I remember sitting in a master’s class in American History when a professor held up a familiar book. She pointed to the title and stated, “I hope that all of you write like this author when you graduate.” The book was written by a journalist who wrote with an authoritative air despite a lack of endnotes and footnotes. One student responded, “But, he didn’t cite his work, and it’s more like an overview than like a thesis with supporting documents!”
The professor responded, “Exactly. This book represents the only way that authors can reach the general public and still make an impact.” She added, “This type of writing may be the only solution to the survival of American history.”
With that little anecdote in mind, I turn to Bob Deans’ book, The River Where America Began: A Journey Along the James. Deans is a national correspondent for Cox Newspapers (a journalist, in other words) and he doesn’t include footnotes or endnotes in his new book. And, like the author that our professor extolled, Deans writes with authority in a book that reads more like an exciting overview than like a stuffy scholarly tome.
So, Deans represents – at least in my mind – a person who will manage to reach the general public with this book and who will keep the history along Virginia’s James River alive and well in the process. I’m truly grateful for this approach, as I agree with Deans’ premise that America’s history did, indeed, begin along this ribbon of water that marks the origins of so many American dreams and disasters. In fact, “This river flows through all of us and the epic national journey we share.”1
Deans, who grew up in Richmond, begins with the creation of the James River, moves quickly to cover its first inhabitants, and then concludes with Abraham Lincoln’s visit to Richmond in 1865, shortly after the Civil War. Deans’ authoritative voice is supported by interviews that he conducted with individuals like George Branham Whitewolf of the Monacan people and Martin Gallivan, an archaeologist with the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg; but, his authority is also buoyed by his apparent native love for this river and for the history that it keeps buried along its muddy shores.
At times, I felt that Deans seemed to echo attitudes that I had read previously in books by David H. Fischer and James C. Kelly (Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement), Gordon S. Wood (The Radicalism of the American Revolution), and Edmund S. Morgan (American Slavery, American Freedom). I wasn’t wrong. These books are included, among many more that I haven’t read, in the extensive 16-page bibliography for this book. But Deans is so familiar with the James River and its history that he quotes authors only when needed to support his own thoughts about what happened in any given circumstance. As a James River aficionado myself, I was entranced with Deans’ writing and impressed with his knowledge about everything from Clovis tips to the Civil War.
Deans doesn’t focus solely on the major players in this masterful story, because he also recognizes how James River families shaped this country’s religious, political, social, and economic history. He offers this information in quick and familiar voice, like a journalist who writes about a subject that he’s lived with most of his life and who offers its details in words that any person can understand. For example, Deans writes how King George and the British Parliament had “touched the third rail” of colonial discontent with the infamous 1765 Stamp Act, thereby “electrifying sentiments of self-rule” in colonial Americans. Although third rails didn’t exist in 1765, the example is sufficient to goad today’s reader into learning what happens next.
In fact, I informed Deans that this review would be late because I had to read the whole book once I started. Normally, I read a book’s introduction, the first and last chapters, and the conclusion to write a review. I learned how to read that way when I was working toward my master’s degree, and – normally – this is the only information most reviewers need to fully understand an author’s theory or premise.
But, once I began to read Deans’ book, I couldn’t put it down for two reasons: 1) I tried to find errors, because I love the James River and its history and I didn’t want to offer my readers anything but the best about this subject, and; 2) I simply enjoyed Deans’ writing style. I finally finished the book, but I want more; so I’ll reread the book and mark it up for further investigation (which is why this book is as good for scholars as it is for the general public). I didn’t find errors in Deans’ historic perspectives, but I would have liked to learn more about his thoughts on the Huguenots, for instance, and how he might have felt about how these folks affected American history.
Despite these small shortcomings (which are more personal leanings than actual faults), I prize this book as the best (yes, the best) writing about the James River that I now own. If I were a teacher, this is the book that I would hold up to a class to say, “I hope you write like this author when you graduate, because this type of writing may be the only solution to the survival of American history.”
You can visit the new Web site for this book to learn more.