Review of What the Constitution Means to Me

Today’s guest review is by Hannah Farber, an assistant professor at Columbia University. Her scholarship has appeared in the New England Quarterly, Early American Studies and the Journal of the Early Republic; she is at work on a monograph on marine insurance, tentatively titled Underwriters of the United States.

What the Constitution Means to Me, a play currently running at the New York Theater Workshop offers a hopeful, accessible, and sophisticated vision of a renewal of American Constitutional life.

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Review: Sari Altschuler, The Medical Imagination

Sari Altschuler, The Medical Imagination: Literature and Health in the Early United States (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018)

Today Laurel Daen reviews Sari Altschuler’s The Medical Imagination. Laurel Daen is the 2018-2020 NEH Postdoctoral Fellow at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. Her current book project is about disability, authority, and the formation of the American nation state. Laurel received her PhD from William & Mary in 2016 and was an NEH Long-term Fellow at the Massachusetts Historical Society from 2017-2018.

In the early American republic, physicians wrote poetry to try out their medical theories, writers formulated concepts that made their way into medical texts, and everyday people viewed the disciplines of medicine and literature as fundamentally intertwined. Medicine and literature were mutually constitutive and reinforcing, Sari Altschuler explains in The Medical Imagination, and their relationship was seen as crucial to the production of medical knowledge. For example, medical educators urged their students to read and write fiction with the insistence that these practices would cultivate their “microscopic eye” or ability to detect and decipher disease (4). In addition, many doctors, writers, and doctor-writers used literary forms to conduct medical research, especially about topics that were difficult to test empirically. How, for instance, was one to evaluate the workings of sympathy, the universal force commonly understood to link body part to body part in a functioning human body and person to person in a functioning society? It was through literature that early national physicians and writers engaged with these types of questions, cultivating their skills in “imaginative experimentation”—or use of the imagination to craft and assess models of health (8). Continue reading

Review: Judith Ridner, The Scots Irish of Early Pennsylvania

Judith Ridner, The Scots Irish of Early Pennsylvania: A Varied People, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2018).

Judith Ridner opens The Scots Irish of Pennsylvania: A Varied People by asking, “Who are the Scots Irish?” Ridner suggests that popular and scholarly answers to this deceptively simple question tend to fall into one of two categories. One response conjures a mythic image of the Scots Irish as a “desperately poor” community that rose from “rags to riches” in America through hard work, individualism, and pragmatism. The other offers a more pejorative image of the Scots Irish as “hillbillies” living in abject poverty.[1] In classic historian form, Ridner suggests that the answer is far more complex than either conventional answer. Continue reading

Review: Wim Klooster, Revolutions in the Atlantic World: A Comparative History, New Edition

Wim Klooster, Revolutions in the Atlantic World: A Comparative History: New Edition (New York: New York University Press, 2018).

A few years ago, I found myself speaking briefly to a graduate student in another discipline who happened to share both my first and last names. He politely asked what I studied, and I vaguely explained that my dissertation related to the Age of Revolutions. Other Jordan considered this for a moment, and then asked “So what causes revolutions?” I’m embarrassed to say that this most straightforward of questions left me a bit flat footed. I could tell him what several historians thought about the particular revolutions they studied, but “revolutions” more generally? That was a big question. I think I muttered something about Arendt (as you do) and excused myself. Continue reading

Golden Hill Roundtable: Retracing Mr. Smith’s Steps Through Eighteenth-Century Manhattan

goldenhill“Had a map been drawn . . . of Mr. Smith’s movements through the streets of New-York. . . a tangled hydra indeed would have been revealed,” begins the second chapter of Francis Spufford’s book Golden Hill (53). As my fellow Junto reviewers have discussed, Spufford’s exhilarating read follows Mr. Smith through the escapades and perils of mid-eighteenth-century New York as he attempts to convince those he encounters of his “credit worthiness.” As he meanders through the tangled web of city streets, Smith’s journey from the island’s southern tip to its northern outposts is filled with adventures and twists at every turn. The reader soon learns that many of the men and women he encounters have secrets to hide. There is much to like about Golden Hill. For this urban historian, one of the most enjoyable aspects is the book’s sense of place. Continue reading

Golden Hill Roundtable: Courage and Cowardice?

This guest post is the third entry in our week-long roundtable on Francis Spufford’s novel, Golden Hill. Its author is Hannah Farber, an assistant professor at Columbia University. Her scholarship has appeared in the New England Quarterly, Early American Studies and the Journal of the Early Republic; she is at work on a monograph on marine insurance, tentatively titled Underwriters of the United States.

goldenhillWhat a pleasure it is to wander around mid-eighteenth-century New York City with Francis Spufford, admiring the city’s homes with their “stepped Dutchwork eaves” (17) and their “blue-gray pediment[s] of Connecticut pine” (11). What a pleasure, too, to join him in pawing through the humbler artifacts of daily life in the colonial city. Pap (1). Milk punch (42). A bog-wig (2). Every page of Golden Hill overflows with weird stuff like this, and it’s just great. Continue reading

Golden Hill as Historical Historical Fiction

goldenhillFrancis Spufford’s historical novel Golden Hill introduces us to mid-eighteenth century New York City through the eyes of a London visitor named Richard Smith. For Smith, it’s a strange place. In the book’s first scene, as Tom discussed yesterday, he exchanges some of his own currency for local money. But he is baffled to receive an irregular stack of paper from around the continent divided into various denominations.

I immediately empathized. Only a few days before I began the novel, I had been trying to untangle what I had initially thought would be a fairly straightforward problem for an article manuscript involving colonial wage rates and commodity prices. But I had quickly found myself waist-deep in conversion charts, glossaries, and historical data about the foreign, colonial, and metropolitan currencies that circulated in eighteenth-century Anglo-America. Old tenor, new tenor, pounds, shillings, pence, halfjoes, Spanish dollars—it was a world of currency only slightly less confusing than blockchain. Continue reading