The full title of this book is An American Story: It’s Your History, Help Write It. V 1.0 by Ethan Russell. Russell is a photographer known for the work he did with the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, John and Yoko, and The Who. I was drawn to this book, which is available in e-book form only, because I am an historian by training (PhD in Russian History), I was born in 1964, which technically makes me a boomer, and I was intrigued with the idea of an e-history book that could link readers to all kinds of information that would not be available so readily in a standard history text. I hate to say it, but I was disappointed in this book both as history and as an example of innovative use of modern technology to link readers to the past.
Let’s start with the tech aspect of the book. First, the photos are great and the reader can enlarge them to fill the screen. There are iconic shots of Lennon, the Beatles, the Stones, etc. as well as previously unseen photos. Thumbs up for that. The information links provided in the text are another matter. They are predominantly to music videos, and I don’t have a problem with linking to them, but I feel that Russell could have done so much more than this. The text that appears with the links is simply a reiteration of what appears in the book instead of an expansion on any given theme or an excerpt from someone else’s work. For example, when he mentions historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s A Team of Rivals, he links to a photo of the book cover but doesn’t provide an excerpt or even give a short summary of the work. He does the same with David McCullough’s biography of Truman. Sometimes, certain links are used over and over rather than provide any new information. For example, Russell makes reference to David McCullough’s brilliant biography of John Adams. He links to information about Adams and a video clip from the HBO John Adams series. Fine. Then Russell refers to Washington and Lincoln with hyperlinks back to John Adams. Why not provide new information on each of those people? I also felt that there was so much information about the events of the 1960s that could and should have been shared and explained but was not. More about that below.
My bigger problem with this book is as a history. Russell believes that “… the history of the Baby Boomers has been so badly mangled — especially in the mass media — that it needs correction.” He goes on to explain that this is “… a hunt to find a version of the Baby Boomers’ history that might bear some resemblance to the times I lived through. This has been driven by my persistent and unpleasant perception that the era of the Baby Boomers has been reduced … to a simplistic and pejorative narrative..,” and that, “If one were to inquire, the current, popular conception of — and response to — the sixties might be to dismiss the entire era as drug-addled and delusional. This perception needs to be challenged.” What evidence is there of this “perception”? Russell provides none despite that fact that he has access to the whole wide web for the images, words and video clips. I think Russell’s premise is a classic “straw man” — a weak position that no one is really taking and that allows the writer to easily defeat it.
The funny thing is, Russell doesn’t really even address his thesis head on as he writes. Instead of a history, he presents a sort of memoir, but even as a memoir this book is unsatisfactory. It’s sketchy and episodic in dealing with the author’s personal experiences, and jumps forward and backward in time. Russell doesn’t do a very good job of placing any of it in a larger context. He seems to have spent much of the 1960s as a detached, sometime-observer of the major events going on around him. He devotes no attention to the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, or the successful space program (major highlights of the decade); he provides little to no detail about the war in Vietnam, presidential politics, race riots and the tragic assassinations of the decade — the very events that cause others who experienced them to say, “I remember where I was when….” One egregious omission as far as I’m concerned is the year 1968. This was the year of the Tet Offensive and My Lai, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, race riots across the nation, the Democratic Convention in Chicago — a year of stunning violence in the United States. Ethan Russell spent that year in England. He and his sister had gone there on their father’s expense account in 1967, looking for the music scene and drugs. Russell stumbled into the job of photographing Mick Jagger for Rolling Stone magazine, and from there, got jobs photographing the Stones, Beatles, etc. 1968 was an awesome year for Russell. Who wouldn’t rather spend the year doing what he did? I don’t begrudge him that amazing opportunity, but he seems oblivious to the impact of the events of 1968 on those who were in the US, leading average lives of work, school or military service. What Russell remembers and experienced of the 1960s is unique, not the common experience of most Baby Boomers, in my opinion. An American Story does give its readers the chance to update the story themselves, by adding their own stories to the blog. I like this idea, but I would rather see Russell fix the holes in his story.
One more complaint I have about Russell’s description of his experience in England, 1968, has to do with two chapters, “Sunny South Kensington” and “Christopher,” which, incredibly, deal with autism. People who know me, know that I have two boys with autism spectrum disorders and so I am quite finely attuned to matters dealing with that topic. Apparently, while in London and looking for something to do in 1968, Russell decided to volunteer at St. John’s Wood Children’s Hospital which cared for kids with autism. It’s a lovely thing to do, but a couple things bothered me. First, the woman running the program tells Russell that the children have autism due to a traumatic separation from the mother. This smacks of Bruno Bettelheim’s widely vilified and discredited refrigerator mother theory. I wouldn’t expect anyone in 1968 to know what a load of crap that theory was, but if Russell is going to put this in his book, he might like to do a little research to see what autism really is and thus educate his readers and himself. Russell also writes about saying goodby to one child, Christopher, with whom he had worked and who needed to be placed in a group home. He writes, “I tell Christopher good-bye and he acts as if he understands. Got along without me before he met me.” That ends the chapter. No wondering how Christopher might be doing, no thought that despite his autism, Christopher might have feelings just like anyone else and be sad but unable to show it. You would actually have to do some research into the topic and want to know more to learn that. The fact that Russell doesn’t bothers me.
In part 2 of this book (which is roughly the last quarter of the book), Russell tries to impose context on his personal narrative, but it’s too little and as far as I’m concerned, it’s a bit lazy. This section might have worked better at the beginning, but again, your theme and main points need to be hit within the text if you expect to convince your readers of legitimacy of your argument.