Friday, July 3, 2015

Washington's Spies by Alexander Rose -- Framing in Non-Fiction and the Power of Friendship (Happy 4th!)

I just finished reading Washington's Spies by Alexander Rose, the book Turn is roughly based on, and a couple days before the 4th of July seems like the best time to write about it. 
Every once in a while, I really get an itching to read a good non-fiction book. The only problem is it can be difficult to find an interestingly written one. Far too often non-fiction is written like a pile of facts and footnotes that the reader has to sift through, hindered by blocky words. Washington's Spies is not like that at all. Never once did I feel bored. Alexander Rose has such a way with words, I couldn't help but chuckle at his hidden jokes and his occasional snark.

Washington's Spies, like the TV show that took inspiration about it, is about the development of espionage techniques during the American Revolution including the development, success, and failures of the Culper Spy Ring. The amount of research that the author put into this is absolutely astounding -- after all, the subject matter he dealt with is by its very nature hidden. But you could tell how much Rose admired these early American spies and how much he wanted the world to know how their contributions to the formation of this country was irreplaceable and how at the time they went to their graves with little to no accolades. They almost didn't get their monetary expenses reimbursed (Oh George Washington -- you cheapskate).

Probably the strongest aspect of this book is Rose expertly created profiles on those involved in the Culper Spy Ring, the predecessors, and their enemies. By the time I finished the book, I felt like I knew these people intimately. And it wasn't because I watched Turn. For the record, Turn did change some personality aspects of some characters (Tallmadge wasn't as straight-laced as he is in Turn) and a few characters are a combination of two or more figures (Townsend was a combination of the real Townsend and Woodhull's brother-in-law Underhill; Hewlett is a combination of a loyalist who lived in Setucket and a weak-willed British officer named Joyce who was picked on by British, Loyalist, and Patriot alike because he made himself an easy target). But Rose had such a way of developing the figures involved, I got a little teary with the fate of Major John Andre for instance. And Major Benjamin Tallmadge -- what an upstanding American.

Also, Caleb Brewster -- who is like an Northeastern Huckleberry Finn and a PIRATE FIGHTER

Another aspect of this book made me realize what is important when writing non-fiction -- Framing. My favorite non-fiction author is Erik Larsen (which reminds me, I need to pick up the Lusitania) and part of the reason why I like him is he'll tell a story about a period of time and will find a historical figure or two to tell the story. In some cases, he'll use two figures who are seemingly unrelated but afterwards, you can practically picture them crossing each other in the street.

Alexander Rose does this with Washington's Spies. In fact, his frame lies in book-ends and his anchor is really Benjamin Tallmadge. His book starts with the unfortunate tale of Nathan Hale and ends (before an epilogue of what happened to everyone) with the fate of Major John Andre. And why this was so brilliant to me is Hale and Andre represented the ideals of the time; well-educated, idealistic, well-liked. In many ways, they represented the ideal of the side of the Atlantic they came from.

Hale's connection to the colonies was undeniable -- tracing his family to one of the first reverends in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Andre was a well-bred, dilettante. Both of them were idealistic -- Hale believing in the cause of independence. Andre believing in the arts. And yet it was the ugliness of the war that fundamentally ended their short lives. We always look at the American War of Independence as a war of ideals which kind of places it on this pedestal. But under the surface, it was ugly and violent and chaotic and ripped apart those who took up the bayonet to fight for their ideals. Like any war really.

Tallmadge looking into the future of ... Merica!

Tallmadge had a connection to both of them and is the figure we follow the most throughout the book. He is tossed into the world of espionage not long after the execution of Nathan Hale who was his "constant friend". Tallmadge would reference him a lot. And it is not too much a stretch that the fate of his best friend lied heavily on his mind when he designed the Culper Ring. And additionally, Tallmadge escorted the captured Andre to Washington in Teppan and he noted how much Andre did remind him of Hale. When it came time for Andre's execution, Tallmadge had to leave the field because he cried.   
Even in captivity, Andre drew himself as a gentleman
As I mentioned before in another post, the legend of Nathan Hale is a curious one. Rose spends the first 50 pages or so talking about Hale. He had to because it really described what was really messy about espionage before the formation of the Culper Ring. Hale is presented as a gentleman who always arrived a little too late. His unit kept on missing major battles and would arrive just after fighting concluded. And even in love, he was always just a little too late. The first time he proposed to the love of his life, she was engaged to another man. Then when her husband died, he tried again and the two would have wed after Nathan finished his tour of duty -- which he never did. Even as he was just about to be hung on the gallows, the fire which caused a huge amount of chaos in New York City -- an opportunity to escape -- just began.

Yet we remember him. He was the answer to a question on a quiz in school yet his career as a patriot was marked by failure. I remember I had a teacher who said he was a martyr. And he was a rallying point for people to sign up to the cause. But after reading this book, I am not sure I agree with that interpretation. Hale was hung as a spy. Hale was a gentleman, a Yale Graduate, and those types of people just did not engage in espionage. Rose hammers home the idea that the thought of someone disguising themselves as someone else or develop cover stories (stuff the Culper Ring did) was just not something gentlemen did. They would be military scouts and diplomats  but what Hale did and what the Culper Ring did was the actions of criminals and even if they stole info for your side, people would look on those individuals with disgust. The proper execution method for an officer, which Hale was, was death by firing squad. Being hung is what was reserved for thieves, murderers, and spies. A cynical person would say Hale's death was used as propaganda and maybe that was so to a degree (maybe people would deny Hale was a spy?) .

But after reading this book, I have a more optimistic interpretation. We remember Nathan Hale because his Yale friends made sure we remember him and made sure he wasn't just another 21 year old officer who met a tragic end like hundreds of others. The quote attributed to what Hale said on the gallows can be traced to a newspaper article that had connections to one of his friends. And what he said was a saying from Cato who Hale was known to quote. Hale's friends wanted people to know that Hale not only sacrificed his life but his honor as a gentleman to help the patriot cause even if he was a failure. We should all be so lucky to have friends who love us as much as Hale's friends did. 

And that is the overall theme of Washington's Spies. Rose ends his book by an anecdote of 80 year old Tallmadge reaming up a pair of Revolutionary War veterans who asked Congress for more accolades (money) for their work when Tallmadge knew they thieved and did not conduct themselves like gentlemen. Tallmadge alludes to but never mentions those who did much work for the cause and received no recognition for their efforts -- probably meaning the Culper Ring. And brought it home with that Major John Andre died with much more honor than how those veterans lived their lives.

Anyways, I really liked this book. I only barely touched on my favorite parts of it. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys well-written non-fiction.

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