It seems to have become a tradition to open this post with a weather report for New England. This morning we’re looking at a slushy Sunday, which while annoying is quite an improvement over the snowpocalypse of a few weeks ago. In any case, a little sleet/snow won’t stand any longer between you and your weekly supply of links. On we go!
Last year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Revolution, 1789-1848, a milestone that was largely overlooked in the more general hubbub over the great historian’s death in October. But it’s an impressive number all the same, and an inescapable reminder that when we return to The Age of Revolution we are dealing with a Very Old Book. The battered cover of my own 1962 Signet paperback (see below), whose author still preferred the high-academic modesty of “E.J. Hobsbawm,” offers a striking visual proof of the antiquities that lie within. It is after all technically possible, and perhaps not as improbable as you may think, for this book to have lain on Don Draper’s desk. When he was still married to Betty Draper.
What can a 21st century early American historian learn from such an artifact? Amid the clamors and confusions of the debate over the New New Political History, why should anyone bother to resuscitate the Old? Can we learn anything vital about the Age of Revolution in a book written during the Age of Draper? Well, obviously, the answer is yes. Continue reading
“It’s a flesh for cash business—just like slavery.” So the German bounty hunter Dr. Schultz describes his profession to the ex-slave title character near the beginning of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. It’s an apt introduction to the film’s broader portrait of American slavery — a rendering that emphasizes the tortured flesh, the sordid cash, and the gruesome business of bondage at every turn. In this regard, Django Unchained fits comfortably within the familiar canon of Tarantino crime films, which have nearly always probed the intersection between the brutally physical and the cynically transactional.
The old gang’s all here: the vicious mob boss, the wisecracking assassin, the tight-lipped, vengeance-minded hero. So why should anyone, let alone early American historians, bother to consider the historical perspective of a film that in many ways is just Reservoir Dogs with snazzier waistcoats and more primitive sunglasses? Continue reading
REVIEW: The Bourgeois Frontier: French Towns, French Traders, and American Expansion. By Jay Gitlin. The Lamar Series in Western History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.
Jay Gitlin begins this history of the francophone West with geologist William Keating, on an 1823 scientific expedition to the United States’s western frontier, marveling at the number of French speakers he encountered in the Mississippi basin. Who were these people? And why were so many of them still around, six decades after the Seven Years’ War had supposedly terminated the French presence in North America? The Bourgeois Frontier aims to answer these questions, and to explain why—two centuries later—Americans remain as ignorant of these people as Keating had been. The result is a compelling account of the francophone towns that formed a crescent-shaped constellation along the western fringe of the early American republic. In eight chapters of buoyant prose chronicling the 1760s through the Civil War, Gitlin shows how the French Creoles who inhabited these towns adjusted and adapted as American expansion changed their world. Continue reading