Thursday, June 21, 2012

Book Review: Roger Williams & the Creation of the American Soul by John M. Barry

I picked up this book on a whim (at Costco, nonetheless) a couple of months ago. I had finally just traced my ancestry back to Roger Williams, and when I saw this book sitting on the table there I figured that it was fate :)

Now, having been a  history major, books like this are almost always a fun read for me. Sure, some are better than others - even *I* will admit that historical nonfiction can be a bit dry at times, and that a lot of it depends on the writer - but chances are, I'll usually really enjoy a book like this.
First things first, I must admit that while I should have known what to expect with this book, I think I kind of wanted something else. I do think that the title is a *bit* misleading - while Roger Williams is of course a prominent feature of the book, it is less a biography of him or even of how he helped form the "American Soul" than it is a history of that time period with a focus on Williams and his fight to create Rhode Island. I can't really fault the author for this, but I would have preferred a little more information on Williams's home/family life. The few times they were mentioned seemed really out of context, as well, to the point where I wondered why the author was bringing them up at all.

I would say that the first quarter or so (maybe a *little* less) of Roger Williams & the Creation of the American Soul deals with Edward Coke and Francis Bacon. The author is obviously trying to show how they shaped Williams and his ideals, but I think this could have been accomplished better than it was. There is an awful lot of text on Coke and Bacon, yet next to nothing about any interactions they had or may have had with Williams and next to nothing about what Williams was doing during the years of Coke's and Bacon's life that Barry writes about. A lot of it felt almost like filler.

The story itself is fascinating and I think that it is generally told well, but I have some complaints about the technical aspects of Barry's writing - in this book, anyway. Ridiculously long sentences with more than a few commas are rampant, and he also has an issue with repeating things - not just as a way to drive them home (which he does, and far too often in my opinion), but he also repeats words, sometimes several times on the same page. To be quite frank, these issues left me wondering whether this book was ever edited at all.

As a general history book, overlooking the grammatical issues contained in it and focusing on the interesting story it tells, I would probably rate Roger Williams & the Creation of the American Soul 4/5 stars. But as a book about Roger Williams, and taking into consideration what the author was apparently trying to accomplish, I can only rate it 3/5 stars.

“…he believed that forced worship ‘stinks in God’s nostrils.’ At worst, it would lead to a foul corruption not of the state, which was already corrupt, but of the church, as it befouled itself with the state’s errors.” 

 “’For an Englishman’s house is as his castle…[and each man’s home his safest refuge].'"

  “One cannot know what precisely he took from such experiences. One cannot know the heart and mind or Williams or any other person. But one can stand where he stood, see what he saw, know much of what he heard and read, and thus come to some understanding of his perspective.”

  “Machiavelli was then a frequent subject of discussion and was often attacked for his immorality. Bacon admired him for ‘openly and unfeignedly…describe[ing] what men do, and not what they ought to do.’…In an essay he advised ‘the hiding and veiling of a man’s self…If you would work any man, you must know either his nature and fashions, and so lead him; or his ends, and so persuade him; or his weaknesses and disadvantages, and so awe him; or those that have interest in him, and so govern him.’” 

 “One critic wrote that James would rather spend 100,000 pounds on embassies to keep or procure Peace with Dishonour, than 10,000 pounds on an army that would have forced Peace with Honour.’”
            “He saw society as truly holding its wealth in common, hence as being a commonwealth; it had 
                          economic inequality in it, it had inequality of rank, but there was no inequality in value.”

 “’A vocation or calling, is a certain kinde of life, ordained and imposed on man by God, for the common good…[A] king is to spend his tyme in the governing of his subjects, and that is his calling; and a subject is to live in obedience to the Magistrate, and that is his calling…The author of every calling is God himselfe; and therefore Paul saith; As God hath called every man, let him walke…The final cause or ende of every calling…[is] For the common good. In mans body there be sundrie parts and members, and every one hath his severall use and office, which it performeth not for it selfe, but for the good of the whole bodie; as the office of the eye, is to see, of the eare to heare, and the foote to goe. Now all societies of men, are bodies…the common-wealth also.’”

 “…he compared different parts of the body, each fitting together, to different roles people played in society, explaining that ‘every man might have need of other.’ He considered such dependence a good thing, since ‘from hence they might all be knit more nearly together in the Bonds of brotherly affection.’”

“…feelings, not reason, drove men…”

“Those who labor as Williams did, when they also have intellect and education, often develop both great confidence in themselves and some disdain for those who do no physical labor. Years later Williams would show such disdain, writing, ‘I know what it is to Study, to Preach, to be an Elder, to be applauded, and yet what it is to tug at the Oar, to dig with the Spade, and Plow, to labour and travel day and night amongst English, amongst Barbarians.’”

“As he looked out upon the cove, knowing the ocean lay beyond, as he turned and looked inland, he must have believed he had what Winslow had promised: the Country free before me. (P) He was free, fully free, free in the wilderness, free to make of it what he would.”

“For a man such as he to omit all mention of God underscored his absolute conviction that to assume that God embraced any state other than ancient Israel profaned God and signified human arrogance in the extreme.”
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  1. The odds, how cool! I've never been able to read about history unless it was tied in someone as a suspense or fiction piece. I like fiction, fantasy, with a bit of true crime thrown in every now and again. :)

  2. I almost *had* to read this book, being "I {heart} Rhody" and all. And I did enjoy it, although I had many of the same complaints that you did.

    Sadly, there's probably not much of Williams' home life because we don't know much about it. There are no extant paintings or drawings of him, and the majority of his writings (and those about him) don't really focus on home life.

    That said, I've read other books by Barry, and one thing I noticed is his tendency to pad out the books with repetition. Did you see that, too?

    You can read my review here: