Review: Zara Anishanslin, Portrait of a Woman in Silk

Zara Anishanslin, Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic WorldNew Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.

A silk worm begins wrapping itself round in a cocoon, encasing itself in its fiber. Faceless hands unravel the cocoon, turning it into a single linear thread, the thread then woven together with other linear threads unraveled by other faceless hands until all the threads, warped and wefted, form a connected fabric. Finally, completing the circle, a woman poses for a portrait, wrapped up in yard upon yard of silk, another body encased and shrouded.

It’s a fitting prologue and introduction to Zara Anishanslin’s Portrait of a Woman in Silk, a study in—literally and figuratively—the threads that connected and constructed the eighteenth-century British Atlantic Empire. Anishanslin’s book is not quite like any book that I’ve ever read before. It meanders—but with purpose: from Spitalfields Market in London, to an imagined college in Bermuda, to a parlor in Lancaster crowded with soldiers and military waggoners; from the inner mechanics of the loom, to the symbols within Milton’s Paradise Lost, to the aesthetics of colonial orchards and gardens; from cultural to intellectual to political to spatial to economic to material history. It defies traditional sub-disciplinary designations by design. Anishanslin’s ambitious first book draws inspiration from leading figures in material culture studies—Robert Blair St. George, T. H. Breen, Richard Bushman, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and others—but also draws inspiration from book historians like Robert Darnton, from economic historians, from religious historians, and from historians of transatlantic intellectual and epistolary networks. Continue reading

Men of La Mancha

don-quixote-book-coverIn a certain village of vast early America, whose name I do not recall, a book fell open. Then another. And another. By 1860, many generations’ worth of American readers had imbibed the two-volume work of Spain’s early modern master, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra: Don Quixote, or, El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de La Mancha (1605). Cervantes’ metafiction of a mad knight-errant, often hailed as the first Western novel, bustled and blistered with originality. Continue reading

Autumn Reads


Winslow Homer, “The Country School,” 1871

Looks like #VastEarlyAmerica just got even vaster—and that’s a good thing. Here’s our fall preview of new titles. Please share your books/finds in the comments! Continue reading

“In the Service of the Crown ever since I came into this Province”: The Life and Times of Cadwallader Colden

80140100162200LOn December 8, 1747, Gov. George Clinton (1686–1761) told a British statesman that the Assembly of New York “treated the person of the Governor with such contempt of his authority & such disrespect to the noble family where he had his birth that must be of most pernicious example.” He thought he might have to “give it [i.e., his position] up to a Faction.” The extant copy of this letter, held within Clinton’s papers at the William L. Clements Library in Michigan, was written by his most trusted advisor and ally—Cadwallader Colden, the subject of John M. Dixon’s first book, The Enlightenment of Cadwallader Colden: Empire, Science, and Intellectual Culture in British New York, published in 2016 by Cornell University Press.[1]

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13 Revolutions +1

Diego Rivera and Bertram D. Wolfe, "Portrait of America," 1934

Diego Rivera and Bertram D. Wolfe, “Portrait of America,” 1934

When John Adams looked back on the American Revolution (something he liked to do), he reflected that, “The Revolution was in the Minds and Hearts of the People.” The colonists’ drive to independence marked a new era of American history, Adams thought, when “Thirteen Clocks were made to Strike together; a perfection of Mechanism which no Artist had ever before effected.” Scholars have struggled to frame the experience of the Revolution in picture and on the page. How can we use digital tools to curate collections of revolutionary culture and #vastearlyamerica for use in the classroom?

Today, The Junto chats with Darren Milligan, Senior Digital Strategist at the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access, about the Smithsonian Learning Lab, which encourages us to make, use, and share new galleries of history.  Continue reading

Q&A: Zachary Hutchins, editor of Community without Consent: New Perspectives on the Stamp Act

13274990_10103531179115568_1930581660_oOn Sunday, the United States Postal Service introduced a stamp commemorating the 250th anniversary of the repeal of the Stamp Act. Today we are pleased to present an interview with Zachary Hutchins, editor of a new collection of essays from Dartmouth College Press that challenges traditional understandings of the Stamp Act Crisis as (in the words of the USPS) “setting [the colonists] on a path toward revolution and independence.” Zach is an Assistant Professor of English at Colorado State University. In 2014 he published his first book, Inventing Eden: Primitivism, Millennialism, and the Making of New England. A 2016 Fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Hutchins is currently completing his second monograph, Before Equiano: A Prehistory of the North American Slave Narrative. Continue reading

Guest Post: Emerging Histories of the French Atlantic

Robert Taber, a postdoctoral associate with the University of Florida Writing Program, wrote his dissertation on the connection between family life and grassroots politics in colonial Saint-Domingue and is the author of Navigating Haiti’s History: Saint-Domingue and the Haitian Revolution.

12182067_10207193046840010_1433097522_nMore than 30 scholars from three continents gathered at the Williamsburg Inn from October 16th through the 18th to present emerging histories of the French Atlantic. Sponsored by the Omohundro Institute, and made possible through considerable labor and financial investment, one hundred scholars were able to enjoy a great conference atmosphere. Three days of panels, workshops, and roundtables pushed for our collective knowledge of the French Atlantic to be wider, deeper, and better integrated, fulfilling a plan first sketched out in the summer of 2010.

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