lacked in Washington since the losses in New York. It also made the French take notice, helping bring that nation to the aid of the rebels.
Like a true action hero Washington laid down command (taking no pay while acting as Commander in Chief) when the war was over, refusing to lead an officer backed coup to set himself up as king. He was then asked twice to sit as President of the United States.
Ben Franklin was the cerebral hero of the pulps. In many tales of fiction he is mad inventor, a wizard, and spy. Reality is just as pulpish. He was an inventor, author, politician, ambassador, schemer, and sage. From his early printing days to creating the first public libraries and volunteer fire departments, he was always thinking. His greatest pulp adventures occurred when he was overseas in London then France. At first he fought hard to preserve America's ties to England, a warm fraternal affection should exist, but as time passed he saw that "an island cannot rule a continent". In France he used cunning and guile to persuade the French to give aid, money, and eventually troops to America. So great was his presence in that country that he was idolized like a rock star, including the sales of memorabilia. He was there to sign the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. It seemed that Ben Franklin, almost through happenstance was present at ever major turning point that began the history of the United States.
Both Franklin and Washington had events in their lives that were the "calls to adventure" that drew them into giving their full fledged support to independence, when initially neither man were looking to break from England.
For Washington it seemed matters of honor, pride, and finance drove him to the new adventure. I think too, a drive to be a part of history. During this period the British military model had it own aristocracy; as a colonial, Washington, no matter his wealth, could not be a part of it. The most he could hope for was a commission in the militia, which would be subordinate to British officers, of even inferior rank. This left a bitter taste of second-class citizenship in the American aristocrat's mouth. Second were the taxes being levied by England to pay for the Seven Year's War, as an importer of finery and merchant, he was plagued by the unfair tax practice. And lastly, Washington saw himself as a military man. When he would order his clothes from England, he would order them in sizes that were actually too small for his robust frame because he was "outsized" to how a gentleman should be built. But his military uniforms, those were tailored to fit.
For Franklin his initial drive was to preserve the ties that bound America to England. He tried every diplomatic avenue, but the turning point for him was when he addressed Privy Council and was verbally humiliated. He had obtained letters of Governor Hutchinson's, proving that there was little serious consideration on England's part for peace. He left England and threw his efforts into the cause of Independence.
These two men were first among many, like Paul Revere, the Swamp Fox Francis Marion, even the vilified Benedict Arnold. They all were larger than life, living adventures that kept children wide eyed in the telling. These adventures were too wild for fiction.
History is rife with events and personages that create the stories that would otherwise be taken as heart stopping fiction, a lesson Jeff Shaara learned well when he wrote Rise to Rebellion and The Glorious Cause, and has further followed the same formula with The American Civil War and both world wars. Pulp authors have looked to history for their inspiration for events and characters. Robert E. Howard and Arthur Conan Doyle are just two who did so to thrill and entertain.
So my suggestion is that you hit a wiki or better, the library, and read the real pulp fiction of our nation's founding and beyond.

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