Rick Atkinson’s Guns at Last Light has topped bestseller lists since May. It was the third volume in the “Liberation Trilogy,” his epic history of World War II, and now the two-time Pulitzer winner has reupped for another conflict: the Revolutionary War.
Atkinson, 60 (left), spent a grueling 15 years researching and writing the three WWII books (which now have a combined 900,000 copies in print). But “the American Revolution has always had a grip on my imagination,” he says.
His latest project, announced by Henry Holt Publicity Director Pat Eisemann just before Book Expo America earlier this month, is good news for fans of military history in general and fine writing in particular. The Guns at Last Light contains sentences so “achingly sublime,” in the words of reviewer Gerard DeGroot, that I recently got into a disagreement with another reader over whether this sentence (about Eisenhower on D-Day) is Biblical or Shakespearean: “Cometh the hour, cometh the man.” (My own personal favorite from Last Light includes the phrase “Stars threw down their silver spears on a long column of eight hundred airplanes” ferrying paratroopers into battle.)
Still, I couldn’t resist asking the author whether the American Revolution hasn’t been, well, done to death.
“I got the same question when I was writing the ‘Liberation Trilogy,’ ” he returned fire. “You know — ‘What could you possibly have to say about World War II that’s new?’ Well, the answer turned out to be, ‘A lot!’ ”
Atkinson hopes that’ll be the case this time around, too — “starting with the voice, the narrative coherence, and the depth of archival trolling I do.”
Indeed, Atkinson is an “archive rat,” says his literary agent, Rafe Sagalyn (right). “Hey, that’s what Rick calls himself: He finds things in the research that others don’t find.”
He’s also something of an Army brat, making his obsession with U.S. military history seem logical, almost ineluctable. “I was born in a U.S. Army hospital in Munich,” says Atkinson, “and I lived on Army posts in Salzburg, Austria, and Hawaii as a boy. Every U.S. service branch is fixated on its heritage, so for 18 years my father and my uncle [both career Army officers] drummed it into me that the Revolution is where the United States Army starts. I guess I wanted to tell that particular ‘creation story.’ ”
You can’t talk to Atkinson about his “Revolution Trilogy” without being impressed by his unique perspective:
American audiences tend to underappreciate the British, but 240 years ago they were us: They were the most powerful nation on Earth. Their mercantile empire spanned the planet. They had the most potent and experienced army and navy the world had ever seen.”
His global take on the conflict extends to Germany and France, too. The 30,000 German soldiers who fought alongside the Redcoats, says Atkinson, “have been stereotyped as mutton-headed Hessians, when in fact their battlefield role was far more nuanced and interesting than that. I lived in Berlin for three years [Atkinson was bureau chief of The Washington Post from 1993 to 1996], so I have some sense of what German forces were capable of at that time. The French characters — General Lafayette, Admiral de Grasse — are fabulous, too.”
Sagalyn hopes Atkinson won’t spend quite as long on the American Revolution as he did on World War II: “I’m hoping he can knock this one out in 10 to 12 years.”
But if the author plumbs Colonial warfare as insightfully as its 20th-century version, “fabulous” may be just the opening salvo in a barrage of plaudits.