The Flag, The Poet and The Song
Dutton, June, 2001.
Hardcover, 239 pages.
Not only has Mr. Molotovsky written a history book that is a very enjoyable read, this book really highlights a part of American history to which most history courses give only a cursory mention: the time after the American Revolution was over, the Constitution was ratified and the young nation was beginning to take on its political youth and adulthood. The subsequent war with England brought forth our two most cherished national symbols: the flag and our national anthem. Though it took a while for Congress to get the design of the flag correct, and it took an even longer time to adopt the anthem, the War of 1812 eventually gave us both of these national treasures. Mr. Molotovsky conducts us on the odyssey of the ups and downs, the popularity and the unpopularity, and the myths that adhere to both symbols.
Almost everything you learned about the writing of our national anthem and the making of the "star spangled banner" that inspired it is incorrect. As a reporter and editor with the Washington bureau of The New York Times, Irvin Molotsky is an accomplished scholar, interviewer, and fearless debunker. Forget about Betsy Ross, poetry written on the back of an envelope, a flag torn and battered by artillery and rocket fire and a young lawyer witnessing the fort that was being bombarded by the British from the shore of Baltimore Harbor. Disabuse yourself of the belief that we have always sung the National Anthem before baseball games or that it was the only candidate for a national anthem. Nor has the flag always had thirteen stripes and a star for each state. You will be surprised at the enormous size of the actual star spangled banner, and saddened to learn the real reason that it is a little smaller than it was when it was first hoisted over Fort McHenry. You will notice that less is said about Andrew Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans, and that the battle of Baltimore was actually more important in the scheme of things. You will also find out exactly why the British burned the President's House (which was not yet painted white) and why dinner was waiting for the invaders. At least we can still admire Dolly Madison, who had the taste as well as the foresight to rescue Gilbert Stuart's great portrait of George Washington and our Constitution before the British arrived. At least something we thought we knew is actually true.
There is little doubt that The Flag, the Poet and the Song belongs in the well-stocked library for two reasons. First, it is an entertaining and well-researched part of our collective history and, second, it is quite useful for settling arguments such as whether Mary Pickersgill is the real creator of the star-spangled banner that rouses such strong emotions in all Americans.
--Sarah Reaves White
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