The Great Dismal Swamp

Between moving from two apartments and a storage unit into a single house, attending three weddings in three different states, revising and submitting one article manuscript and working on another, writing a conference paper, and creating/revising syllabi, I didn’t make my way to much in the way of historic sites this summer, which had been a goal. Alas.

However, in visiting friends who live only a couple of hours away but who I hadn’t seen in over a year, I did manage to get out to Virginia/North Carolina’s Great Dismal Swamp. That wasn’t on my travel itinerary when I moved to Virginia, but a student in my American Wilderness class last spring wrote a fantastic paper about the swamp and its history, and so it was added to my itinerary.

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In my perfect world, we’d have headed somewhere remote and buggy and notably devoid of people, but my friends weren’t sure how to get to such a spot, it was hot, and we took the dog with us, so we instead walked along the canal, which itself has an interesting history. Apparently hoping to drain and farm the swamp, the Dismal Swamp Land Company instead found itself resorting to logging and shingling. Forced to hire labor rather than sell land, it found a workforce that would work at reduced wages: runaway slaves, or maroons, who hid in the swamp . To ease the transport of timber products, the DSLC also hired maroons to work on the construction of several canals. The combination of intensified industry and easier tourist access in some ways demystified the swamp, though its image as a romantic, haunting wasteland persisted in popular fiction.

Maybe that image explains the canal-side signage warning of bears–somebody’s trying to maintain a sense of danger, even if the wildest life I saw was a dragonfly.

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Catching up: a big post on summer reading

So I’ve been not updating this lately because I’ve been doing other writing, and I know nobody is likely going to read this massive post, but oh well, I want to do some catch-up with bits I’ve written here and there in order to cover the late-summer reading list.

I actually dropped the textbook I’ve been using for Colonial America, Alan Taylor’s American Colonies, largely because I felt like it was distracting students from what I wanted them focused on and discussing, and overwhelming them with details. I don’t really like dropping a central text completely, so I may reintroduce one later, but this semester I’m trying without. However, if I do return to one, I may have to consider using Dan Richter’s latest, Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Pasts instead. It’s a nice synthesis with a strong central narrative about how those ancient pasts conditioned the experience of colonization for North America’s natives and newcomers, and I think makes effective comparisons between English, Spanish, French, and Dutch colonial developments by consistently referring to processes at work in a larger Atlantic World.


I assign Jeffrey Ostler’s The Plains Sioux and US Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee in my Native American history class, and we always have a presentation from students who research the ongoing dispute over ownership of the Black Hills to think about some of the continuities connecting the late 19th century with today. His subsequent book serves as a baseline for students working on those presentations, and I finally had a chance to carefully read The Lakotas and the Black Hills: The Struggle for Sacred Ground. I’ve written about this Penguin series before, and its gearing towards a more general audience, and Ostler deftly manages to convey the complex history of the Lakotas and the Black Hills (saying they used to live there and thus claim ownership is far too simple) in a concise, straightforward volume. Great book, and one with fascinating tidbits as well (like that the original proposal for a monument at Mt. Rushmore included Sioux leader Red Cloud and other figures from western history, rather than presidents).


Before I came to UMW, I taught a class on Atlantic Slavery and Resistance, and considered assigning Marcus Redicker’s then-brand-new The Slave Ship: A Human History. Ultimately I instead assigned Stephanie Smallwood’s Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora, in part because of price (Redicker was still only in hardcover), but also in part because Smallwood spent more time considering the trade’s American dimension. I loved her central metaphor of alchemy, the transformation of gold into humans and humans into gold, as a way of understanding commodification and Atlantic trade and the tensions inherent in trading in people whose human characteristics could not always be obscured, but could be made salable. I finally came back around to Redicker this summer after grabbing a copy at Riverby Books in Fredericksburg, and while I still think Smallwood better served my purposes, Redicker is fantastic, and I’d bet would be a hit with students.

I’ve heard Jennifer Morgan talk about the challenge of simultaneously addressing the scale of the Atlantic slave trade while not abstracting it, and I think that’s something Redicker does really effectively. He’s very interested in the narrative elements, and does a wonderful job putting together a narrative thread as a way of telling a larger story about the actual experiences of people–and not just those of African descent–in the Atlantic slave trade. While that story focuses–as it should–on the experiences of the enslaved, Redicker makes a convincing case that the violence inherent in the trade extended not just to slaves, but to common sailors as well (which won’t surprise anyone familiar with his other work, I suppose)–sailors, for instance, died at almost the same rate as the enslaved, were subjected to similar disciplinary measures and sometimes abandoned abroad, etc. We get a good look at ships’ crews, officers, financiers, cargoes, passengers, and critics, in a well-written “human story.”


I also recently finished Kostya Kennedy’s 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports, a decent enough read and a break from my usual fare. He clearly did a ton of research–interviews, newspaper reports, scrapbooks and diaries–to fill it out and consider the streak’s impact on players and fans and even those who paid little attention to the game but knew DiMaggio. He clearly makes a case for the streak’s significance in a larger American culture, though it inevitably pales somewhat next to the parallel developments of the summer of 1941–like, you know, Nazi Germany’s advances, Roosevelt’s radio broadcasts, Britain’s pleas for help, and the implementation of the draft–that Kennedy pulls in as a foil to the nation’s interest in baseball, and as a threat to individual players who might be drafted and to a sport that might be shut down to prepare for war. He does take some liberties in writing as though he knows the thoughts and feelings of some of the characters, which I was less enamored of–perhaps he has some reason for assigning the thoughts he does, but the historian in me wants footnotes and documentation to support those assumptions (while I’m sure the reader in everyone else wants the historian in me to shut up about footnotes and enjoy the damn book already).

But my favorite part of this book was the reading experience. I’ve never read a book on an iPad before, in part because I’ve never had an iPad (I recently was assigned one for work, so I’m getting to experiment a bit), and in part because even reading on my Kindle Fire can be really distracting since it does so much more than let me read. But in this case the iPad was perfect, mostly because I could switch back and forth between Kennedy and to check out the stats and bios and careers of guys I was reading about. Dom DiMaggio was pretty darn good, but most of us only know him because of his brother (Californians might know a bit more about all the DiMaggio boys who played ball in San Francisco). Charlie Keller was a slugger who walked a lot, somebody it seems like Billy Beane would have loved a few years ago. Lefty Gomez–Joe’s roommate on the road–was good, but a Hall of Famer?! Phil Rizzuto, too, strikes me as another Hall of Famer who benefits from a couple of big years, but even more from being a Yankee (and I’m not so sure what makes him noticeably more qualified than Dom DiMaggio). It was also a bit shocking seeing so many holes in these guys’ careers, 2-, 3-, and 4-year gaps when they were in the service (and also holy crap Ted Williams left those numbers with a 3-year hiatus).

The last little bit of the book gets into some probabilities of a 56-game streak, the odds of it happening, the odds of it happening with DiMaggio, how much it stands above the next-longest (Rose’s 44), its likelihood compared to the likelihood of somebody hitting .400, etc. A nice analytical addition, and something that will be familiar to folks who’ve read Nate Silver and his ilk on these things. This is a heavy way to end a light read, but it also drives home Kennedy’s larger point–this is the rare number that’s going to stand for awhile (unless DiMaggio makes a comeback, since he also hit in 61 straight as a San Francisco Seal).

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Politics, power, and consent in the “redskins” nickname debate

With the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office recently canceling the Washington Redskins’ trademark, and burgeoning opposition from prominent and well-funded groups like the Oneida Indian Nation, I’ve been back into following a topic that one of my thesis students wrote on last semester. Perusing reader comments on some of the recent news reports and columns (which I generally try not to do online because they’re so often just so awful and unhelpful), I’ve noticed a few patterns I want to address, beyond simply affirming my predictable stance that the team should change its name.

Though I have talked about this issue with students in classes, I’ve been reluctant to weigh in on it publicly in part because I’m not an Indian, and I believe it’s the voices of those who are that should be privileged in this discussion. Identifying those voices, however, can be tricky. Anyone paying attention to this issue is aware of several polls–cited frequently by Dan Snyder and others affiliated with the organization, and many of the team’s supporters–that purport to represent a sampling of Native Americans, and that find that the majority of those polled don’t oppose the nickname. But who exactly constitutes those samples isn’t always clear–after all, who determined that these respondents were American Indian? 2010 census data showed “American Indian” to be one of the nation’s fastest-growing demographic groups. While this may be positive–an ethnic population recovering numbers, or a growing awareness of cultural heritage among existing biological populations–it may also reflect growing numbers of Americans who simply choose to define themselves as such for their own reasons. Some may be misguided opportunists hoping to lay claim to what they see as the benefits of Indian identity, some may be claiming for themselves some sort of romanticized heritage; some may be biological descendants of Native Americans who nonetheless aren’t particularly entrenched in native communities and cultures; others, of course, are active members of long-standing native communities. Heck, one defense of the name is that it’s meant to honor Lone Star Dietz, the team’s coach 80 years ago–whose claims to Sioux ancestry are contested. My point here is just that these self-definitions can be hard to parse, but that the nuances here matter significantly for how someone experiences the “Redskins” name.

Opponents of a name-change frequently suggest that this effort is only recent, and that it’s a white liberal cause. It strikes me that both concerns work together to displace the very people who are–in theory–central to the question, Native Americans/American Indians, from the debate.

First, I’m never quite sure why it would only be white liberals supporting attempts to treat segments of the population with greater respect–that seems like a universal project. And why should white liberals be particularly concerned about the nickname? My own personal experience is purely anecdotal, but plenty of Indians describe themselves as conservative and vote Republican–in my admittedly somewhat limited experience, those with transparent political affiliations are more often conservative than liberal, so it’s not like liberal politicians are just trying to secure their appeal to a large and vocal constituency. I suspect this perception is linked to the idea that being an Indian somehow secures a person with special, undeserved privileges–fishing and hunting rights, state-tax exemptions, casino permits, etc.–akin to social welfare programs (“entitlements”).* The fact that prominent media organizations–the supposedly liberal “mainstream media,” another conservative bugaboo–have come out in favor of a name-change, and in some cases have stopped using the nickname in favor of awkward substitutes, no doubt reinforces this perception. I also have to think that the idea the federal government is driving this–the Patent Office canceling a trademark in the midst of a presidential administration many people fear is abusing executive power (the IRS flagging non-profits, etc.)–also plays to conservative concerns about the size and power of the federal government, and in this case a government pitted against private business. Again, though, this makes Obama, Democrats, and other liberals the main agents of this push, rather than Native Americans, and shifts the conversation into the realm of contemporary political contests rather than the arena of racial identities and civil rights.

And for the second, the question of timing. Let’s be clear: it’s not just recent. Native American organizations protested the Redskins specifically as early as the late 1980s, and certainly through the 1990s. The American Indian Movement and other efforts targeted mascots and logos on commercial products, and those used by high schools and colleges, during the 1960s and 1970s. This is not new. Many of those other targets of protest, however, have been more responsive to the concerns voiced than the NFL team has been. What does strike me as newish, as more recent, is the unprecedented platform from which Native Americans can now launch those criticisms, and force their perspectives into public awareness. In part this is a product of their growing numbers, as I noted with the census numbers. In part it’s also a product of an increasing ability across the 20th and 21st centuries to define themselves as a community united by a common heritage, and shared cultural practices and concerns. As outright oppression and legal discrimination have diminished, as forcible assimilation efforts have ended, as technological resources have allowed more in-depth study of genealogical records and archaeological sites, and as procedures for recognizing people as American Indians have been updated, growing numbers of cohesive and active American Indian communities have been able to coordinate financial and human resources and direct them toward shared projects.

This is one reason state and federal recognition matter to tribes–they officially acknowledge the existence of these groups in ways that facilitate collective actions, including the ability to voice concerns about social issues they face. In some cases, tribes do seek recognition at least in part to again exercise treaty rights, including those with economic import. I’m perfectly aware some Americans resent economic endeavors like casinos, and gas stations that charge lower prices because they’re exempt from certain fuel taxes, and I can at least sympathize with people who find that troubling. At the same time, those are activities that help support these communities–providing employment in some cases, cash payments in others. More importantly, though, are the resources they provide these communities to bolster infrastructure (schools, roads, libraries, etc.), and to reinforce cultural identities (through research, through supporting powwows and language reconstruction projects, etc.). And, pertinent to our discussion here, to support projects like challenging the Redskins nickname, an effort in which the Oneida Indian Nation is currently engaged as a central player (if you follow only one link from this post, that’s the one to check out).

To reiterate, then: native communities’ opposition to the name Redskins is not new. What is new is the ability of Native American individuals and groups to collectively mobilize in effective ways.

Many of these assertions that pressures for a name change are only recent, and originate with white liberals, seem to me to reflect a tendency to read everything in terms of today’s polarized American politics, rather than approaching the issue as one involving a minority population’s historical trauma and battle against ongoing colonialism. They attempt to displace from the conversation about the Redskins nickname the very people who are central to it, who may experience it as racist and a homogenization of diverse and distinct identities. In effect, these assertions deny native peoples’ agency in the matter, deny them the ability to consent or not to popular, public, and prominent representations of their past and present experiences and identities.

Whatever the outcome of this dispute/conversation, whatever the prevailing opinion of the majority of Native Americans is, the attempt to deny them the central role in the discussion is an exercise of power that, now more than ever, Native Americans can effectively challenge.

*In Rez Life, Ojibwe author David Treuer points makes a distinction that people often forget. Treaty rights aren’t extra rights given to Native Americans, but rather, traditional rights native peoples had that they reserved for themselves when negotiating the sale or cession of parts of their territories to the United States. They may have lost the ability to make use of those rights at various points in the past, but that didn’t terminate those rights. Different discussion.

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Back to what you’d expect

I have to think anyone who is reading this blog has been wondering, “Where are the Indians?” lately. Well, you knew I had to come back to them at some point this summer, and here we are.

The Calloway book is part of a series of relatively short and approachable books that privilege narrative–I’ve read Brenda Child’s book on Ojibwe women, and Timothy Pauketat’s on Cahokia, while Timothy Shannon’s on Iroquois diplomacy and Jeff Ostler’s on the Lakota and the Black Hills are still on my shelf unread. Calloway’s book is fine, but not earth-shattering–a decent introduction to a couple of centuries of Shawnee history, and their almost-constant participation in some wide-ranging developments involving Indian-British/American relations. It’s certainly not Calloway’s best, but it’s a good reminder how traveled and active the Shawnee were.

Snyder’s book I’ve wanted to read for a while, and I picked it up in the spring before lending it to a student writing his thesis on Indian slavery in South Carolina. Once he returned it I had my chance, and lugged it along on a visit to California. Snyder has done incredible research to put together this book on the evolution of Indian slavery (enslaved Indians and Indian slave-owning) in the southeast. Lots of it was somewhat familiar to me, but I am not as entrenched in the literature for this region (much of it produced by a collection of scholars I’ve heard jokingly referred to as “the Southeastern Mafia”), and so there was a ton of new material as well. Despite the breadth and depth, this strikes me as pretty approachable, and I may assign it before long. Really a fantastic read.

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A historian reads about the future

First of all, how fun is it to play with photo effects? This seemed like a good book to do this for–it feels all futuristic and neat to me.

Anyway, this is the third Alistair Reynolds book I’ve read, and they continue to be enjoyable, even if I only come back to one every couple of years. My college roommate gave me these a few years ago when I was in his wedding, and while he continues to read sci-fi voraciously, I have largely moved away from it for whatever reason (I think partly just because I read so many different things, rather than heavily in one genre–except history, of course). I do sometimes forget how complex and well-written these stories can be, which is fun to rediscover. But I was contemplating what I like so much about these kinds of books, and realized that in part it’s the interweaving of backstory. In this case, Reynolds is coming up with an invented history that spans billions of years and multiple galaxies. In particular here, though, his story concerns the repercussions of the Dawn Wars, which pitted multiple varieties of space-faring intelligent life against each other over millions of years, ultimately destroying each of their civilizations. The conflict gave rise (I think I missed exactly how) to the Inhibitors, tasked with monitoring and destroying advanced civilizations before they can wipe out other intelligent life or engage in a new total war with each other. In the story’s more immediate past, humans are the most recent species to advance to the stage that might compel Inhibitor action, and indeed have divided into several technologically differentiated factions competing for supremacy (they’ve long since left Earth, though the recent division has roots on Mars a few centuries previous). One faction has established a colony on Resurgam, a planet whose terraforming process has revealed the remains of an ancient civilization of avian-like beings who mysteriously disappeared–victims of the Inhibitors, as it turns out. So it’s a totally invented history, which is maybe why I think it’s so totally fun, and may explain why I have so much more tolerance for Neal Stephenson’s work than do many of my friends (I thought the first 200 pages of Anathem were totally well-spent). Anyway, I have two more Reynolds books on the shelf, so something to look forward to there.

I also recently knocked out Oliver Potzsch’s The Poisoned Pilgrim, the fourth book in his Hangman’s Daughter series. It’s historical fiction, which can be kind of fun, but which I also frequently find kind of clumsy. I really enjoyed the first book, but I’ve felt like subsequent efforts have become more heavy-handed (I can only see comments about the strange new magical fad of coffee so many times, or the comments about stubborn women, before I get really irritated). Not sure I’ll read another, but it’s been a good run.

I also just started Kostya Kennedy’s 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports (told you I was all over the place genre-wise). It’s baseball season, so what the heck.

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Reading about home

I suppose I live in Virginia now, huh? That’s not entirely why these are my two most recent reads, but it maybe had at least a small influence. At any rate, it was fun to see Fredericksburg, Stafford County, the Rappahannock River, and Patawomeck Indians make appearances.

Horn’s book wasn’t earth-shattering, but it is a clear account of the Roanoke ventures–especially their larger context, including events in England that distracted Ralegh and undermined ongoing support of the North American enterprise. I also appreciate his cautious examination of the various rumors and reports about the fate of the colonists in the decades that followed–and I think he offers a measured, plausible explanation for what happened to them.

Last fall’s U.S. Environmental History class included a series of student presentations based on book-length monographs as a way of broadening topics beyond what we read together, and one of those books was Rice’s. It seemed like a nice complement to the books on colonial New England and the lower Mississippi Valley; it was centered on a watershed, a bioregional frame we discussed; and it was meant to appeal to anybody who wanted to read some more about local environmental history. Well, it wasn’t a big hit with the students who worked with it, so I wanted to give it a more thorough read, and sure enough, I kind of agree with my students’ take on it. They thought the environmental component was incomplete–that he had a basic idea, but didn’t fully work out the implications, and didn’t stay focused on the environmental thread throughout the book. I’m less harsh in my evaluation than they were privately, but I understand their concern that the book frequently strays from its stated focus on environmental factors. Rice definitely establishes an environmental formulation–that there was a north-south division that established prior to the colonial era that continued to be of significance as Europeans arrived, and that significant environmental differences marked the development of the coastal plain, inner plain, and interior–and puts together a nice synthesis of colonial settlement throughout the Potomac watershed, the environmental components don’t develop as much. In particular, we don’t get a very dynamic environment, nor do we get one that is in constant dialogue with its human inhabitants (I think he does a better job with this in the chapters devoted to pre-contact Native American inhabitants than those considering the colonial era). For instance, while he spends a decent amount of time discussing conflicts between various peoples claiming sovereignties over lands, there is a missed opportunity to think more extensively about the environmental logics of those claimed territories. Anyway, it’s undoubtedly a book with value, but also a book that leaves plenty of room for further development.

Next up: reading myself further away from home, with the Shawnee and then possibly the Creek, New England Puritans, New Orleans, Medieval Europe, or a slave ship in the Atlantic.

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Letting it go

I included among my summer goals the final pre-submission revisions to an essay I’ve discussed here several times, and today was the day: I attached files to an email and hit “send,” and I sealed and mailed the envelope with the hard copy. But not before I dithered over those two items for an hour or so, not totally convinced I was ready to submit the work for review.

Finally doing that was perhaps the hardest part of the summer work on that project. I had earlier tweaked a few minor things that had come to bother me; changed the title to “History, Memory, and the Indian Struggle for Autonomy in the 17th-century Hudson Valley;” received some helpful input from my colleague Will Mackintosh on how to strengthen the description of my intervention in the literature, and to foreground the suggestion that Hudson Valley Indians were trying to “educate” English newcomers in cultural traditions in the 1660s; and revised a few of my discussions in light of my reading of Andrew Newman’s On Records: Delaware Indians, Colonists, and the Media of History and MemoryThen came time to prepare the manuscript–in other words, to get all the formatting in order for the journal to review the piece. There was style (2nd instead of 2d, Mass. instead of MA, etc.); there were notes (converting footnotes to endnotes and double-checking information); there were images (I found two great maps, one of the Noort Rivier in Niew Neerlandt from 1639, the other of Novi Belgii from 1670).

No problems that far. But actually determining that I was okay with sending it, with not having it waiting to be further revised tomorrow when it occurs to me that I should have done X, Y, or Z–that was difficult. There’s an old saying about works never being finished, only abandoned; it’s a good reminder to people like me, who know that whatever they’re working on can get better, and will if they keep working, but who also can use the reminder that moving towards publication (important for me here) involves additional steps beyond whatever they (I) can do unaided. And a reminder of why it’s nice to have deadlines on some projects.

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Lanterns and flags–Memorial Day in Fredericksburg

I haven’t written a ton on this blog about local history or sites (I blame the whole work thing…), but that’s part of what I want to post here. So, since we ventured out to the cemeteries on Memorial Day weekend, I thought I’d post a few pictures. Saturday night we joined some friends for an event at the battlefield, where annually for about the last decade the Boy Scouts have put lanterns out around the graves:

Close-up of the luminaria at Fredericksburg National Cemetery.

Close-up of the luminaria at Fredericksburg National Cemetery.

It’s breathtakingly eery (especially when they play Taps), beautiful, and very impressive.

A wider view of the cemetery.

A wider view of the cemetery.

And on Sunday we were downtown and saw the city/Confederate cemetery open (its gates are often locked), and seized the opportunity to head inside. Lots of neat old graves, and lots of names that we recognized from street names in town. And this:

The Confederate cemetery.

The Confederate cemetery.

One of those moments. Virginia is beautiful (look at that picture!) and historic, and I certainly understand the desire to remember any and all veterans, especially on Memorial Day. But that commemoration can also carry uncomfortable (for me, anyway) undertones.

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Abby Normal and Nosferatu

Lest anyone think all I read is historical.

Christopher Moore first pulled me in with Island of the Sequined Love Nun and The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove, but he really won me over with Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Friend. I’ve read a number of his other books (he was one of my dad’s favorites, and so whatever was his latest was always waiting in Chico when I visited).

I hadn’t read anything new in awhile, but saw these at the library and borrowed them, not even realizing they were actually sequels to Bloodsucking Fiends. The central story is pretty good–an 800-year-old vampire named Elijah visits modern-day San Francisco, decides he’s lonely/bored, and turns a 26-year-old Jody into a vampire to keep him company, only to have her go all independent and find a “boyfriend” (who she also feeds off of) who, along with his usually-stoned Safeway coworkers blow up Elijah’s yacht and steal his art collection. Jody decides she’s lonely, and turns her boyfriend Tommy after he releases her from the bronze statue he’s had her enclosed in. As they try to figure out how to live as a vampire couple, Tommy finds his own minion–“Abigail Von Normal, Emergency Backup Mistress of the Greater Bay Area Night.” She’s a 16-year-old goth with a crush on Tommy/”The Vampyre Flood,” and as she helps the couple rent a new apartment, feed Chet the shaved giant cat, and fight off the vengeful Elijah, she keeps a journal, the entries of which quickly become the most indispensable (since she’s awake in the daytime and the vampires aren’t) and entertaining parts of the book. She may be my favorite Moore character, though take that with a grain of salt, since it’s been a few years since I read any of his other books.

Abby insists on referring to Tommy Flood as “nosferatu,” and just so this isn’t a completely unlearned post, you can read about just what that is (at least according to Wikipedia–sorry, but a cursory online search didn’t turn up any obvious alternatives in the 11 minutes in which I wrote this post)–it’s fairly interesting.

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming (i.e. 17th-century Indian baptisms).

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Empire of Liberty

A couple of months ago I heard an interview on NPR with Greg Grandin, an NYU history professor who wrote Fordlandia (which I’ve wanted to read, but haven’t gotten to yet). He was talking about his new book, Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, which centers around an onboard slave revolt.

I ordered it, and as I was finishing grading, and recovering from the end of the semester, I slowly started in on it. Whether because I was tired/distracted, or because the early stretches of the book were concerned with lots of background on Atlantic slavery that will be familiar to historians, I wasn’t so enthusiastic about the first half. That background is necessary for understanding the forces that brought together a whaling ship based out of New England, and a slave ship with a long and convoluted history (almost as convoluted as the histories of the people it was carrying). I do wonder if that background, including some discussions that appear to digress, might lose a general reader more intrigued by the story, and I suspect the book as a whole won’t offer enough new material or groundbreaking arguments to intrigue scholars. It’s a tricky course to navigate, but I think Grandin does it fairly well–he touches on a remarkable array of topics while maintaining a central narrative thread, and has done some amazing work tracking the major participants in the rebellion from their port of departure in Africa, through the Americas, and onto the ship Tryal. 

I was much more intrigued by the story of the rebellion, and its discovery by a New England sealing captain, which winds up being the center-point of the book while not actually filling the bulk of its pages. I also have to admit that I enjoyed Grandin’s willingness to juxtapose historical events with Herman Melville’s fictionalization of them in his novella, Benito Cereno (and yes, Melville is popping up everywhere for me lately–this is totally coincidental), though I also wonder if Grandin’s narrative suffers a bit by comparison.

What I think this book especially offers, however, is a story that opens up myriad avenues for further exploration, and which I could see serving as the basis for a class on Atlantic slavery. The story ranges through Europe, West Africa, South America, New England, and the Caribbean, while touching at least briefly on multiple varieties of slavery as an institution, the different types of labor it involves, slave life, religion, resistance/revolts, the Middle Passage, maroons, Indian slavery, gendered differences, the economics of the trade–you get the point. It’s dizzying (and well-documented) enough that I could imagine* using the narrative to identify topics about which the class wants to read more (especially since many treatments are brief, but include useful citations), then turning students loose to collectively locate readings/resources/materials. Scholarly articles wouldn’t need to be ordered in advance and so could comprise the bulk of the readings–they could compile a long list on each topic, then we could winnow out some selections. Major books would emerge in this process, as well, but could serve as the center of group presentations throughout the semester, leveraging library copies rather than stressing the bookstore out.

*I’m imagining, not proposing. Just want to be clear.

This would probably be a bit chaotic unless carefully managed and probably guided in terms of selecting readings from among the lists (especially to make sure the class addressed major fields and didn’t overlook anything major), but it would demand a level of research and assessment of sources at the outset that students get less of when working with a prepared syllabus/reading list, and it would presumably expose an instructor to some resources s/he might not normally run across. And I have to think it would turn up some unexpected topics, sources, and connections/organizations/themes.

So don’t make this out to be only a story; Grandin engages, albeit in subtle ways, with an extensive historiography, making sure that in the end he reminds us, “it is not the paradox that defines America but rather the ceaseless bids to escape the paradox, to slip out of the shackles of history, even as such efforts inevitably deepen old entanglements and create new ‘necessities.'”

And no, I didn’t have two copies. But I took a picture of the dust jacket sitting atop the book itself, because dust jackets drive me nuts, and I relish pulling them off and tossing them onto a shelf until I’m done reading.

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