The Fourth of July: And the Founding of America by Peter De Bolla
|The Fourth of July: And the Founding of America by Peter De Bolla|
|Reviewer: Paul Harrop|
|Summary: A scholarly and occasionally enlightening investigation of the truths and half-truths surrounding the birth of the American nation.
Could be heavy going for those not totally fascinated by the subject.
|Buy? No||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 224||Date: June 2007|
|Publisher: Profile Books Ltd|
Every year for over two centuries, Americans have celebrated their nation's birthday - the Fourth of July. On that date in 1776, the Declaration of Independence was made, signalling the separation of the colonies from British rule.
Those centuries of commemoration have cemented the myth of that sacred date. But it is little more than that - a myth. Inasmuch as Americans ever expressed their desire for independence so decisively, it probably wasn't in fact on that date. If anything, it happened two days earlier.
I'm not a historian; I hated the subject at school, and this book made me remember why. Even a slim book like this about the significance or otherwise of a date long ago, revived the thought that often hovered at the back of my younger but no less shallow mind: "so what?"
I exaggerate of course. This book is not really about whether it mattered that a few dozen worthies signed a bit of parchment on a certain date. It's about the significance that has latterly attached to that date, about how myths can become more important than reality, and the role of symbolic artefacts or actions in the narrative architecture of a nation.
As such, The Fourth Of July is, once it gets over the speculation about what did and didn't actually occur, quite interesting about aspects of America's emergence into nationhood. It traces how the myths about totemic symbols of the nation - the Liberty Bell; Uncle Sam; the flag itself - have become enshrined as fact. It also looks at the way that these creation myths, and their significance, have been adapted according to the times in which they are celebrated.
All of which, once stripped of its academic language, isn't all that surprising. After all, didn't our own patron saint turn out to be Turkish? Wasn't Christmas originally a pagan celebration? What did surprise and interest me was how much evidence there often is for what is regarded as myth (eg Uncle Sam was a real person), and the shaky foundations of what is often treated as fact.
The writing comes to life best in a vivid description of Jimi Hendrix's appearance at a 1970 July 4 celebration concert. And even then you suspect that the author's tongue is ever so slightly in his cheek.
I'm sure The Fourth Of July will appeal to serious students of American history, particularly those interested in US culture and how it venerates its national icons. I, sadly, found little to relate to, and maybe this isn't really surprising. Much of the writing is pitched somewhere above the level of the general reader. The author is clearly at home with such recondite terms as 'rhetorical topoi' and expects his readers to be similarly erudite.
The lay reader (certainly if they're as thick as me) may struggle with the scholarly tone, the abstract treatment of the subject matter, and some of the convoluted arguments. Even if you have no such difficulties, the book is still a salutory reminder of how we are separated from America, not only by a common language, but also by a simultaneously familiar yet utterly alien code of rites and symbology.
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