If I had to compile a list of the people I admire the most at the top of that list would be James Burke. I’ve been a fan of his year decades, ever since when, as a teenage, I stumbled across an episode of his landmark documentary television series Connections. I can remember, as an impressionable young man watching the show and being awestruck by Burke’s ability to show the interconnectedness of scientific discovery and technological development. Through his series Connections (and its two subsequent iterations), The Day the Universe Changed and stand alone productions like After the Warming Burke didn’t just teach how history unfolded (or in the case of the more speculative After the Warming, how it could unfold) but did so with passion, style and perhaps most of all, dry humor.
I’m embarrassed to say, as much as I idolize Burke, I’ve read only two of his books. It’s been years since I read Twin Tracks: The Unexpected Origins of the Modern World and The Day the Universe Changed. A 2000 paperback edition of The Knowledge Web : From Electronic Agents to Stonehenge and Back — And Other Journeys Through Knowledge has sat ignored and unread in my personal library for years . Last week, after staring at my copy of The Knowledge Web for the umpeenth million time I decided read something by Burke. Seeing a copy of his 2007 book American Connections: The Founding Fathers. Networked. happened to be available through Overdrive I opted to give it a shot before finally diving into The Knowledge Web.
Taking what I would call the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon approach to history, in American Connections Burke looks at each of the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence and in true Burkean style traces their connections to each one’s present day respective namesake, including John Hancock (“He was an egomaniac and nobody liked him”), Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and even the illustrious Button Gwinnett. Who would have thought what started with New Hampshire’s Josiah Bartlett would lead to John Paul Jones, then writerJames Fenimore’s father Judge William Cooper, then pioneering TV religious personality Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, and finally ending with actor Martin Sheen and his West Wing character Josiah Betlett.
To pull this off, Burke utilizes a cast of thousands-mostly obscure-who for a variety of reasons are long forgotten. Many failed horribly, were disgraced by scandal or enjoyed only the briefest of success. For those who would complain our current age is sinful as hell and yearn for the morally upright days of yesteryear, they’ll be shocked to learn a number of the Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian era personalities to bask in Burke’s limelight were shamelessly infidelitous, (including a number of ménages à trois and even a ménage à quatre or two), incestual, and LGBTQ. (One of which was a woman who was accused of dressed like a man. Later, one prospective employer agreed to hire her but only if she agreed to wear a dress. She complied but years later it was learned she was really a man.)
A wise old history professor once described history to me as good people doing bad things and bad people doing good things. Of the countless individuals whose lives are on display in American Connections almost none were wholly good or evil. But all of them made contributions. And in the hands of James Burke, it all makes for entertaining reading.