Talking About Myths, Heroes, And Scoundrels
first novel, Last Refuge of Scoundrels (Warner Books) takes readers on
a wild, rollicking, irreverent tour of the American Revolution. Through the
voice of John Lawrence, a naive young aide-de-camp to George Washington, and
the daring exploits of an unsung underground leader named Deborah Simpson, we
meet our Founding Fathers, stripped of sacred myths, struggling to contain a
revolution that threatens to go too far. In the Last Refuge of Scoundrels
readers are viewing the nation’s birth from the bottom of colonial society.
From this “ordinary” perspective we discover passions, heroes, lunacy, and
inspiration missing from our official history.
Let’s begin by talking about your background and what brought you to writing
about the American Revolution.
LASSIER: When I
was a student at Yale in the early 1980s, I came upon, I hate the term, what’s
known as the revisionist perspective through cultural studies, literature, and
history. I was exposed to Howard Zinn, Jacques Derrida, Frederic Jameson,
really a whole armada of deconstructionist theoreticians. It completely blew
my mind and connected to experiences very early in my life. You see, I was one
of these kids always drawing and painting pictures of George Washington. I was
one of these kids always begging his parents to take him to Mount Vernon. On
one of these trips, I remember asking the tour guide for the site of the
felled cherry tree. He looked at me, and he had to whisper, “Well that story
isn’t true, but don’t let anyone know that I told you that story isn’t true.”
Now this was a
seismic event in my life. I couldn’t figure out why this story was a secret
and why this man thought he would get into trouble for sharing with me that
this story wasn’t true. That was enough for me to spend my youth reading
everything that I could get my hands on that George Washington ever wrote.
What happened through all this reading was that George Washington emerged for
me and he was altogether antithetical to the man that was forced on me in the
classroom. I saw a man who was neurotic, filled with fear, anxious, and a
career aristocrat who had very little understanding of the cause of freedom
and independence when he first joined the revolutionary fray. But most
importantly, I saw and traced his emerging, burgeoning respect for his
soldiers. As I grew older, I read soldiers’ diaries and from that perspective
saw a man who was as democratic as he was imperialistic, as frightened as he
was brave, as aloof as he was intimate.
One story, in
particular, brought his humanness home for me. This was the story of the
Battle of New York. In high school, and even in classic college textbooks, the
Battle of New York is a famous rout. Of this defeat of the revolutionary
forces, all we really hear about is George Washington’s skillful retreat. But
when you go to soldiers’ diaries and the letters soldiers were writing home,
you find George Washington, fearing the battle was lost, falling from his
horse, laying prostrate on the ground, pummeling his fist in the bloody field,
and, his eyes poised heavenward, begging “Please, God, save the Continental
Army.” It was a complete breakdown and nobody really knew what to do. None of
the soldiers had seen an aristocrat, let alone a general, behave this way in
front of ordinary folks. Then a private enlistee approached George Washington,
offered him solace, offered him the reigns of his horse, and offered to escort
him from the battlefield where he had put himself, unwittingly, in the line of
fire. They walked off the battlefield hand-in-hand and George Washington let
himself be tended by this soldier for several hours. To the average soldier
this was the important “news” of the battle—that a general, so humiliated and
debased, would let himself accept the help of a lowly private.
Why don’t more
people know of this story? Because in this parade of the virtuous and brave
Founding Fathers that we get from our history, this story doesn’t fit. Nor do
we hear of George Washington’s disgust at his own inauguration. Thoroughly put
off by all the deifying and hallowing, he wrote in his diary, “I feel like a
culprit going to my own execution.” Martha is so disgusted, she doesn’t even
detail here is that George Washington, by the time of the inauguration, has
taken quite a journey. He has grown from an aristocrat with little or no
respect for the rabble to a man disgusted with the pomp and ceremony that
bares no relation to who he has become.
In this story,
and hundreds of others, I found the American Revolution. In Last Refuge,
I distinguish between the War for Independence and the American Revolution.
The War for Independence was certainly led by the Founding Fathers, but the
American Revolution is a wider, more egalitarian and yet unrealized vision of
American democracy. It’s a vision that intersects with the War of
Independence, but ultimately what I call the American Revolution is an
entirely different endeavor. Which, please excuse the digression, brings me
back to my story. After being educated to become a historian, I realized that
all this information I was privy to, none of it was available to the American
public. It was ghettoized in academia. And I decided that I didn’t want to be
one of these historians who writes for other historians. So to make a long
story short, I went to Hollywood, pursued a career in television and film,
while continuing to keep pace with historical research. Over time I became a
storyteller committed to unseating these myths.
unseating myths, in the reviews of Last Refuge by the mainstream press,
your novel is commonly described as a “revisionist view” of the American
Revolution. Which means, of course, your perspective dispenses with the notion
of “great men” making history, it offers a very irreverent view of Founding
Fathers such as Washington, Franklin, and John Hancock, and it’s clearly
presenting class antagonisms and class struggle within the revolutionary
movement. It’s certainly not an entirely new point of view. Historians such as
Howard Zinn, Eric Foner, Herbert Aptheker, Ray Raphael, and long ago, Charles
Beard have explored this era from an alternative “peoples history.” But in the
world of popular culture, Last Refuge is a startling, wild, and fresh
debunking of our founding national mythology.
It is very
debunking. I was committed to finding a voice within popular entertainment
that could give us a different vision and different heroes. One of the reasons
the story is told in such a fractured, non-linear way is that I feel you
cannot tell this new story in an old way. If ordinary people are telling the
story or are the main heroes of the story, the old chronology of American
history is going to break down.
some about that breakdown. Last Refuge is a work of historical fiction.
How much fictional license did you take with the Founding Fathers? Did John
Hancock really smash china to soothe his nerves?
Yes he did. I
get this kind of question all the time. What I like to think this book does is
force us to reassess what we call fact and what we call fiction. As a general
rule, I find the weirder it is, the truer it is. The truth of the matter is
that while I have fun with the emphasis I place on things like John Hancock
smashing china—I don’t have any evidence that he did this on a daily basis—I
do know that this was a quirk of his personality that other Founding Fathers
joked about. It is also true of John Adams. Contrast my perspective on John
Adams with that of David McCullough.
say, we’ve made some progress because even David McCullough admits the
heretofore suppressed detail that after the Boston Massacre, John Adams
defended the British soldiers. This has given our historians lots of fodder
for debate, but in this discussion none allow what I consider to be the truth.
John Adams defended the British soldiers because it was a good thing to do for
his reputation. John Adams showed up at the Stamp Act Riots, according to his
own diary, not because he was an ardent patriot, but because it was good for
his burgeoning reputation, an opportunity to hand out business cards.
Defending the Brits would be a great boon to his business because he would be
seen as fair-minded. By the way, he was chastised by his cousin, Samuel Adams,
McCullough admits this slightly unsavory detail, he doesn’t, in my opinion, go
the distance. He reveres John Adams too much. I do think, however, that, while
Adams was every bit as monarchical as Alexander Hamilton, he had his moments.
He had some democratic sentiments coursing through his blood. But I did have
enormous fun with the way John Adams was careless, dilettantish, insensitive,
was a royalist, and an undemocratic Republican in the extreme. It’s an
important detail, not just a quirk of character, that John Adams in the first
part of the war, even as he was railing for independence, was nursing
fantasies of being an American king. That’s an important contradiction. This
is a man who was very conflicted through his entire career. Now to speak of
this side of John Adams, are we trashing our noble Founding Fathers? I say,
no, we are altering the terms of historical discussion and refusing to worship
an inanimate object. Even John Adams writes that when they write of the
American Revolution and they write of us, it will be one continued lie from
beginning to end.
So we don’t
speak of John Adams’s advocacy of the 1798 Sedition Act or his fears of taking
away property qualifications for voting. We get a comforting mythology that
ignores or hides contradictions. But what about the ordinary heroes of your
book, the wonderful central characters, John Lawrence and Deborah Simpson?
Will you talk some about how you shaped these characters from fact and
First off, in
the past when ordinary folk are brought into the spotlight of the American
Revolution we have seen these characters limited to soldiers who dutifully
picked up a gun while the heroic damsel stays home and tends the farm. These
common folk have never been accorded a voice that is antithetical to the
prevailing mythology. That is to say, the common heroes are really just poorer
versions of the gentlemen class. The cause is never questioned. The cause is
always and only picking up arms against the Brits. That representation of
common folk is a lie.
In fact, the
lower classes spoke through a multitude of voices and that’s what I tried to
represent in the book. Yes, there were died-in- the-wool traditional patriots
who wanted King George and his influence thrust from the colonies. That was a
very small minority. Most white people looked to the war to free them of the
burden of their farms being fenced in and gobbled up by the likes of John
Hancock. There were women rioting in Boston in 1764 for a greater voice in
their male-dominated households. There were young people that were discontent
with the custom, inherited from England and etched into law, that said if you
were a poor man and were walking down the street and a richer man approached,
you were to step aside and let him pass, even if it meant stepping in the
sewer sludge that ran along the sidewalk. On the whole, these and other voices
amounted to a vital emancipatory movement. Freedom from Britain wasn’t really
the point. Freedom from a British way of life, which the Founding Fathers also
embodied, was the point. And it was a class issue. Which was why the Yankee
rebels were so “mean” to Washington when he met them in his lacquered
carriage, so heroic, accepting no salary. The rabble did not see this war as
something an aristocrat would be helpful in.
I think in
1770 Boston, roughly 1 percent of the property owners owned 44 percent of the
Right. At that
time, Boston was a virtual Calcutta. There were so many poor people lying in
the streets that the local sheriff would walk along with an ox-cart, pile up
bodies, and throw them in jail. It was an ugly moment in our history. I think
one can make a very good case that if the War for Independence had not
happened, we would have had a civil war. The War for Independence diverted and
co-opted this energy. Ray Raphael, in A People’s History of the American
Revolution (New Press), makes the case that the American Revolution
actually begins in 1774 with rioting Berkshire tenant farmers closing the
Worcester courts because they were sick to death of judges siding with the
gentlemen farmers who were insisting that small farmers pay their debts. Given
the hostile climate, the courts were shut down from 1774 to 1780. But guess
what, in 1780 when the courts resumed, the problems started all over again.
Then in 1787 you have Shay’s Rebellion, certainly an expression of this
discontent, but also only the tip of an iceberg.
us to a different perspective on the Constitution. From the viewpoint of
people’s history, the Constitution can be seen as a document meant to control
these rebellious elements.
believe it. Even our sacrosanct Declaration of Independence has a genesis that
is not entirely idealistic. France, whose involvement we required, insisted
that unless we declared our independence, they would not involve themselves in
a civil war. Their monies and weaponry would only be available if we declared
an independent nation. And the document is in many areas conservative. It
leaves in slavery, of course, and all these poetic abstract phrases like
“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” meant little or nothing. Issues
of class, gender, and racial equality were not on the Founding Fathers radar.
Let me bring
you back to John Lawrence and Deborah Simpson. The book gives us a motley
amalgamation of riff-raff rebels, women, blacks, Native Americans, poor
farmers, but John and Deborah are the most powerful embodiment of ordinary
people being the real movers and shakers of the revolution. Tell us how these
characters took shape for you.
To begin with
Deborah, she is a composite of two, maybe three characters. I am not clever
enough to devise her antics. All of her cloak-and-dagger work was derived from
the real activities of Washington’s spies. I did not invent any of the deeds,
although, of course, Deborah was not involved in all of them. In the 1950s,
there was a plethora of books about George Washington’s spies. None of those
books are currently in print, but I lifted Deborah’s antics from those books.
That said, the
real Deborah Simpson was a woman who may or may not have seen action at
Yorktown, but was an enlisted soldier in the Continental Army. She was the
first woman in our history to get a military pension for her service. She,
like many women, disguised herself and fought as a male soldier. After the
war, when the news got out that she was a woman, she was dishonorably
discharged. But she never quit fighting for her pension. She was never seen
dressed as a woman again. She paraded about in male soldier garb and traveled
around, in a precursor to vaudeville, telling her story of the American
Revolution. Eventually, some ten years after the war, and with some
intervention by George Washington and Paul Revere, she was rewarded her
pension. Through all this period she was married, but some historians insist
she was a lesbian.
is actually less of a composite. I put him into the war a little earlier than
the real John Laurens. But the character is based very much on fact. He is a
man who was loyal to George Washington, became one of Washington’s chief
aides-de-camp, and after the war found reason to kill himself. John Laurens
intrigued me because he represents a mystery. No one has figured out why it is
that after the Continental victory at Yorktown, after becoming one of George
Washington’s chief aide-de-camps, why did John Laurens kill himself? What I
intuit, based on his diaries, is that John Laurens was struggling with this
tremendous gap between the rhetoric of independence and the actual realities
of struggle and inequality.
He also took
action in that regard. He appealed to his father, who was one of the Founding
Fathers present at the Constitutional Convention, to free the family’s slaves
and allow them to fight as black soldiers. This exclusion of blacks and Native
Americans bothered him to the extent that he freed his own slaves and led, in
Rhode Island, black soldiers into battle. After Yorktown, he also tried to
secure freedom for all slaves in the South in exchange for military service.
But with the exception of Washington, who did support him in this, none of the
Founding Fathers wanted anything to do with this idea. So after falling into
ill repute, he returned to the fringes of the Continental Army in the swamps
of Charleston, and in battle, rode directly into the British line of fire. So
once again, there is license of emphasis, but not license of fact.
ends with a 1788 letter of Washington’s that implies, even more than 200 years
ago, we were veering away from our noble ideals. Following John Lawrence’s
death, it’s a strong reminder of an American Revolution not yet realized.
right. Beyond debunking the mythology of the Founding Fathers, we are seeking
to reclaim them and our history with all the contradictions. In doing that I
think we can see the nascent principles, ideals, and aspirations of a broader
and more genuine American Revolution. Progressives and the left need cultural
mythologies that support our views. These mythologies and that spirit are
rooted in the people and that’s what was turning the colonies upside down. So
from my point view, and from the point of view of the book, any story that
excludes this voice of the people is unpatriotic. And if we as a culture
cannot hear and sustain the truth about these men we call the Founding
Fathers, then we don’t deserve to call ourselves a democracy.
completed a book tour and Last Refuge has been out for awhile. How is
this “new mythology” being received by the press, academics, and readers?
As a result of
telling this story in a popular way, a couple of things happened. The academic
community has been slow to pick up on the book and take it seriously because
it isn’t scholarship. On the other hand, because I’m presenting myself as a
popular storyteller, I’m not marginalized in the world of academia. This makes
the book, as someone from National Review described it on MSNBC,
“dangerous entertainment.” That reaction wouldn’t be there if I were writing
for a group of historians. Check out Amazon.Com and you’ll also find a very
volatile and opposing reaction to the book. Also the New York Times,
the New York Review of Books, the Boston Globe, and other
influential members of the mainstream press have avoided reviewing the book. I
think this is what happens when you go directly to the public with a story
that confronts our founding myths.
On the road,
however, on a 23-city tour, I have been met with unbridled enthusiasm.
Everywhere, even in the South, people understand the implications of the book.
Readers have the sense that this book is telling the truth and our
conventional, official history is not telling the truth. I had one woman drive
100 miles to see me…she came up to me with tears in her eyes and said,
“Thank you, young man, for writing this book, you have done us a great
service.” I had a UPS guy show up at a signing and buy six copies. He said he
was going to send three to Imus because he said, “He has to hear what you’ve
got to say.” This kind of passion for the book was typical. I think its sold
between 30,000 and 40,000, which is very good for this kind of book. The
establishment press hasn’t touched it, but it has received many positive
reviews. Unfortunately most of these positive reviews pass over the politics
of the book and dwell on the humor or describe the book as a “caper.” But the
people I talk to get it and I think the momentum and visibility of Last
Refuge is coming from word-of-mouth.
of Last Refuge present a definite marketing problem. For all its
entertainment value, it is a book that challenges us to bring another vision,
another American Revolution into reality. It appeals to radical instincts.
Yes, and thank
you. The relevance of this book is where the danger is. The fact that it can
connect with people’s lives is where the danger is.
Carter has been a regular contributor to Z since 1988.