Inventing Ethan Allen – John J. Duffy & H. Nicholas Muller III

Fiction resists fact to persist as heritage – David Lowenthal (as an inscription at the start of a chapter)

“[The founders of the Vermont Historical Society] thought that the robust growth in the state’s formative years and the bold assertions of its independence held lessons that would help the state deal with what they deemed as its declining prospects….[Henry Stevens] set out to sculpt Ethan Allen as a figure of such stature to inspire and guide Vermont through the vicissitudes of change he and his colleagues largely regarded as negative.”

As a child obsessed with history growing up in Vermont, it was inevitable that I collected the stories of Ethan Allen, considering with pride his “noble” defense of Vermont against the predatory New Yorkers and his “heroic” capture of Ticonderoga from the British. (The fact that he got captured in a foolish and impetuous invasion of Canada just meant that he was human.) Ethan Allen was obviously a great man, the founder of a state that I was, and am, proud of.

If pushed as a somewhat more developed historian, I would have obviously pushed back on these stories as foundation myths. I might have even admitted that Allen was a terrorist against the New Yorkers, who probably deserved it (more on this in a minute). That much is abundantly clear, but I didn’t have evidence for the formation of the myth or even for much about Allen’s life.

On a recent road trip, however, I visited Fort Ticonderoga and picked up Inventing Ethan Allen, which attempts to explain exactly that.

Duffy and Muller’s central thesis is deceptively simple: the Ethan Allen of legend was not the historical Ethan Allen, but a figure that was developed first by Allen’s brother Ira and later by the State Historical Society in order to give the small state a prominent past, particularly during the 19th century when Vermont was suffering from a deep economic slump.

The historical Ethan Allen is a shadowy figure, such that none of the statues allegedly bearing his features was based on his likeness. Born in Connecticut in 1738, Allen’s early years were filled with failed business ventures such as mining, before getting a break as a land speculator in the contested space between New Hampshire and New York. This territory was, in effect, sold twice, once to Allen, his family, and some other speculators, and once by New York. When challenged on the land, Allen’s cohort consolidated their claim to the Champlain Valley in the form of the Onion River Company, terrorizing the New Yorkers who moved in, and ending up with a bounty on his head. The Revolutionary War provided Allen new opportunities, and he touted his victory over the score of British soldiers at Ticonderoga even though he outnumbered them by more than four to one, before a series of blunders cost him leadership of the Green Mountain Boys. Nevertheless, he emerged from the war with more land than ever, both through a dowry brought by a second marriage and through legal machinations that stripped “traitors” of their land.

The portrait of Allen painted by Duffy and Muller is, by and large, unflattering. He is bombastic, arrogant, and self-serving, even while largely blundering about. Instead of a defender of freedom for small farmers, he was as ruthlessly exploitative as the New Yorkers, just better at waging the war of pamphlets. Instead of a valiant patriot who won a stunning blow at Ticonderoga, the fort was in disrepair and the Allen brothers (along with Governor Chittenden) entered into negotiations with Frederick Haldimand about bringing Vermont back into the British Empire as a province. Instead of a philosophical thinker who published tracts on ideas of liberty, he was a plagiarist who took credit for his teacher’s work. And adding to these complications, Duffy and Muller argue, was that Vermont’s early ban on slavery actually provided cover for men like, and probably including, Allen to own slaves.

When Allen died his image and legacy ceased to be his own. This could have gone poorly for Allen given his shady reputation and numerous enemies, but it turned out to be a blessing. Allen’s record as an arch-patriot was taken up, burnished, and expanded in the succeeding years by a series of historians who took it upon themselves to give Vermont a past equivalent to Massachusetts or Virginia. The first of these writers was Ethan’s brother Ira, who was probably central to downplaying the Haldimand negotiations in the first histories since they likewise implicated him, but it was the foundation of the State Historical and Antiquarian Society in 1838 that breathed new life into the legend. This society was founded by four upper-middle class, non-farming, anti-slavery elites who thought that Vermont in the 1830s suffered from economic and moral decay that could be restored only through a careful retelling of the state’s history. Allen, the enlightened patriot and hero of Ticonderoga was the cornerstone of that project.

Through these efforts and the nature of stories, Allen went from a hard-drinking, narcissistic bombast to a larger-than-life exemplar of backwoods and populist virtue, a trickster straight out of a folktale.

Inventing Ethan Allen is an achievement that balances the historical Ethan Allen, with the more complicated story of memory and the formation of cultural mythology. I say this both as a born Vermonter, where the discussion about the economic struggles of 19th century Vermont struck close to home, and as a historian interested in memory, where the discussion of Allen resonated with my recent reading of Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash. The combination of these things and that Ethan Allen was a larger-than-life character made this a fascinating read. I may still have an instinctual mistrust of New York, but I can concede that the origins of Vermont are much more complicated than appears in the white-washed tradition. But then, that is usually the case.

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I’ve recently finished two novels, The Company She Kept, a Joe Gunther mystery by Archer Mayer, and Robin Hobb’s The Assassin’s Quest. I have thoughts on both, but neither is the first book in a series, so I am undecided on whether I will write about them.

But What if We’re Wrong – Chuck Klosterman

In other words, we’re starting to behave as if we’ve reached the end of human knowledge. And while that notion is undoubtedly false, the sensation of certitude it generates is paralyzing.

What’s interesting is our communal willingness to assume most old stories may as well be true, based on the logic that (a) the story is already ancient, and (b) there isn’t any way to confirm an alternative version, despite the fact that we can’t categorically confirm the original version, either.

Extrapolate that phenomenon to forty years, or to four hundred years, or to four thousand years: How much of history is classified as true simply because it can’t be sufficiently proven false?

In this not-essay collection (as he asserts several times in the forward material), Chuck Klosterman tackles the topic of how we think about the past and how we think about the future, arguing that a) there are some seriously problematic thing about how we think about the former and b) we nevertheless need to think about the latter more like we think about the former. Klosterman’s operating principles are that there is too much information (and too many variables) for a person to grapple with all of them, that certainty as a way of stifling progress and inquiry, and that we are more likely to be wrong than we are to be right.

What ensues is a lengthy, frequently speculative thought experiment that runs the gamut from asking what musical artist will be passed down as the exemplar of Rock and Roll when there is only one Rock artist who is widely remembered, to asking famous scientists whether we have hit a point of diminishing returns in the field because universal constants like gravity have already been solved, to talking about historical conspiracies such as the Phantom Time Hypothesis. (This last one is the theory that certain epochs in human history are no more than agreed upon fictions, which make for fun discussion and better Onion articles. Klosterman includes lengthy quotations from conversations he had with cultural and scientific luminaries (some of whom would be counted as more expert than others), all building on the theme in question.

But What if we’re Wrong is not about answers, but rather questions, a book meant to be good to think with. In this regard, Klosterman is successful, even though the very nature of the book, combined with the conversational and journalistic tone, make some of the specifics of the argument rest lightly in my memory. I enjoyed reading the book and it has certainly influenced me in terms of how I think, but some chapters were stronger than others. I particularly liked the chapter “The World That Is Not There” that explores false certitude about historical events, while others at times wandered down rabbit holes that were relevant, but less successful.

Similarly, the cultural commentary in But What if We’re Wrong runs the risk of becoming rapidly dated, even if that ironically proves the core conceit worth considering. Perhaps the clearest example of this I noticed was the discussion of Rock and Roll that considers at length (and the dismisses) the possibility that the “true exemplar” is Bob Dylan. Nothing Klosterman writes is yet invalid, but his hypothetical future did not consider the possibility that Dylan would go down as a Nobel Laureate. Ultimately, though, this is a quirk of the topic that ought not discredit a book that deliberately avoids most polemical topics in order to make its own case that how we think about these issues ought to be considered in its own right—and Klosterman can therefore be forgiven for not necessarily following leads in a comprehensive way because to do so would simply be missing the point.

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I am currently reading Thebes at War by the Egyptian Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz, a book that was intended to be part of a forty-part retelling of the whole of Egyptian history. Thus far I am not finding it a particularly successful novel, but what it reveals about conceptions of Egyptian nationalism is fascinating.

Cheese and Culture – Paul Kindstedt

A cheese scientist at the University of Vermont by trade, Kindstedt’s Cheese and Culture traces the history of cheese and its role in Western Civilization. I grimaced at “Western Civilization” in the subtitle, but was reconciled to it because, as Kindstedt argues, cheese as it is currently known is a largely western phenomenon because lactase tolerance in adults was more common in the Middle East and Europe than elsewhere in the world.

Kindstedt starts in the Fertile Crescent with the domestication of dairy animals, but convincingly shows that the inability to process dairy meant that these animals were not milked, but used for meat and hides. The change came, he argues, when at a time of ecological crisis and food shortage that saw the milking of animals to feed children and, eventually adults. Cheese and butter, which retain much of the nutritional value of milk but eliminate some or most of the lactose, followed soon after. By biblical times, fresh cheese was an appropriate gift for deities.

The strongest element of Cheese and Culture is the careful observation of changes in cheese-making techniques, which is perhaps to be expected from a scientist of the processes. For instance, Kindstedt meticulously charts types of cheese fermentation, particularly acid, heating, and rennet, the last of which he reasonably posits came about by shepherds witnessing cheese curd in the stomachs of slaughtered animals. Thus Kindstedt leads the reader through changes, including Roman agricultural manuals on farm practices, monastic cheese production, and the transition to industrial cheese production.

It is on that last issue during the 19th Century that I found most interesting. Cheddar was the king of American cheese production during the entirety of the 20th century despite Cheshire having been the most common in 1851 when the first “cheese factory” opened in upstate New York. But Cheddar was easier to develop industrial processes for, including guidebooks on measurements, cooking temperatures, and so on, as well as being a cheese that lent itself to production in large blocks. Then, with the Civil War forcing women (the usual cheesemakers) to do other work on the farm and England lowering tariffs on cheese in desperation to feed of a burgeoning population–and that London particularly loved Cheddar, industrial cheesemaking exploded. However, industrial cheesemaking also diluted quality and taste because overproduction drove prices down.

Cheese and Culture is a book that is strikingly “Vermont,” including that there are several sentences complaining about EU trade regulations about naming rights on cheese and mocking the idea that Vermont Cheddar would have been named something like “Vermont Delight.”

There is a lot to recommend Cheese and Culture, but it is not without flaws. First, although Kindstedt does a passable job covering cheese in Greece and Rome, his framework is still somewhat set along the lines of the bible since the epitaph for each of the early chapters is taken from the Bible. Second, it is possible to quibble that cheese is as central to a narrative of world history. For instance, Kindstedt has a tendency to elevate cheese in places where cheese is but one of the commodities being traded, which might suggest a manipulation to make cheese more important than it actually was. (Not that I am unsympathetic, I might add, as a loyal son of Vermont and fervent caseophile.)

Third, the scope of Cheese and Culture is so large that Kindstedt necessarily speaks in some generalities. This is particularly true in the latter stages of the book where, after describing how there came to be a diversity of cheese (largely the result of variations in geography), Kindstedt falls back on generalities about American versus European cheese and the admittedly interesting account of trade wars.The problem is not that it doesn’t work in the context of this book about “Western Civilization,” but rather that he hints at a wider story about cheese in America. For instance, there is emphasis on New England cheese, but nothing about California or Wisconsin, and only passing mention about how Cheddar (probably including American) was the dominant cheese in America until passed by Mozzarella in 2001. The cause of mozzarella’s (and presumably other cheese’s) relegation? It was considered immigrant food. Just as with the bagel, there is a wider story about the American assimilation of food. This is not Kindstedt’s core theme and I should not criticize him for what he is not doing, but I found that adding one more section about the assimilation of non-Cheddar cheeses in America and regional variation would have strengthened the latter parts of the book. Instead, there is brief summation of the US-EU trade wars about cheese and brief mention of the return of artisanal cheese that offer taste in return for more money. These are important topics, but came across as somewhat anodyne compared to the more nuanced discussion about the creation of cheese diversity.

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I didn’t turn on my computer this past weekend in an effort to recharge a little bit, and so I have fallen behind on writing up my reading. I finished Ken Liu’s The Wall of Storms (Dandelion Dynasty Book 2) last week and Michael Chabon’s idiosyncratic The Yiddish Policeman’s Union this morning. I am not sure what I am reading next, but on the nonfiction front it will either be Charles Mann’s 1493 or Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature; in terms of fiction, I have too many options to list and am currently pulled in several different directions.

The Silk Roads – Peter Frankopan

Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads is an ambitious project, to offer a new global history that offers The Silk Road (the lines of communication and transit between China and Europe) as the spine of the world, not just in the premodern era, but also going forward. He is largely successful in this dizzying, weighty tome.

The book begins with the formation of the Silk Road in the years before and around 100 BCE and each chapter, usually described as a road with a description (e.g. “The Road to Catastrophe”), moves progressively forward until the book reaches the twenty-first century. Topically, The Silk Roads may be divided into the movement of three things: ideas, goods, and influence, the last in terms of geopolitical jockeying. All three types of movement feature throughout the book, but there is a progression such that the movement of ideas are most prominent in the early portions and the strategic concerns toward the end. At times The Silk Roads can be unbalanced, frequently losing one pole or the other in favor of showing how central Asia remained pivotal for developments that are usually considered to be centered elsewhere.

This imbalance is frustrating, but nevertheless understandable given the enormous and unwieldy scope of the book. Likewise, Frankopan necessarily glosses over some particularly heated scholarly controversies, sign-posting his position and moving on. Again, this is a necessary feature of a book of this scope, but in at least one case the decision was abrupt enough that I was led to ask someone more versed in the period in question about whether the scholar being cited was respected. She confirmed that Frankopan was indeed basing his narrative (in this instance) on a respected scholar even if not everyone agrees with the stance. This is to say Frankopan did his homework, but he also picks his fights, which makes The Silk Roads an entertaining read filled with a bevy of observations and declarations (always with citations if one wishes to know more).

As far as a new “global history,” The Silk Roads admirably demonstrates the interconnected world and shows how the roads influenced developments that had consequences far beyond its own narrow confines. Australia, Africa, and the Americas even make cameo appearances, but one might still quibble that this approach is biased, if necessarily, toward the northern hemisphere and has no time to spend on issues of social history. In fairness, these are not what Frankopan is trying to show and this is one of the best global histories I have yet come across, but they nevertheless remain a limit, particularly in the breathless rush through the twentieth century where much ink is spilt (yet again) on strategic concerns.

In sum, The Silk Roads has much to recommend it, being lively and readable despite its ambitious scope and hefty word count. Some inconsistency could have been ironed out and I would have liked to see more inclusion of India and China in the main narrative, though he showed himself attuned to modern developments initiated by the latter in the conclusion, so I can only assume that it was a deliberate choice to exclude these actors. These quibbles should not detract from the overall success of the book.

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I am now caught up on books I finished last week. Up next is Patrick O’Brian’s Treason’s Harbor, which I am about halfway through.