As many of you probably know, Michael Kammen passed away a couple of weeks ago, ending a distinguished career marked by several important books and a term as president of the Organization of American Historians.
Coincidentally, when I found out about Kammen’s death I was about to start re-reading his book A Season of Youth: The American Revolution and the Historical Imagination. In this work, he argued that a common theme in fiction about the American Revolution was the notion of the founding as a rite of passage. Novelists have portrayed the War for Independence as a national coming-of-age story, and many have amplified this theme by populating their stories with characters on the verge of adulthood. For these characters, participation in the Revolution marks a transition to maturity, so that their own life stories reflect the larger story of their country. Many of these novelists have also employed generational conflict as a narrative device, with their young characters chafing under parental control just as America sought independence of a different kind from the mother country.
Kammen’s book deals primarily with novels, plays, and imagery. He relegated films about the Revolution a short sub-section of one chapter, due to a scarcity of original material. In the three decades since the publication of A Season of Youth, we’ve seen a few more (but not that many) theatrical and TV movies about the Revolution, and for the most part I think his thesis still holds up.
In fact, the most successful recent movie about the Revolution fits Kammen’s argument to a T. The Patriot is a story of generational conflict between Benjamin Martin and his oldest sons. Martin knows what sort of devastation the war with England will bring and is reluctant to get involved, while the two boys are eager to enlist. The protagonist gets dragged into the war by his children, one of whom is burning with patriotic idealism, and one of whom seems more fascinated by the trappings of war than anything, playing with toy soldiers and trying on his father’s old uniform coat.
The movie also portrays the war as a transition of a different sort for Martin’s younger children. For them, the war is not so much a step into maturity as a loss of innocence. Just as Martin predicts in an early speech, the Revolutionary War is fought on their doorstep. The family farm is an idyllic sanctuary in the movie’s opening sequence, but when the shooting starts, Martin’s attempts to shield his children from all the death and destruction prove futile. Check out this deleted scene:
There’s another way in which The Patriot supports Kammen’s thesis. He argued that by pitching the Revolution as a coming-of-age, Americans have also domesticated their own history. We’re a nation born in revolution, but we value order and stability. If the founding was a passage into adulthood, it was a one-time event that doesn’t need to be repeated. The notion of the Revolution as a rite of passage is thus a way of celebrating our violent and radical beginning without endorsing the overthrow of the status quo.
The Patriot’s closing scene shows us the Martin family returning to the site of their burned home at the war’s end. When they arrive, they find white and black veterans of Martin’s command working together to build them a new dwelling. The implication is that the destructive work of war and revolution is over, and it’s time to move on to the constructive work of building on a foundation. The movie thus emphasizes the possibilities the American Revolution opened and passes over the issues it left unresolved. And it would take another such violent upheaval to resolve some of them.