By Leszek Szymanski. Foreword by Brigadier General Thaddeus W. Maliszewski. New York. Hippocrene Books. 1994. 316 pages. Maps & Index. Hardcover. $24.95.
For Polish Americans, there is no more important Polish historical figure (excluding the living historical figures such as John Paul II and Lech Walesa) than Casimir Pulaski [Kazimierz Pulaski]. Polish Americans in New York City hold an annual parade to mark the anniversary of his death. In Illinois they persuaded state officials to declare the first Monday of March a state holiday to mark the anniversary of his birth. Having paid the ultimate price in the struggle for American independence, Pulaski legitimates the claims of Polish Americans to be regarded as valuable constituents of the United States. In contemporary American terms, he is an important element of the Polish American ethnic identity.
When Illinois first declared Pulaski Day a state holiday in the mid-1980s, with government offices and schools closed for the day, even in Chicago journalists and other media people scrambled to find out who Pulaski was. Obviously, the average American knows little about this hero, and there is a need for a new biography. Leszek Szymanski's book does not entirely satisfy this need, though the author's efforts to uncover every possible source about Pulaski's American experience makes a contribution toward that goal.
What did Pulaski stand for and where does he fit into the course of Polish history? Szymanski shows no interest in such questions. The Confederation of Bar, although mentioned, does not appear in the index.
Szymanski's documentary account (a designation which more aptly describes this book than the term "biography") of Pulaski's presence of less than 28 months in America takes an unusual form for a work of scholarship. In addition to maps dating from 1860 of the battles of Brandywine, Germantown, and Savannah, it includes a foreword by Brigadier General Thaddeus W. Maliszewski, who recommends the book; a prologue by the author, in which he discusses historiographical aspects of his subject; an epilogue at the end of the book, in which the author gives his views on some of the controversies that surround his subject; a bibliographical note, in which he reviews some of the most important sources for his study; a biographical note summarizing in less than a page and a half the life of Pulaski before he came to America; two short commentaries on the book by Michal I. Zawadzki, Ph.D., and Dr. Edward C. Rowanski; and finally a sketchy index, in which the entries under "Pulaski, Casimir" and "Pulaski Legion" make up more than a quarter of the whole.
The heart of the book consists of two parts: "Commander of the Horse," which in 130 pages covers the period from Pulaski's arrival in America in July 1777 to his resignation from the Continental Cavalry and the reaction to it in March 1778, and Pulaski and His Legion," which begins by quoting an advertisement for volunteers for what was to become the Pulaski Legion and 120 pages later brings us to Pulaski's fatal wounding at the Battle of Savannah in October 1779.
Szymanski belongs to the "cut and paste" school of historical writing. Hardly a page goes by without a direct quote from one source or another, some quite extensive, going on for more than a page. Reproducing contemporary letters and reports associated with Pulaski can provide an interesting insight into the times. But Szymanski pushes this method rather far. In the course of an extensive discussion of what he calls the "Bentalou-Johnson polemics" about an aspect of Pulaski's record, Szymanski feels compelled to quote several lines from the Papers of the Continental Congress and more from a letter in the collection of the Georgia Historical Society, all for the purpose of establishing Bentalou's existence and credibility as a witness. Szymanski demonstrates that he is a prodigious researcher, but a greater selectivity would more successfully catch the interest of the average American whom he wishes to educate about Pulaski.
In the section on the Bentalou-Johnson polemics, Szymanski goes to excessive length to defend Pulaski from every criticism that marked his career in the American war for independence. Thus, the author spends 18 pages discussing the battle of Germantown and the charge that Pulaski overslept and thereby contributed to the defeat, quoting extensively from the exchanges between Paul Bentalou and William Johnson in the early 1800s on this issue. Here and elsewhere, a better sense of proportion would have improved this book.
Nothing in this study stimulates a reader to take a broader interest in Polish history or even in Pulaski. The Confederation of Bar, although mentioned, does not appear in the index. Some say that Pulaski became the chosen hero of Polish Americans not so much because he died in battle as because his name was easier for fellow Americans to pronounce than that of his contemporary Thaddeus Kosciuszko [Tadeusz Kosciuszko], a minor noble who in some ways more clearly represented the values that inspired the American revolution than the aristocrat Pulaski did. What did Pulaski stand for and where does he fit into the course of Polish history? Szymanski shows no interest in such questions, thus reinforcing the attitudes which, by accident or design, have taken root among many, including some Polish Americans who revel in Pulaski's name. For them and for some others, Szymanski has produced an extensive compendium of excerpts from documents associated with the American portion of Pulaski's life experience.
John J. Kulczycki is Professor of History at the University of Illinois-Chicago.