Founding Landscapes

Over the past few years, I’ve posted enthusiastic overviews of various books by Robert Sullivan, including The Meadowlands and Rats.

[Image: Robert Sullivan’s My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78 from FSG].

Rats, in particular, reveals a perspective on the city so often overlooked and perhaps so revolting—the city as seen through the eyes of professional pest specialists and rat catchers—that it is unfortunately quite easy to miss the fascinating insights into New York’s history that such a viewpoint entails. From archaeology—discovering that now long-buried earthworks from the Revolutionary War are still breeding grounds for rats—to rat-resistant material science, where steel wool is mixed into concrete to slow the animals’ ability to chew through walls, Sullivan’s book is memorable, worthwhile, and hard to stop thinking about once you’re through.

I’m thus very much looking forward not only to meeting Robert Sullivan in person next week, but doing so as part of a public event at Studio-X NYC. That will be a live interview—free and open to the public—hosted in recognition of Sullivan’s newest book, My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78.

This new book is premised on two main themes: the terrain and weather of New York City, and how these both worked to shape the Revolutionary War against English troops in the 18th century. These “founding landscapes,” in Sullivan’s words, literally guided and formed those events—a fairly obvious claim, of course, but one that takes on the air of an archaeological expedition or a landscape detective story as Sullivan sets off by car, boat, and, most importantly, foot to track down the old routes, campgrounds, overlooks, signaling hills, and other waypoints used to such liberating effect nearly 250 years ago.

As Sullivan phrases it, “I began to work like a scout, going out on reconnaissance missions into a landscape that might not appear ancient, camouflaged as it is by cities and strip malls, by toxic waste sites, and high-end commercial properties.” Or, in the words of the New York Times, for Sullivan, “history is not so much a collection of dates and facts but actual places you can revisit—layers of geography that can be excavated one by one.”

After all, as anyone interested in military history will already know, winning a battle—let alone an entire war—comes down in many ways simply to a more strategically informed use of the landscape, beyond even the quality or impact of the weapons at hand; and Sullivan uses the book to suggest that the topography and the climate of the New York region opened certain opportunities while foreclosing others for the colonial insurgents. This is done in typical Sullivan fashion, mind you; the Washington Post, for instance, calls the book “almost entirely eccentric” and “about as far from a conventional account of that conflict as one could get,” yet both of these are meant in a positive sense. It is a book of asides, footnotes, detours, and second thoughts.

[Image: A map of selected Revolutionary War sites and landscapes in greater New York, courtesy of Robert Sullivan].

In any case, we’ll be talking to Sullivan about his new book—as well as about rats and the Meadowlands and much more—at 6:30pm on Tuesday, October 16th. We’ll also get a sneak peek at some of the behind-the-scenes techniques Sullivan uses to write his books, including his fascinating personal books about his books: part collage, part notebook, part bound filing system, these books-of-the-books detail Sullivan’s own process of writing and assembling the eventual published artifact.

As an aside, My American Revolution makes an interesting pair with Steven Jaffe’s New York at War: Four Centuries of Combat, Fear, and Intrigue in Gotham, which I’ve mentioned a few times here previously.

Jaffe’s own tour through the overlooked—and ongoing—militarization of the New York landscape, from Wall Street (named after the literal defensive wall that once stood on the site) to the coastal fortifications that still stand in places along the NYC shoreline, is a compelling and unforgettable read. Getting Jaffe and Sullivan to speak together at Studio-X NYC, perhaps, about their work would be a fascinating possibility.

One thought on “Founding Landscapes”

  1. I bought a copy of Rats after reading about it here on BLDBLG and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Wish I could be in NYC to hear him, but will definitely be checking out his other books now!

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