By David McCullough Simon & Schuster, 386 pages, $32
It's a symptom of America's growing sense of nostalgia for its once-core values-ideals like due process, equal protection under the law, fair elections, an independent judiciary, the triumph of national interest over party faction-that authors like David McCullough will continue to make a killing in the book business. 1776, McCullough's slim, superficial treatment of a tumultuous year in the life of the American Revolution, is not a history book so much as a carefully crafted Father's Day gift engineered to dominate the New York Times bestseller list from now through at least Independence Day. Dad will no doubt luxuriate in the warm bathwater of McCullough's prose, but serious readers will flip pages in vain looking for a shred of original research or fresh insight.
1776 serves as a good year to encapsulate the vicissitudes of the Revolutionary War: A ragtag Continental Army chases the British out of Boston in the spring, the Founding Fathers sign the Declaration of Independence that summer, General Washington is humiliated in New York in the fall but bounces back in winter to cross the Delaware and bag surprise victories at Trenton and Princeton. McCullough condenses this drama to a brisk 300 pages or so, but 1776 bogs down in the minutiae of weather and tactics, much like a barefoot Continental soldier slogging through New England's snow and mud. Short shrift is given to the principles that stirred men's souls to such heroic deeds. The creation of the Declaration of Independence scores perhaps a page; Thomas Paine's Common Sense is relegated to a few paragraphs. It's as if McCullough (joining the Joseph Ellises, the Richard Brookhisers and the other drudges in the Founding Father wallpaper factory) had run out of ways to explain what a precious miracle the founding of America was-and, by implication, how carelessly our current crop of leaders is squandering it all.
Portland Arts & Lectures presents David McCullough at the First Congregational Church, 1126 SW Park Ave., 227-2583. 7:30 pm Friday, June 17. $12, students and seniors $8, children $5.