Saturday, July 4, 2009

Timothy J. Shannon

Timothy J. Shannon teaches Early American, Native American, and British history at Gettysburg College. He is the author of Iroquois Diplomacy on the Early American Frontier (2008), Atlantic Lives: A Comparative Approach to Early America (2004), and Indians and Colonists at the Crossroads of Empire: The Albany Congress of 1754 (2000), which won the Dixon Ryan Fox Prize from the New York State Historical Association and the Distinguished Book Award from the Society of Colonial Wars. He is also co-author with Victoria Bissell Brown of Going to the Source: The Bedford Reader in Early American History (second edition, 2008). His articles have appeared in the William and Mary Quarterly, the New England Quarterly, and Ethnohistory.

Late last month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
It is summer, the time of year when I try to squeeze in most of my pleasure reading. My usual tactic is to pick one contemporary work of fiction and one long-neglected (on my part at least) classic and then to see what those titles lead me to next.

I started off with Dear American Airlines, a well-reviewed debut novel by Jonathan Miles last year. The story is told by the protagonist, a recovering alcoholic and divorced father who is trying desperately to make it to his daughter’s wedding, only to find himself thwarted by the capricious nature of modern air travel. His angry letter of complaint, composed during an interminable and unplanned layover, becomes a confessional account of his life, told with hearty doses of black humor. Of course, I may have been cajoled into reading this one simply by the description of the author’s day job on the dust jacket: he is the cocktails editor for the New York Times.

The classic novel I have selected for the summer is John Updike’s Rabbit, Run. I read some of his short stories in college and his criticism pieces in the New Yorker, but I had never read any of his novels. His death last year made me put this on my list. However, I have not cracked it yet, as I have already been distracted by other things.

My family and I are spending June and July in Britain with a study abroad group, and so I wanted to read something that would put me in the proper frame of mind for travel. George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London seemed like a good choice, as we would be spending time in both cities, and I always wanted to read something by him that was not on one of my high school reading lists. The book reminded me of Orwell’s wonderful dexterity with English prose, and it also proved him to be adept at the brief character study. He does a wonderful job of conveying the personalities of the various down-and-outers he meets while living as a homeless person in London, and his descriptions of working in the bowels of a Paris hotel kitchen will make you think twice about what you are getting on your plate the next time you eat in a fancy French restaurant.

From Orwell, I moved on in search of some comic relief and found it in Cold Comfort Farm, a satire of English country life by Stella Gibbons. A friend had recommended this title to my wife and I shortly before our departure for the UK. I found a paperback edition in a used bookstore shortly after our arrival and figured it was a sign from heaven. I have never indulged in the sort of works this book was intended to lampoon, Victorian tales of isolated gentry families slowly descending into madness and rot out there in the moors. But now having read it, and smiled the whole way through, I feel like I have digested Wuthering Heights as well. So I am glad to recommend it as a highly enjoyable two-for-one.
The historian Kevin Kenny wrote of Shannon's Iroquois Diplomacy on the Early American Frontier:
Shannon’s book takes us from the zenith of Iroquois power in the early eighteenth century to its nadir in the Revolutionary era, concentrating on the intricate art of diplomacy in treaty negotiations over war, peace, and trade between the various colonial governments and the Indians. In this account the Iroquois are major players rather than pawns in history, even if their story ends, inexorably, in tragedy. In keeping with the tone of the series, Shannon writes about even the most complex issues in an impressively deft style.
--Marshal Zeringue