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

Golden Hill Roundtable: “Commerce is Trust”

This week at The Junto, we’ll be featuring a roundtable on Francis Spufford’s 2016 novel, Golden Hill (London: Faber & Faber, 2016). Set in colonial New York city, and written in self-conscious homage to eighteenth-century literary style, Golden Hill has plenty of resonance for anyone interested in the period. Following my post today, we’ll hear from Junto members Jordan Taylor and Katy Lasdow, as well as Hannah Farber, and a Q&A with Spufford himself. We will warn you if a post contains plot spoilers!

goldenhill.jpgMany novels are about struggles to know the truth, and to live in a world of ambiguity, secrets, and false pretences. In Golden Hill, those themes are given eighteenth-century specificities. They appear in all sorts of symbolic guises, but none more frequently and clearly stated than the murky, miscellaneous substance of eighteenth-century money. If Golden Hill is a novel about what it means to take something—or somebody—at face value, that metaphor is made literal when the protagonist Richard Smith walks into a merchant’s office in the book’s opening pages and presents “a paper worth a thousand pounds.” Continue reading

Review: Sharon Block, Colonial Complexions

Sharon Block, Colonial Complexions: Race and Bodies in Eighteenth-Century America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).

Colonial Complextions Cover

At the opening of Colonial Complexions: Race and Bodies in Eighteenth-Century America, Sharon Block poses two provocative questions: “What were the meanings of black, white, and red in the colonial eighteenth century; and how did Anglo-American colonists describe people’s appearance?” (1) To answer these queries Block presents a cultural history race in Britain’s 18th century American colonies. She makes a careful study of the descriptors advertisers and editors used in missing colonial persons adds for runaway African descent and their European and Native American servants. Continue reading

Review: Craig Bruce Smith, American Honor

Craig Bruce Smith, American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals during the Revolutionary Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

9781469638836In American Honor, Craig Bruce Smith places morals, virtue, and ethics at the center of the American Revolution. Smith argues that in the late-colonial period, understandings of honor transformed. Instead of something hereditable, honor became based on merit. That “ethical transformation” helped bring about the Revolution. Independence then allowed Americans to realize its potential. In a phrase, you might say the American Revolution was “made on honor, sold on merit.”[1] Continue reading