What “Autumn of the Black Snake” is About

We’re about six weeks away from the publication date of May 17 May 16! — and the launch event, at 7:00 PM that same day, at the new Greenlight branch on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn (all are welcome) — so I’m thinking aloud here about what my forthcoming book might be about.

You’d think I’d already know what it’s about. But I find I don’t know what I’m doing until I’m done, and this story is now truly finished, written and edited and copyedited and ready to appear. So until I decide that I think otherwise, here is the first-draft attempt at a full-blown, nonnegotiable manifesto for Autumn of the Black Snake.

The book will, I think, engage the history buff. But that’s not all I think it does.

Here goes:

In Autumn of the Black Snake, from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, I tell the startling story of the formation of the U.S. Army, from absolute scratch, and against fervent political opposition, in response to the worst military defeat the U.S. would ever suffer at the hands of indigenous North Americans — or, to look at it another way, the greatest victory that indigenous North Americans have ever enjoyed against U.S. expansion. This is a war that nobody talks about, or even has a good name for, despite its being the most important war the United States has ever fought — no, I mean because it’s the most important war the United States has ever fought.

When I tell people about it, they say “Oh, like Tecumseh?” (Well, some do.) No. Tecumseh never won a battle against the United States. Yet we’ve heard of Tecumseh. We’ve heard of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, and that was nothing, in scale, in historical importance, in sheer drama, to what I’m talking about here. Why is that?

We don’t deal with this one. Because it’s amazing.

Without this first war of expansionist conquest, nothing. Establishing not only the first regular U.S. military force, which would go on to became the most powerful military entity on earth, but also U.S. possession of what would become, astonishingly quickly, the booming, stinking industrial heartland that made America the most productive nation on earth (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, now largely boarded up and shut down), this is the war where American dreams of commercial and military empire, which had been resisted so well and so long by the nations that actually lived there, were first made real.

The rest is history. And because, in 2017, we have urgent need to consider where our troubled history of national greatness may now be turning, I want to bring back to life the weird and painful things we’ve forgotten when it comes to how that history actually began. It happened in a country totally other than the one we have in our minds.

The book frames those origins in a multifacted dramatic action — “character-driven,” as they say. This all happened between 1791 and 1795. So, yes, rest assured your pal Alexander will make an appearance; so of course will Washington and Jefferson. So will all-important people who, I’ll say politely, are just a bit less well-known: the enigmatic Miami war leader Little Turtle, in tense partnership with the flamboyant Shawnee war leader Blue Jacket; the high British official Alexander McKee, also Shawnee; John Simcoe, the Governor of Upper Canada, eager to redress British defeat by the colonies; James Wilkinson, a double agent, at once a Spanish spy and second-in-command of the U.S. Army; and the dogged, irascible commander, General Anthony Wayne. Nobody talks much about Mad Anthony these days. Without him, no Grant and Lee, no Patton. The global power that the United States would go on to become — militarily, industrially, commercially — started not in 1776 with independence, not in 1789 with nationhood, and not in 1900 with expansion beyond the continent, but in the turbulent events that I’m relating in this book. It was a startup that required conquest.

Jefferson's West

Jefferson’s West — too bad other nations already held it.

Autumn of the Black Snake thus questions the tendency of books like Rachel Maddow’s Drift, which casts the rise of the national-security state as a departure from founding American values. It questions preconceptions of Steven Kinzer’s recent The True Flag, which casts U.S. imperialism — and dissent from imperialist policies — as a turn-of-the-20th-century phenomenon. It questions trenchant critiques by foreign-policy thinkers — Chris Hedges, Andrew Bacevich — who suggest that like Rome, the U.S. lost touch with its republican precepts when it became imperialist and expansionist. The action I’m relating makes it impossible to imagine an American republic without expansionism. The drive to “open” what was then the American West to real-estate investment and development served as an explicit cause of the Revolution and an explicit cause of forming a constitutional nation; both Hamilton and Jefferson used the term “empire” for their differing visions of the West. Any effort to criticize U.S. aggression would have to begin with criticizing founding values themselves. We can’t do that, because we’ve decided to not know what happened.

Well, now it’s 2017. Donald Trump is in the presidency, and all that that entails when it comes to Americans’ revivalist ideas about nationalism, white and male supremacy, wealth, resources, power, strength. On the flipside, students and others are struggling against the prevalence of racist/imperialist statues and demanding changing renaming buildings named for racist/imperialists. I’m eager to usher readers into the wild world and the harsh action that really formed us — us, the terribly divided people we so clearly are. I think this story truly is as gripping as the early trade reviews have said (despite the fact that standard flap copy calls a lot of stuff “gripping” that just isn’t!); I know it challenges historical preconceptions, all along our bitterly segmented political spectrum. What I wish is that it would spark some public dialogue, not only about the past but also about the future, and not only about the American past and future but also, in this perilous moment, about the past and future of humanity.

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4 thoughts on “What “Autumn of the Black Snake” is About

  1. I’ve been following your work for over ten years, Bill — using your books every semester, teaching what you are saying above. This is the reality that belies the spectrum of myths about the U.S., its history, and its origins. I know I owe you a review (or two) — I’m planning to review TWR, FF, and this together. Your work is among the most important of any historians I’ve read. Too bad for me it doesn’t transfer into a tenured position with benefits. 🙂 Peace man — hope all is well.

  2. Autumn… is very informative, interesting and illuminating. Just finished Sen. Mike Lee’s ‘Written out of History’ and the two books ‘book-end’ and fill in each other’s blanks. No wonder Martin, Mason, Burr and others rose in revolt against the Convention.

  3. I recently finished “Autumn…” this past week and I really enjoyed it. I feel as someone in their mid-20’s that this time in history has been completely overlooked in classrooms and in literature. I enjoyed learning a new side of G. Washington (his biography is next on my list) and how he was shaping America well before the Revolution began. I never realized the struggle that the Native Americans went through and how they were affected by the United States’ expansionist regime.

    In terms of writing I thought it needed work. I felt like there was a disparity between sentences that ended too soon and sentences that went on too long. I would sometimes get lost within the page and have to start over. In general the writing wasn’t bad, it just felt like some work is needed to flow a little better.

    I am looking forward to the next piece of writing and am glad I was able to find “Autumn”

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