- The Brandywine: An Intimate Portrait by W. Barksdale Maynard
W. Barksdale Maynard. 2015. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, PA, USA. 276Pages. Hardcover Edition: ISBN 978-0-08122-4677-3, Digital Edition: 978-0-081224-4677-2.
W. Barksdale Maynard has produced another finely written book, this time a history of the most famous river of his home state of Delaware. Maynard’s other books have dealt with history, architectural history, and the operation of business. This breadth of topics appears in the present volume which includes historical topography, cultural landscape, military and industrial history, and art. The book is written in a popular style for the general reader, although it also has footnotes that will appeal to the scholar.
Besides wishing to celebrate the history of a notable part of the world in which he has long lived, Maynard also has a concrete purpose behind the book—to generate awareness for conservation in the Brandywine Valley. As he notes in the Preface, “If we are going to save the Brandywine for our children, we need to begin by understanding its fascinating history and why it has always mattered” (p. 16). In particular he describes the good work of the Brandywine Conservancy, founded in 1967, and praises President Obama’s creation of the First State National Monument in 2013.
The book is arranged chronologically. Chapters deal with: the Swedish period in the seventeenth century (1); the takeover by English Quakers under William Penn (2); the Battle of Brandywine in the American Revolution (an entire chapter for an event whose spiritual importance grew so that 150 years later prominent locals saw it as pivotal, part of the valley’s zeitgeist) (3); the early industrial revolution after the Revolution (4); two chapters on the du Pont family and its gunpowder mills (4 and 5); the natural history of the river as it was studied in the nineteenth century (6); pastoral writing on the river in the early twentieth century (7); and finally the work of the famous Wyeth family of painters (8). Readers concerned with [End Page 134] landscape will find much of interest, especially in Chapter 7.
The book’s underlying theme is a paradox that Maynard sees in the Brandywine’s history: on the one hand the river’s natural beauty has made it a prime example of American pastoral; on the other its fame largely rests in activities distinctly non-pastoral, especially industry. What Maynard calls “the Brandywine of myth and memory,” a “poetical river,” is an American arcadia celebrated by painters, writers, and travelers. But “the Brandywine of milling and manufactures,” a “practical river,” (all pp. 2–3) has continually intruded on the arcadia, whether in the form of Wilmington factories belching smoke, the du Pont gunpowder mills, or steel mills further upstream.
Several limitations of the book should be noted. Firstly, the book’s material is taken primarily from secondary sources, although these are very extensive and widely gathered and include published primary sources (such as early travelers’ accounts) as well as newspapers as far back as the late nineteenth century. Strictly archival material was not considered. Secondly, sometimes the author seems too close to the subject and loses a scholar’s objectivity. As an example, his mood is sometimes antiquarian and nostalgic and his tone occasionally opinionated, as in criticism of “yuppified restoration” (p. 37). He also gets downright hagiographical about the du Ponts and the Wyeths.
The du Ponts receive more attention than any other players in the book; no fewer than fifteen different members of the family are mentioned. Moreover, Maynard sees them as “natural aristocrats,” noting, for example, their “most private and exclusive of cemeteries, a tranquil resting place for a family that in time became the single wealthiest in America” (p. 98). In fact, although it never actually comes out and says it, the book itself gives plenty of evidence that the family and its business have been distinctly mixed blessings for the region, through pollution and especially the many explosions of powder mills that killed and maimed countless workers over the years, though apparently only one member of the du Pont family...