Gleick: Info and Meaning

The Information, part 2

Richard Dawkins’ fundamental contribution to science, says Gleick, is the idea that “Genes, not organisms, are the true units of natural selection” (Kindle Locations 5328-5329). He cites
The Selfish Gene, which I really ought to get around to reading again soon. But then he takes it someplace I’m not sure Dawkins intended (although given Dawkins’ conclusion that memes act like genes in the real world, maybe he did…), and suggests that genes are not in fact the strings of base pairs seen under the microscope. They are ideas. After all, Gleick says, “There is no gene for long legs; there is no gene for a leg at all. To build a leg requires many genes…[and what about] more complex qualities—genes for obesity or aggression or nest building or braininess or homosexuality. Are there genes for such things? Not if a gene is a particular strand of DNA that expresses a protein. Strictly speaking, one cannot say there are genes for almost anything—not even eye color. Instead, one should say that differences in genes tend to cause differences in phenotype (the actualized organism).” (Kindle Locations 5414-5421). So what are genes? The information? Or the observed changes in phenotypes that result? Gleick concludes, “The gene is not an information-carrying macromolecule. The gene is the information. (Kindle Location 5462). But what we observe depends on our focus, our values. So once again it’s a confusion between information as signals and information as meaningful data we care about.

Aside: have memes already jumped the shark?

In his section on probability and entropy, Gleick mentions that an infinitely long random string will ultimately include every possible combination. “Given a long enough random string, every possible short-enough substring will appear somewhere. One of them will be the combination to the bank vault. Another will be the encoded complete works of Shakespeare. But they will not do any good, because no one can find them.” (Kindle Locations 5814-5816). But isn’t that the point, if we end up saying the universe is information (which is where this is going)? Because
Shakespeare DID find them

“Researchers have established that human intuition is useless both in predicting randomness and in recognizing it. Humans drift toward pattern willy-nilly” (Kindle Locations 5819-5820). See
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Pi is not random, because it is computable. But if you took the digits between say 1,000 and 2,000,0000 in the string, wouldn’t THAT be a random number? So, in the real world, where context and completeness are not always discernible, don’t we get a lot of apparent randomness that might well be orderly? And that’s not even counting the mysteriousness produced by chaos and quantum indeterminacy. You just can’t get away from mystery. “Given an arbitrary string of a million digits,” Gleick says, “a mathematician knows that it is almost certainly random, complex, and patternless—but cannot be absolutely sure.” He continues, “A chaotic stream of information may yet hide a simple algorithm. Working backward from the chaos to the algorithm may be impossible” (Kindle Locations 6070-6095). You can’t decompile the program, or unstir the coffee (also from Tom Stoppard).

Gleick discusses compression, which at its heart is a process of finding patterns that can be expressed in fewer bits than the original message. But again, we’re operating on something that is already an abstraction. It’s a photograph, or a digitized sound, or a string of text. So all we’re talking about is human perception and language efficiency. Lossy compression is the key to human consciousness. We can’t deal with the reality all around us, so we filter it. This is old philosophy.

John Archibald Wheeler said “
It from Bit”: “Every it — every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself — derives its function, its meaning, its very existence … from bits” (Kindle Locations 6350-6351). But the bits are answers to yes-no questions. They require the questions in order to have any meaning. So once again, we’re talking not about reality, but about human perception of reality. It’s David Hume all over again.

Finally, at the end of it all, Gleick admits “The birth of information theory came with its ruthless sacrifice of meaning — the very quality that gives information its value and its purpose” (Kindle Locations 7462-7463). Yes! Finally!! So the obvious thing to do at this point is to regain subjectivity. At long last we realize “words are not themselves ideas, but merely strings of ink marks; we see that sounds are nothing more than waves. In a modern age without an Author looking down on us from heaven, language is not a thing of definite certainty, but infinite possibility; without the comforting illusion of meaningful order we have no choice but to stare into the face of meaningless disorder…” (Kindle Locations 7505-7507). And make our own meaning.

Gleick: Information = Entropy

Finished The Information. Interesting, although I thought he took an awfully circuitous route to the conclusion that information is not meaning. This resulted in me writing a lot of notes along the way that he answered in the final chapter and epilogue.

A partial list of the significant passages (part 1 of 2):

“A binary choice, something or nothing: the fire signal meant something, which, just this once, meant ‘Troy has fallen.’ To transmit this one bit required immense planning, labor, watchfulness, and firewood.” (Gleick, James (2011-03-01). The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (Kindle Locations 290-292). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.) This was the first clue that messages and meaning were related, but not identical.

Gleick writes about African talking drums, whose users add little descriptive phrases to words, creating a poetic-sounding message reminiscent of epic oral poetry like Homer. The point of this practice is to overcome the ambiguity of words that sound the same on the drums. Gleick calls this error-correction, an example of “redundancy overcoming ambiguity” (Kindle Location 443). In Homer’s case, the purpose was mnemonic, but also perhaps related to the ephemeral nature of the spoken word. “The sea” is over too quickly. “The wine-dark sea” hangs in the air a little longer, allowing the hearer to spend a little longer thinking about it, visualizing it, absorbing its significance. In spoken storytelling, what better way to indicate emphasis than the
time devoted to a thing? Note to self: this is probably a good rule for online or even print storytelling, too.

Gleick says “John Carrington,” who wrote
The Talking Drums of Africa in 1949, “came across a mathematical way to understand this point [redundancy]. A paper by a Bell Labs telephone engineer, Ralph Hartley, even had a relevant-looking formula: H = n log s, where H is the amount of information, n is the number of symbols in the message, and s is the number of symbols available in the language” (Kindle Locations 463-465). I thought it was interesting that Carrington was aware of the Bell Labs publications — it would be interesting to trace the early movement of these ideas, since presumably Carrington was living in the African bush when he read Hartley’s article.

Plato objected to writing, even as he was recording the dialogues of his mentor Socrates, because he believed “this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom” (Kindle Locations 542-544). This objection, of course, has been made to every improvement in technology between writing and Twitter. Probably not without some truth, but apparently not as disastrously as predicted. But once again, the danger is Sauron’s ring and the Sandman’s ruby: too much power invested in the tool renders the user powerless if the tool is lost.

“Writing,” Gleick says, “appeared to draw knowledge away from the person, to place their memories in storage. It also separated the speaker from the listener, by so many miles or years” (Kindle Locations 548-549). It also seemed to depersonalize the information and invest it with an aura of truth, because it upset the power balance between speaker and listener. Face to face, people took turns, and power passed easily from one speaker to the next (Piggy’s got the Conch). A text creates the appearance of authority (although it’s interesting to recall how this tendency is periodically subverted throughout history, as disruptive technologies like the press and the web allow many new voices to be heard).

“The alphabet was invented only once. All known alphabets, used today or found buried on tablets and stone, descend from the same original ancestor, which arose near the eastern littoral of the Mediterranean Sea, sometime not much before 1500 BCE…”(Kindle Locations 594-596). This is so epic, so
Snow Crash.

Gleick talks about how the early philosophers like Aristotle had to define
everything, even things as simple as beginnings, middles, and ends. But this only seems strange until he points out that these “are statements not about experience but about the uses of language to structure experience” (Kindle Locations 645-646). In real life, we don’t experience things this way. But if we’re from a literate culture, we automatically, almost subconsciously understand things this way. This is about as close as Gleick gets to postmodernism, but the reader can easily make the jump from here.

When Plato says “The multitude cannot accept the idea of beauty in itself rather than many beautiful things, nor anything conceived in its essence instead of the many specific things. Thus the multitude cannot be philosophic,” Gleick suggests that “for ‘the multitude’ we may understand ‘the preliterate.’ They ‘lose themselves and wander amid the multiplicities of multifarious things,’ declared Plato, looking back on the oral culture that still surrounded him. They ‘have no vivid pattern in their souls’” (Kindle Locations 649-654). This is a really interesting, helpful way to understand (historicize?) Platonism. And it focuses my attention on my own writing. How much is my storytelling a straightforward process similar to what might have been done in an oral tradition? How much is it a highly structured form, that depends on my culture? The post-modern challenge is inevitable, as soon as we become literate...

In retrospect, the most valuable material in
The Information may be in these initial chapters that force us to reconsider how our very thinking is conditioned by literacy. For example, “Logic might be imagined to exist independent of writing—syllogisms can be spoken as well as written—but it did not. Speech is too fleeting to allow for analysis. Logic descended from the written word, in Greece as well as India and China, where it developed independently” (Kindle Locations 672-674). This is remarkable, if only for pushing us to imagine thinking in a preliterate culture (which Gleick stresses is a lot different from simply being illiterate in a literate culture). Is there a similar change (if not on such an epic scale) in thinking happening in the “omniscient” wired world Gleick takes us to in the later chapters?

“Is it a fact—or have I dreamt it—that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time? Rather, the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence! Or, shall we say, it is itself a thought, nothing but thought, and no longer the substance which we deemed it! —Nathaniel Hawthorne (1851)” (Kindle Locations 2227-2231).

I’ve already commented on the liar’s paradox and other math issues, so I’ll bypass them here, except to say that it’s a typical problem for people who equate message with meaning. “This statement is false” isn’t “meta-language,” it’s a mis-definition. It conflates (and thus confuses) the “statement” from the statement’s content. The content could be evaluated for truth or falsehood. The statement itself should only be judged on syntax.

A related problem, which I realize Gleick is trying to address slowly in order to bring his readers through a process of discovery, is the idea that “given any number, following the rules produces the corresponding formula” (Kindle Location 3257). The problem is that often processes can’t be reversed. Gleick knows this of course (see his bestseller
Chaos, and the epigram heading a later chapter: “You Cannot Stir Things Apart”). But I think it’s significant that the issue is not confined to the real world. C programs cannot be easily decompiled.

Information is entropy. This is the core idea of the book. There is some type of relationship between the world of things and the world of ideas. Gleick takes us through thermodynamics (mostly pre-chaos), touches on quantum mechanics, and hammers on Wheeler’s epigram “It from Bit.” Again, many of the things I found interesting related to the difference between information and meaning: “If English is 75 percent redundant, then a thousand-letter message in English carries only 25 percent as much information as one thousand letters chosen at random. Paradoxical though it sounded, random messages carry more information” (Kindle Locations 4071-4073). This illustrates the more-or-less inverse relationship between info and meaning (which Gleick returns to, at the end). Even the oracular passage from Matthew, “Let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil,”
assumes the presence of a questioner. The yeas and nays are only meaningful in the presence of questions, and it’s only that context that gives them meaning. (Kindle Location 4643).

“Thought interferes with the probability of events, and, in the long run therefore, with entropy. —David L. Watson (1930)” (Kindle Locations 4747-4749). Another of the many quotable passages. But the interesting question is, what types of thought, if any, decrease local entropy? The Shannon-Wiener disagreement over whether information constituted entropy or neg-entropy (because it can produce order) also depends on human perspectives on “order.” In the end, entropy produces universal order, but not of a variety we’d appreciate.

End of Part One.

Digital Context

Cory Doctorow, Context, 2011

Cory Doctorow is the guy behind
Boing Boing. He is also the author of several sci-fi and Young Adult sci-fi titles, including Little Brother (2008), which I’ve just begun reading.

This is a volume of short essays that originally appeared as editorials in periodicals like the
Guardian, but they’re thematically related and repeat several important themes like Doctorow’s concerns about net neutrality and copyright in interesting and useful ways.

One of the most interesting articles was called “Nature’s Daredevils,” and was about writing sci-fi for the YA audience. Although science fiction has always appealed to teen boys, since I was a young fan it could be argued that the genre “grew up” and that authors like Stephenson, Gibson, and Sterling appealed to at least a slightly wider audience. But the old-fashioned sci-fi I grew up with didn’t really have the self-consciousness about being “YA” in the way that term is now understood.

Doctorow says “YA SF is gigantic and invisible.” (Doctorow, Cory (2011-10-01). Context (Kindle Location 296). Independent Publishers Group. Kindle Edition.) YA bestsellers are moving ten times the books of comparable “adult” sci-fi. Although YA titles are not taken seriously (yet?) by Hugo and other award committees, they have a wide range of advocates out in the reading world, including teachers, YA librarians, and a big group of genre activists and specialized reviewers.

As they should. Unlike adult SF (which now means “speculative fiction” as well as good old sci-fi) Doctorow says kids “read to find out how the world works…[and] use books as markers of their social identity” (Kindle Locations 302-305). The “consequentiality” of writing for young adults is very satisfying, says Doctorow.

“Adolescence is a series of brave, irreversible decisions,” Doctorow says, quoting another YA author. Young adults “live in a world characterized by intense drama, by choices wise and foolish and always brave. This is a book-plotter’s dream. Once you realize that your characters are living in this state of heightened consequence, every plot-point acquires moment and import that keeps the pages turning. (Kindle Locations 322-329). This is true, I think. And not only for the SF writer. For the historian too. Maybe especially for the historian, talking to young people about actions and
consequences in the past. How much more powerful might some of these stories be, when kids realize that they actually happened. People actually did this stuff, it didn’t just come out of some novelist’s imagination. So it’s really possible…

The more classic Doctorow articles deal with “intellectual property,” copyright, and new media in interesting and creative ways. For example: “people,” Doctorow says, “who’ve ‘had their property stolen’ are a lot more sympathetic in the public imagination than ‘industrial entities who’ve had the contours of their regulatory monopolies violated,’” and this gives giant media corporations an opportunity to mount an elaborate false-flag operation over copyrights to distract us from their ongoing attempts to privatize the web. (Kindle Locations 1389-1391). And along the way I took down a half dozen names and titles to go out and find, expanding the link-tree. So it was a really useful anthology.

First response to The Information

I’m reading James Gleick’s The Information. Gleick is brilliant in the way he writes about complex technical stuff in basic, easy-to-follow English. But I’m getting hung up on the passages about Bertrand Russell’s Paradox: “S is the set of all sets that are not members of themselves.” Gleick says “the enabling factor seemed to be the peculiar recursion within the offending statement: the idea of sets belonging to sets. In the same way,” Gleick continues, “the liar paradox relies on statements about statements. “‘This statement is false’ is meta-language: language about language.” (Gleick, James (2011-03-01). The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (Kindle Location 3217). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.)

I disagree. In the first place, the enabling error in Russell’s Paradox seems to me to be the idea of non-recursion. That a set (all the hairs on my head)
would not include itself (all the hairs on my head). This seems like nonsense. The only way I can see any meaning in the idea that there is a set that does not include itself is if there’s some difference between “all the hairs on my head” and “the set of all the hairs on my head.” It’s as if something was added to all the hairs on my head by making them a set.

So that’s the error, as I see it. Thinking that the mental act of making a set changed the reality of the objects grouped. Even if the objects are mental. A set of all the positive integers would have to contain all the positive integers. One of its subsets would
have to be “the set of all the positive integers,” that is, itself. So what could Russell’s statement possibly mean? It’s not a paradox, it’s just a statement that doesn’t signify anything, because “the set of all sets that are not members of themselves” is empty. It’s empty in the real world, and it ought to be empty by definition in the world of logic.

Similarly, the liar paradox mistakes syntax for content. Words are not true or false, they’re signs. What they say can be true or false. The words in the sentence “this statement is false,” are empty. It would make as much sense to say “this statement is blue.” But I think Gleick is right to include this material in a book about the evolution of information theory. Because there
is an issue about signal and content. We do have difficulty separating words from thoughts. Later, when he relates information to entropy and says that a string of 1,000 random digits contains more information than the equivalent encoded English text (say, lines of Shakespeare), he’s again highlighting the difference between information and meaning. In a sense, although he doesn’t say this, we add meaning by decreasing information content. Up to a point. More on this (and the rest of the book) later.


Jon Ronson, The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, 2011

This is a really interesting book, from the guy who wrote
The Men Who Stare at Goats (which I haven’t read yet). Ronson tells a series of stories about his experiences over the past several years, which he weaves into an exploration of the place occupied by mental illness in our society. Ronson writes about an institutionalized “patient” who claims to have faked insanity to avoid a prison sentence, about scientologists campaigning against psychiatry, and about Bob Hare, the inventor of the 20-point checklist for diagnosing psychopaths. Along the way, Ronson reveals his growing realization that he and other journalists and media producers are complicit in the perpetuation of a madness industry that has gained incredible power and produced incredible fortunes over the last couple of decades. The madness of the madness-spotters is funny and scary at the same time.

I actually bought the Audible audio version of this first, and then picked up the Kindle version so I could highlight and comment. Ronson reads the book himself, which I think is brilliant, especially given the conversational tone and the ironically self-deprecating way he makes some of his most important points. One of these points is that it’s rarely a question of someone else doing something, while we stand by innocently observing. For example, when (psychopathic?) Wall Streeters went on a rampage of cost-cutting that reduced workforces — that is, closed factories and bankrupted towns across America — Ronson describes it this way: “It was like in the Coliseum. You had the entire crowd egging him on. So who really is the villain? Is it the one who’s making the cuts? Is it the analysts who are touting it? Is it the pension funds and the mutual funds who are buying?” “Of course that was all twelve years ago now,” I said. “Has anything changed?” “Not anything,” Jack said. “Zero. And it’s not just in the U.S. It’s all over the world.” (Ronson, Jon (2011-05-12). The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry (pp. 166-167). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition)

He concludes that passage by observing (and my Kindle informs me this has been highlighted 197 times so far): “If you have the ambition to become a villain, the first thing you should do is learn to be impenetrable. Don’t act like Blofeld—monocled and ostentatious. We journalists love writing about eccentrics. We hate writing about impenetrable, boring people. It makes us look bad: the duller the interviewee, the duller the prose. If you want to get away with wielding true, malevolent power, be boring” (p. 168).

Along the way, Ronson uncovers some really important stuff. He gets an admission from Dr. Allen Frances, the editor of the diagnostic manual
DSM-IV, that “There’s a societal push for conformity in all ways,” he said. “There’s less tolerance of difference…It’s very easy to set off a false epidemic in psychiatry…And we inadvertently contributed to three that are ongoing now.” “Which are they?” I asked. “Autism, attention deficit, and childhood bipolar,” he said. (pp. 243-245)

This “societal push for conformity” is why it’s important for me to complete my writing about nonconformists in history. But more on that later. Another quotable bit (with 251 highlighters to date, according to Kindle): “Serial killers ruin families.” Bob shrugged. “Corporate and political and religious psychopaths ruin economies. They ruin societies.” (p. 112) Whether you call them psychopaths or
vampire squids, he’s got a point.

I just Reamed REAMDE

Neal Stephenson, REAMDE, 2011

This is a thriller, which
Stephenson says has no supernatural or fantastical elements in it at all. He says he tried to make the characters interesting, so it was more than just a bunch of people running around shooting. But really, there’s an awful lot of running around and shooting. Several times, I felt like I was reading a Ludlum novel. Which is okay, but not normally why I rush right out and buy Stephenson’s books whenever a new one comes out.

Along the way, though, there
is a little bit of interesting technology — or at least a view into the multiplayer game world for those of us who don’t normally hang out there. The gold-farming aspects are also interesting, and a lot more might be done with them, from the perspective of colonialism, hacker disruption, etc. Didn’t Cory Doctorow just write about this too?

There are also interesting moments when Stephenson seems to be talking about things within the plot, but might also be talking about writing. For example: “What they considered normal. This was always the hard part. If you knew what was normal to the enemy, then everything became easy: you could lull them to sleep by feeding them normal, and you could scare the hell out of them by suddenly taking normal away.” Yeah, this could be about the terrorists in the story, but it could also be about writing stories. Cool!

News flash! I just copied that from my Kindle for Mac screen and pasted it into Scrivener. Along with it came this:

“Stephenson, Neal (2011-09-20). Reamde: A Novel (p. 183). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.” Nice job, Kindle!

Here’s another one that seems to be about the multiplayer game-world in the story, but could as easily be about the story-world of a novel: say
Lord of the Rings — since that’s one Stephenson refers to regularly in his stories: “The people who called themselves Evil weren’t really doing evil stuff, and the people who called themselves Good were no better. It’s not like the Good people were, for example, sacrificing points in the game world so that they could take the time to help little old ladies across the street.” “We didn’t give them the opportunity to help little old ladies across the street,” Richard said. “Exactly, we set them certain tasks or quests that had the ‘Good’ label slapped on them; but, art direction aside, they were indiscernible from ‘Evil’ tasks.” (Stephenson, Neal (2011-09-20). Reamde: A Novel (p. 227). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.)

Stephenson also invokes the maxim hinted at repeatedly in the
Isaacson bio of Steve Jobs: “As hire As, and Bs hire Cs,” (p. 744). And he mentions Utilikilts on p. 694. And, as a treat to his fans, he throws in this: “The opening screen of T’Rain was a frank rip-off of what you saw when you booted up Google Earth. Richard felt no guilt about this, since he had heard that Google Earth, in turn, was based on an idea from some old science-fiction novel.” (p. 38). I suspect that’s a reference to Hiro Protagonist’s virtual office in Snow Crash, which along with Gordon R. Dickson’s Final Encyclopedia is my idea of the ultimate data interface. Chiseled spam! More on that subject and why Tinderbox doesn’t meet the need, soon.

History books for your field list

This is a list of the books I’ve read over the last couple of years that I’ve written something about. It finally occurred to me that leaving them buried in the archives of this blog isn’t helpful -- I can’t even find them myself when I need them! I’m only including ones that are important enough that when I go back and read what I wrote, I still care. There’s also a new page called Dan’s index of books that has a brief summary of each book. The links there, and the titles below connect to the original notes I posted about the books. I read many of these for my PhD oral exams, so if you’re putting together field lists, maybe these will help.

Popular History (history for the general public):

Glenn Beck, Broke: The Plan to Restore Trust, Truth and Treasure, 2010.
Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre, 1984.
Alice Fahs, The Imagined Civil War, 2002.
Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, 2004.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, 2005.
Stewart H. Holbrook, Lost Men of American History, 1947.
Gary B Nash,The Unknown American Revolution, 2005.
Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, 2001.

Cultural History (inc. Intellectual):

Joyce Appleby, Capitalism and a New Social Order: The Republican Vision of the 1790s, 1984.
Colin Bonwick, English Radicals and the American Revolution, 1977.
Malcolm Cowley & Bernard Smith, Books that Changed Our Minds, 1939.
Peter S. Field, The Crisis of the Standing Order, 1998.
Gray, Susan E. The Yankee West : Community Life on the Michigan Frontier. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
Johnson, Paul Edward. A Shopkeeper's Millenium : Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837." 2004.
Laura L. Lovett, Conceiving the Future: Pronatalism, Reproduction, and the Family in the United States, 1890-1938, 2007.
Perry Miller, The Life of the Mind in America from the Revolution to the Civil War, 1965.
Frank Luther Mott, Golden Multitudes: The Story of Best Sellers in the United States, 1947.
W. J. Rorabaugh, The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition, 1979.
Darren Staloff, The Making of an American Thinking Class, 1998.
Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age, 1982.
Ed White, The Backcountry and the City: Colonization and Conflict in Early America, 2005.
Robert H. Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877-1920, 1967.

Environmental History:

William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England, 1983, 2003.
Cronon, William. Nature's Metropolis : Chicago and the Great West. New York: W.W. Norton, 1991.
Alfred W. Crosby, Jr. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, 1972.
Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World, 2001.
Alf Hornborg, The Power of the Machine: Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment, 2001.
Karl Jacoby, Crimes Against Nature, 2001.
Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West,1987.
Shawn William Miller, An Environmental History of Latin America, 2007.
Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: Europe, China, and the Making of the Modern World Economy, 2000.
Joachim Radkau, Thomas Dunlap tr., Nature and Power: A Global History of the Environment, 2002, 2008 tr.
James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, 1998.
James Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, 2009.
Vaclav Smil, Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production, 2001.
Smil, Vaclav. Creating the Twentieth Century : Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Bonnie Lynn-Sherow, Red Earth, 2004.
Theodore Steinberg, Nature Incorporated: Industrialization and the Waters of New England, 1991.
Worster, Donald. Rivers of Empire : Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985.

Legal & Political History:

Tyler Anbinder, Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s, 1992.
Peri E. Arnold, Remaking the Presidency: Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson, 1901-1916, 2009.
Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.
Eric Foner, Reconstruction, America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, 1988.
Oscar Handlin & Mary Flug Handlin, Commonwealth, A Study of the Role of Government in the American Economy: Massachusetts, 1774-1861, 1947.
Morton Horwitz, The Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860.
Paul L. Huston, The Panic of 1857 and the Coming of the Civil War, 1987.
John, Richard R. Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications. 2010.
Walter LaFeber, The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860-1898, 1963.
Drew R. McCoy, The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America, 1996.
Postel, Charles. The Populist Vision. Oxford: New York, 2007.
David M. Potter & Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861, 1976.
Eric Rauchway, Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America, 2003.
Heather Cox Richardson, The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901, 2001.
Heather Cox Richardson, West From Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America After the Civil War, 2007.
Richardson, Heather Cox. Wounded Knee : Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre. New York: Basic Books, 2010.
Malcolm J. Rohrbough, The Land Office Business: The Settlement and Administration of American Public Lands, 1789-1837,1968.
Elizabeth Sanders, Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers, and the American State 1877-1917, 1999.
J.C.A. Stagg, Mr. Madison’s War: Politics, Diplomacy, and Warfare in the Early American Republic, 1783-1830, 1983.

Social History (inc. Economic, Business, Labor)

Edward J. Balleisen, Navigating Failure: Bankruptcy and Commercial Society in Antebellum America, 2001.
Bodenhorn, A history of banking in antebellum America : financial markets and economic development in an era of nation-building, 2000.
Howard Bodenhorn, State Banking in Early America: A New Economic History, 2003.
Martin Bruegel, Farm, Shop, Landing: The Rise of a Market Society in the Hudson Valley, 1780-1860, 2002.
Clark, Christopher. The Roots of Rural Capitalism : Western Massachusetts, 1780-1860. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990.
Christopher Clark, Social Change in America: From the Revolution Through the Civil War, 2006.
Paul K. Conkin, A Revolution Down on the Farm: The Transformation of American Agriculture since 1929, 2008.
Deborah Fitzgerald, Every Farm a Factory: The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture, 2003.
Jennifer Fronc, New York Undercover: Private Surveillance in the Progressive Era, 2009.
Hammond, Bray. Banks and Politics in America, from the Revolution to the Civil War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957.
Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations that Made the American People, 1951.
Howard R. Lamar, The Trader on the American Frontier: Myth’s Victim, 1977.
Bruce Laurie, Artisans Into Workers: Labor in Nineteenth-Century America, 1989.
Stephen Mihm, A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States, 2007.
Donald H. Parkerson, The Agricultural Transition in New York State, 1995.
Glenn Porter and Harold C. Livesay, Merchants and Manufacturers: Studies in the Changing Structure of Nineteenth-Century Marketing, 1971.
Winifred Barr Rothenberg, From Market-Places to a Market Economy, 1992.
Sellers, Charles Grier, The Market Revolution : Jacksonian America, 1815-1846, 1991.
John L. Shover, First Majority-Last Minority: The Transforming of Rural Life in America, 1976.
John Thompson, Closing the Frontier: Radical Response in Oklahoma, 1889-1923, 1986.
Alfred F. Young, ed. Beyond the American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism, 1993.

Historiography/Theory (inc. the “old chestnuts”):

John Higham, History: Professional Scholarship in America, 1965.
Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform, From Bryan to F.D.R., 1955.
Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1996.
James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me, 2007.
Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession, 1988.
Vernon L. Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought: An Interpretation of American Literature from the Beginnings to 1920, 1927.
Larry Schweikart, 48 Liberal Lies About American History (That You Probably Learned in School), 2009.
Frederick Jackson Turner, Frontier and Section: Selected Essays, 1961.
Ian Tyrell, Historians in Public: The Practice of American History, 1890-1970, 2005.
Hayden White, Metahistory, 1973.

Isaacson shrinks Steve Jobs

Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs, 2011 (click image to see it on Amazon)

Isaacson is probably lucky that Steve Jobs did not have a chance to read his biography. Jobs comes off as a spoiled Californian hippy-wannabe who pretty regularly cries to get his way. Maybe the real Jobs was as un-selfaware as he’s portrayed, but it’s not the impression you get when watching things like the
joint interview Jobs and Bill Gates did with Mossberg in 2007. I think in spite of his protestations regarding Steve Jobs’ brilliance, Isaacson probably focuses too much on Jobs petty flaws, and misses some of the really big, historic business issues that are much more important parts of the Steve Jobs story than his personal hygiene and relationships with ex-girlfriends.

I’ve never read anything by Isaacson before, but he ran CNN, didn’t he? So he can’t be as naive about business as he pretends to be. He relates a story about Steve telling Obama that Apple employs over 700,000 factory workers in China. Apple would really like to build factories in America, Steve tells the President, but he can’t find the 30,000 engineers needed to supervise those assembly lines. So Obama tells his staff that this education gap needs to be addressed ASAP. Really? It doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that Apple can’t find 700,000 Americans willing to work for
ten dollars a day and live in dormitories where they put up chain link outside the windows to stop you from jumping out and killing yourself?

Similarly, Isaacson comes back again and again to the closed-versus-open systems argument, without ever really getting the point. The Microsoft DOS and Windows-based “IBM compatible” clone world created a global economy that would never have existed if Apple and its closed system had won. Don’t get me wrong: I bought my first Macintosh in 1984 and I’m typing on one now. But let’s be real. Thousands of companies, millions of jobs would never have existed. And if you listen carefully to the Mossberg interview, Steve Jobs knew this. So, thank you, Microsoft.

Maybe the situation is different today. Isaacson implies that the Apple-Microsoft war has been replaced by an Apple-Google war over basically the same issues. However, I was struck by a little detail I’m sure Isaacson missed, which Steve would never have approved. At the end of the book (at least in the Kindle version — it may be elsewhere in the print version), there are a series of Diana Walker photos, and the final one is this 2004 portrait. This is the very last thing you see, after reading six hundred pages. Look what’s sitting on the big box under the brick archway at the far left. Then read Wired’s cover story last month. I’m just sayin’…

1857 town history

Edwin G. Adams, An Historical Discourse in commemoration of the One Hundredth Anniversary of the formation of the First Congregational Church in Templeton, 1857

This is a seventy-five page essay on the history of the church in Templeton Massachusetts, but its appendices include valuable information about the settlement of the town and its early political history (especially surrounding the Revolutionary War and the ratification of the Constitution). I’m reading it because the subject of my biography was born there in 1800, so I want to be able to describe the setting accurately, and understand where he came from.

Like many Massachusetts town histories of this era, the Templeton history insists that “In this township, it is not known that there were any cultivated grounds or permanent habitations of the red men” when whites first arrived. (2) In the 1750s, the frontier of settlement was just west of Worcester, stretching from about Fitchburg to Sturbridge. Templeton was about twenty miles beyond this line, in a “wilderness” that extended another 35 miles to the Connecticut River, where there were a number of old settlements like Deerfield and Hadley. But in spite of the lack of obvious Indian settlements in Templeton, its people would have been extremely concerned about the fact they had settled deep in contested territory.

In the first place, the Templeton township grant in 1728 was one of several made by the Massachusetts colonial government to veterans of 1675 war against the Narraganset Indians. And although very few of the original owners actually moved to the new township, the 123 families who had settled in Templeton by 1733 were well aware of the ongoing threat. Conflicts with Indians broke out across northwestern New England in 1746, and then again during the “French and Indian War,” 1756-63. So for at least the first thirty years of the town’s history, its existence was regularly threatened by native attempts to reclaim their ancestral lands.

Another interesting element that I’ll need to research a little more deeply is the record of Templeton’s politics shown by annual election returns for Governor. Templeton voted overwhelmingly for John Hancock from 1787 to 1791, possibly in response to Governor Bowdoin’s handling of Shays’ Rebellion. But then in 1792, Hancock failed to get a single vote, and the town split about evenly between Francis Dana and Samuel Holton. So I’d like to know what happened in 1791 to cause this change, and why Templeton went back to supporting Hancock in 1793. Templeton helped elect Samuel Adams in 1794 and 1795, and voted for Elbridge Gerry in 1800 (Gerry was unsuccessful, but became Massachusetts 9th Governor in 1810 before becoming the 5th Vice President under Madison).

Disruptive social movements are what we need

Frances Fox Piven, Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America, 2006 (click image to see it on Amazon)

Piven asks, “given the power inequalities of American life and the extent to which electoral-representative arrangements are twisted by those inequalities, how does egalitarian reform ever occur in the United States?” The answer, she suggests, is that “the rare intervals of nonincremental democratic reforms are responses to the rise of disruptive protest movements, and the distinctive kind of power that those movements wield.” (18) Regular people, she concludes, “exercise power…mainly [and later she leans toward
only] at those extraordinary moments when they rise up in anger and hope, defy the rules that ordinarily govern their daily lives, and…disrupt the workings of the institutions in which they are enmeshed.” (1) The “electoral norms” and institutions of American government have developed layers “walling off…crucial parts of government from exposure to the electorate.” So it is “precisely at the moments when people act outside of the electoral norms that electoral-representative procedures are more likely to realize their democratic potential.” (2)

This seems like an elaborate and excessively-hedged way of saying that American politics is designed for the benefit of elites, and that under normal operations, what we think of as democracy actually tends to erode the rights and privileges of the working and middle classes, for the benefit of the rich. In fact, she argues in chapter six that “the slow and steady workings of normal politics are more likely to wear away the reforms won during those moments of crisis than they are to enlarge upon them.” (18) That’s a provocative, interesting argument: that we don’t really have a democracy — we have a plutocracy that is regularly attacked by the underclasses and forced to make concessions in order to get them to go back to work, keep spending, etc. So why am I not happier with this book?

Maybe because, once she articulates this idea [albeit more tentatively than I summarized it], Piven misses the opportunity to give us some really stirring history to back it up. The history she does provide is mechanical and almost entirely based on secondary sources. But who cares about the opinions of the Tillys, or even E.P. Thompson, on these issues? For example, she quotes Edmund Morgan’s conclusion that “It seems unlikely that the political, social, and cultural changes wrought in the name of equality since 1776 could have occurred under British rule. It was the founders that made them possible by defying the king and creating a republic.” (54) But in this context, Morgan’s statement seems like little more than standard American exceptionalism, when Piven’s thesis might actually be used to suggest that once the dust settled [had the dust been allowed to settle] on colonial complaints, the “standard” operations of our social and political institutions would probably have resulted in just the tame and watered-down democracy we ultimately got. Although maybe with less imperialism and manifest destiny, like Canada.

The thesis
is interesting, though — and especially so at a time when the Wall Street occupiers are being thrown out of the park. It would be really interesting to look at the development of American institutions in this light (which of course, some historians have been doing for decades) in a survey class, where we could look at Federalist #10 with these questions in mind. We could even frame the issue in a discussion about why she wrote the book in 2006 and whether the Bush-era rhetoric holds up under Obama. What was it he campaigned on? Oh yeah: Change.

Boston, 1853

This morning I’ve been reading this map and a description of Boston, from Phelps’ Hundred Cities and Large Towns of America, 1853, which I found on the Internet Archive.

The harbor’s “costly and splendid wharves” are particularly noted. “These marks of commercial enterprise and prosperity are about 100 in number, and of various dimensions. Long wharf is 1,800 feet long, and 200 feet wide; Central wharf, 1,397 feet long, and 150 feet wide; India wharf, 980 feet long, and from 246 to 280 feet wide; and Commercial wharf is 1,100 feet long, and 160 feet wide. These, like most of the others, are lined with extensive and magnificent warehouses, constructed of the most substantial materials.” Boston’s 1850 population, according to this text, was 138,788.

This is really useful for the history I’m working on right now, since some of my characters are merchants who work on the India wharf. Now I’ll be able to visualize where they are, and more importantly, describe it for my readers.

Knowlton vs. the soul

Poor creatures! I wonder they durst go to bed,—for whenever a man sleeps without dreaming, he is as much annihilated as he will ever be.

Yes, my hearers, to my thinking, the idea of a soul, in one way and another, directly and indirectly, has given rise to an incalculable amount of positive misery, and prevented, perhaps, an equal amount of happiness; we can see its influence in nearly all the affairs of life.

I speak not without my own experience, when I say, it is for the happiness of individuals, to be freed of all their jumble of hopes and fears—all their notions about souls, a future state, &c. The calm and natural doctrine of Materialism, which cannot be shaken—which seeks investigation, instead of shrinking from it, will alone render individuals and mankind, peacable, serene, and happy.

Doubtless many who know not what it is to enjoy the views of the Materialist, think them gloomy. They have been so pampered with a mixture of sour sauce and sweetmeats, that they have no stomach for the solid, wholesome fare of Nature—they think annihilation a horrible idea.

Poor creatures! I wonder they durst go to bed,—for whenever a man sleeps without dreaming, he is as much annihilated as he will ever be.

Is there any uneasiness, any longings, any thoughts about the grave, death, hell, &c. In a profound sleep? None at all. Time is nothing. There is more misery in thinking of death for one moment, than there is in being dead ten thousand years, and he is the wisest, who troubles himself the least about it. One religious lunatic has already undergone forty million times more misery than all the dead of the world ever have, or ever will undergo. So says a Materialist.

Letter to the
Boston Investigator, Friday April 12, 1833.

Religion, power, hypocrisy

To say that one shall believe on authority, without questioning the title of that authority, is to say that one shall not reason, shall not think. One cannot well help thinking sometimes.

Elizur Wright (1804-1885) is remembered not as a freethinker, but as the “father of life insurance.” Wright was an actuarial mathematician who was a Professor of Mathematics at Western Reserve College in Ohio in 1829, when he became interested in the science behind insurance. Wright was also an abolitionist, and a co-founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. This is what he had to say about religion and politics in 1877, at the New York Freethinker’s Association’s annual convention at Watkins Glen, NY:


By political hypocrisy I mean professing to be a Republican or a Democrat without regarding the rights of other people as equal to one’s own—not doing as one would be done by. Now by creed religions I mean associations of people who undertake, by pains and penalties, to compel belief in regard to supernatural persons and a state of existence after death. With creed in itself I have no quarrel. A man who believes nothing is good for nothing. Faith is not a matter of
will, still less a thing to be enforced by fear; it naturally follows after evidence, and often takes, and must take, its evidence at second hand; that is, believe on authority…The difference between politics and religion as to creed is, that the former regards only natural men in this world, where evidence is attainable at first hand. The latter regards beings or things above and beyond the senses, of which the evidence, at least for common mortals, is at second hand or resting on authority, and which is often beyond comprehension. To say that one shall believe on authority, without questioning the title of that authority, is to say that one shall not reason, shall not think. One cannot well help thinking sometimes.

D. M. Bennett,
The Proceedings and Addresses at the Freethinkers’ Convention Held at Watkins, N.Y., 1878. p. 377

Knowlton on morality

A knowledge of man, as an animal, ought to lie as a foundation on which all systems of morality, and all laws relating to the moral conduct of individuals, be founded.

In 1833, Dr. Charles Knowlton was imprisoned in the East Cambridge jail, at hard labor, for a season, as punishment for publishing The Fruits of Philosophy, America’s first birth control manual. On March 31st, the day he was released, Knowlton gave two public lectures, and his friend Abner Kneeland (editor of the Boston Investigator) published them as a booklet.

Knowlton spends no time discussing his incarceration, but instead launches into a description of the process of thought as a completely material interaction between sensation, perception, and the operation of the brain. Knowlton says that thought and consciousness are the result of habitual organic processes he calls “sensorial tendencies.” These ideas (especially as they appear in his book Elements of Modern Materialism) have been compared to the psychological theories of behaviorism — it’s also interesting how the idea of habits appears in David Hume’s philosophy, which Knowlton doesn’t refer to (he mentions Locke), although he’s clearly very familiar with Scottish medical literature.

Those who profess to believe that there is something in a man’s head for the word will to signify, would probably treat, in connection with volition, of a little theological thing called free agency….This is the argument. The inference is, that man, philosophically speaking, is no more a free agent than a time-piece. No attempt, to my knowledge, has ever been made to refute this argument. The course pursued by those who wish not to have the doctrine of necessity prevail, is to blow at it, and attempt to make people believe that, according to this view, it is absurd to punish a man for crime. Whether they believe what they say, I know not; but if they do, they are indeed stupid. Punishment is not, and ought not to be vindictive; it is designed to operate as a cause to prevent further crime; and this it is calculated to do, though man, philosophically speaking, is no more a free agent than a time-piece. Though man and a time-piece agree in one respect, that of not being free agents, still they differ very essentially in others. One is a piece of mechanical machinery, the other an organic machine.

…Yet the Scottish professors, as Reid and Stewart, have so blundered, as to take the simple fact that we think, as good and sufficient evidence, nay, positive proof, that man has a soul or mind, which is ‘not liable to be impaired by disease or mutilation of
any of our organs.’ But since I know a man’s ability to think is impaired by disease of the brain…I am much inclined to think that if his brain should be crushed, he could not think quite so well for it.

My hearers, is it not strange that a class of men should have so long presumed to tell us how we are made, what sort of things we are, and what will become of us when we are dead, when they have never made man their study. A knowledge of man, as an animal, ought to lie as a foundation on which all systems of morality, and all laws relating to the moral conduct of individuals, be founded.

Freethought and Class Consciousness

Here then is the root of the evil: those who controlled their destinies were more informed than they. Superior information gave them superior power…


If the working class had always been as enlightened as any other class of the community, is it not certain that the institutions of society, framed and established under the influence of such enlightenment, would have been calculated to promote their interests at least, equally with the interests of any other class of the community?

They alone were the producers of wealth; they were always superior in numbers; what then could it be but
want of intelligence that disabled them from demanding the formation and establishment of institutions which would make them who were the only producers, the proprietors and enjoyers of at least as great a share of the proceeds of their own industry, as any others?

Here then is the root of the evil: those who controlled their destinies were more informed than they. Superior information gave them superior power; and having a direct interest in accumulating the products of other people’s labor, (themselves being exempt therefrom) and thus of subjecting the working classes to endless toil, they were induced and enabled by such degrees as each succeeding state of society would admit, to frame and establish institutions, the almost invariable result of which is to render poverty-stricken and degraded the condition of the producer, while they enrich and aggrandize the indolent consumer. Here then we discover the
main cause of the degradation that ever has, and ever will assail the workingmen, so long as they continue the lamentable subjects of it, and one which nothing can remove but the general diffusion of knowledge through the working class, and an unreserved dissemination of truth, particularly in relation to equal rights and moral and political economy.

Horace Seaver (1810-1889), Occasional Thoughts of Horace Seaver. From Fifty Years of Free Thinking. Selected from the Boston Investigator, 1888.

Bradlaugh in Putnam's 400 Years

I pray the opposing forces to continue their attacks, that by teaching me my weaknesses they may make me strong.

Here’s a nice Charles Bradlaugh passage, quoted in Four Hundred Years of Freethought, by Samuel P. Putnam, 1894. Putnam seems to be a very interesting character in his own right, and Bradlaugh was a giant. Stay tuned for more material from each of them…

I am an Infidel, a rough, self-taught Infidel. What honors shall I win if I grow grey in this career? Critics who would break a lance against me in my absence will tell you now that I am from the lower classes, without university education, and that I lack classical lore. Clergymen, who see God’s mercy reflected in an eternal hell, will tell you even that I am wanting in a conception of common humanity. Skilled penmen will demonstrate that I have not the merest rudiments of biblical knowledge. I thank these assailants for the past; when they pricked and stung me with their waspish piety, they did me good service, gave me the clue to my weaknesses, laid bare to me my ignorance, and drove me to acquire knowledge which might otherwise never have been mine. I pray the opposing forces to continue their attacks, that by teaching me my weaknesses they may make me strong….I have preached ‘equality,’ not by aiming to reduce men’s intellects to the level of my own, but rather by inciting each of my hearers to develop his mind to the fullest extent, obtaining thus the hope, not of an equality of ignorance, but of a more equal diffusion of knowledge.

Robert Dale Owen on marriage

We desire a tranquil life, in so far as it can be obtained without a sacrifice of principle.

And, since it’s on the same page of the Boston Investigator as Eliza Sharples’ speech, here’s the famous Robert Dale Owen - Mary Jane Robinson marriage contract. I’m copying the entire document — others cherry-pick the items that interest them, like the women’s rights issue, and leave out the remarks about religion. They don’t want to consider, apparently, how the issues all fit together for people like Owen and Robinson…

New York, Thursday Morning, April 12, 1832.

This afternoon I enter into a martimonial engagement with Mary Jane Robinson, a young person whose opinions on all important subjects, and whose mode of thinking and feeling, coincide, in so far as I may judge, more intimately with my own, than those of any other individual with whom I am acquainted.

We contract a legal marriage, not because we deem the ceremony necessary to us, or useful, in a rational state of public opinion, to society; but because, if we became companions without a legal ceremony, we should either be compelled to a series of dissimulations which we both dislike, or be perpetually exposed to annoyances, originating in a public opinion, which is powerful though unenlightened; and whose power, though we do not fear nor respect it, we do not perceive the utility of unnecessarily braving. We desire a tranquil life, in so far as it can be obtained without a sacrifice of principle.

We have selected the simplest ceremony which the laws of this state recognize, and which, in consequence of the liberality of these laws, involves not the necessity of calling in the aid of a member of the clerical profession; a profession the credentials of which we do not recognize, and the influence of which we are led to consider injurious to society. The ceremony too, involves not the necessity of making promises regarding that over which we have no control, the state of human affections in the distant future; nor of repeating forms which we deem offensive, inasmuch as they outrage the principles of human liberty and equality, by conferring rights and imposing duties unequally on the sexes.

The ceremony consists simply in the signature, by each of us, on a written contract, in which we agree to take each other as husband and wife, according to the laws of the state of New York; our signatures being attested by those of all our friends who may be present.

Of the unjust rights which, in virtue of this ceremony, an iniquitous law gives me over the person and property of another, I cannot legally, but I can morally divest myself. And I hereby distinctly and emphatically declare, that I consider myself, and earnestly desire to be considered by others as utterly divested, now and during the rest of my life, of any such rights; the barbarous relics of a feudal and despotic system, soon destined, in the onward course of improvement, to be wholly swept away; and the existence of which is a tacit insult to the good sense and good feeling of the present comparatively civilized age.

I put down these sentiments on paper this morning, as a simple record of the views and feelings with which I enter into an engagement, important in whatever light we consider it; views and feelings which I believe to be shared by her who is, this afternoon, to become my wife.

Robert Dale Owen

I concur with these sentiments.

Mary Jane Robinson

Dr. Charles Knowlton on infidelity

I for one, can say I was once “a believer,” and I have not lost the knowledge—if knowledge it may be called—which made me such, but I have acquired MORE, and this has made me an infidel.

This is an 1833 editorial by Dr. Charles Knowlton, a frequent contributor to the Boston Investigator. There are several letters from Knowlton like this one, that are usually not connected with him (although no one has really tried to collect his writings…yet). All the spelling and emphasis is from the Spring 1833 original. I don’t have the date, but I’ll swing back around to the Antiquarian Society and pick it up sometime. This is nearly 200 years old, but a lot of the material about the state of religion and infidelity in America could have been written last week:


Such is the caption of an article in the Boston Mercantile of the 8th inst. Which article is such a heterogenus compound of error, truth, and scandal, that it must be attended to; else—as warm weather is approaching—it may shock the SENSE of—some good people! And cause them to turn aside from the broad, free road to truth and MENTAL INDEPENDENCE, in which so many are now beginning to walk.

The writer commences by expressing his opinion, that a free government cannot long exist unless the people are under the influence of the “moral principles of the christian religion.” MORAL principles, ha? What does the fellow mean? Hasn’t he the pluck to say religious principles, in these days of dawning reason and free enquiry? Surely he means religious principles, else why fall into libeling the infidels as if at a days work—as if he expected to make money by it?

Doesn’t he know there is nothing in the bible but paper and black marks? Moral principles are in the man. They are what experience in the world, or what eventually amounts to the same thing—they are what REASON has taught him. And hence it is, that when he meets with an EXPRESSION of them in the bible or any other book, he approves of it. No man admits it is right, for instance, to “do unto others as we would have others do unto us,” because he finds these words, or this precept, in the bible; but because reason has already taught him this moral truth. He as readily assents to this position—this expression of what reason has taught him, when he meets it in the writings of its original author, Confucius, as when he reads it in the new Testament.

Religious principles are what reason does not teach, and hence men differ about them. A religious man may or may not be moral; and a man may be moral, but not religious. When the words MORALITY and RELIGION are properly defined, it will be seen that there is a very marked distinction between them. There are no MORAL principles in the christian religion, any more than there are white hairs in black hairs. But as both white and black hairs may exist on the same head, so may expressions of moral principles and of religious notions, be bound up in the same book.

Now as moral principles are the result of experience—as they are what the great Book of Nature teaches, and as infidels read this book—if not more freely certainly less hampered by prejudice, than others; it is but reasonable to suppose, that, of the two, their moral principles are the best.

At any rate, their avowal of unpopular opinions, as a general thing argues in favour of their honesty. Morality is their only stay—their only claim on public favour. They have no cloak to cover their iniquities—no influential priests to hush up disgraceful affairs. And it is not their privilege to beg the widows’ mite; to demand tithes; to anathematize the philosopher and deprive him of his oath; to stop the mail, (if possible) to shut up shops, and arrest all labor, one day in seven, for the good of souls!

Verily, Verily, I would advise the man of the Mercantile to eat a little mustard! That he may talk no more about the “moral principles of the christian religion” being essential to a FREE government. Does not all history show that where “superstition in fashion” has had the greatest sway, government has been the most oppressive and tyrannical?

“We cannot persuade ourselves,” says the man of the Mercantile, “that the public generally are aware of the immense number (good!) of those who now fight under the black banners of Tom Pain and Robert Owen.” Black banners! Alas, the charges to which our language is subject. I have ever thought that black is emblematical of darkness—ignorance; but here it is coupled with the idea of light—knowledge. What but knowledge sends the dark veil of superstition, which is so industriously drawn over the understandings of almost all persons while young. I for one, can say I was once “a believer,” and I have not lost the knowledge—if knowledge it may be called—which made me such, but I have acquired MORE, and this has made me an infidel.

Speaking of the progress if infidelity, in the United States, the Mercantile says, on the authority of the “Spirit of the Pilgrims,” that “in 1828, the Owen infidels commenced publishing in New York the Free Enquirer, and in 1832 they had enlisted in their cause TWENTY PERIODICALS!” This is cheering. Our march is onward. We have began at the bottom—we are based on truth which dreads not but courts investigation. We have no expensive ceremonies. We free the mind of all its superstitious fears. The happiness of mankind is our object.

“And,” continues the man of Mercantile, “the citizens of Boston are probably aware that Julien Hall has been the scene of their blasphemous and disgusting services.” From what he has said of the MORAL principles of the christian RELIGION! I am not surprised to find that he is not sensible, that blasphemy consists only in speaking disrespectfully of a god in whom you believe. It is not blasphemy for christians to call Mahomet an imposter; nor for infidels to call Moses’ god a tyrant. As to the expression “HAS BEEN the scene” &c. it was doubtless designed to misrepresent. The public may rest assured that free enquiry is steadily on the advance in Boston. Julien Hall continues to be crowded by those who are in search of truth as it is in nature; and their organ, the Investigator, is spreading far and wide.

Having spoken of the progress of infidelity, the Mercantile proceeds to lay before his readers what he calls the leading principles of this “new school of irreligionists.” I shall but briefly notice some of his most glaring misrepresentations. First, That we hold “such a thing as moral truth cannot exist.” This is a lie, unless some very novel meaning is attached to the term, MORAL TRUTH.

Second, “that there is no proof that the soul is immaterial, or that it will survive the body.” We say there is no soul, and challenge all the world to adduce any evidence of the existence of such a thing.

Third, “They deny wholly the doctrine of free moral agency, and the consequent doctrine of responsibility, so that there is no such thing as virtue,—no such thing as crime.” We say there are no effects without causes, either without the head or within, and that one effect as necessarily follows its cause as another. Consequently, man, philosophically speaking, is no more a free agent than a time piece, yet we say, and consistently too, that, morally speaking man is responsible to man for his actions. As to the words virtue and crime, we give them an obvious and certain meaning. We say virtue consists in virtuous conduct or actions, and that virtuous actions are such as are conducive to our own happiness or that of others. Vice or crime we give the opposite meaning. We do NOT say that, “in our actions we ought to be governed by no motive but the desire of doing what will be most useful of agreeable to ourselves individually.” This is but another willful lie.

We do not say “that commerce ought to be DESTROYED; and only a VERY FEW of us hold “that property ought to be equally divided.”

As to “promiscuous intercourse,” so much harped upon by our opponents, as they have said ten times more about it than we have, I, of a truth, begin to believe it accords with their feelings, and that on this account their aim is to make people believe that many enlightened and distinguished characters approve of it. And as to the Slander cast upon the once Miss Frances Wright, while it can do us no harm, it is that which has mostly led me to “answer a fool according to his folly,” in the style of this communication.


The Lady of the Rotunda

Superstition, I shall define to be the invention of the human imagination, where demonstration is not to be had, and where a system of alleged causes, falling back into a general first cause, is made of the fanciful idea of a personification of supposed principles.

First Discourse of the Lady of the Rotunda.

The task which I propose to perform, I am told, has no precedent in this country; so I have great need of craving your indulgent attention and most gentle criticism.

A woman stands before you who has been educated and practiced in all the severity of religious discipline, awakened to the principles of reason but as yesterday, seeking on these boards a moral and a sweet revenge, for the outrage that has been committed on the majesty of that reason, and on the dignity of that truth, inasmuch as the barbaric administration of alleged law, that never had the consent of the people; of law, that has been made for the purpose, by the administrators of the law, has arrested the voices and imprisoned the persons of the two brave and talented men, who first made this building the temple of reason and truth, and who first essayed to teach the people of this country the practical importance and incalculable value of free and public oral discussion.

This, sirs, is my purpose; I appear before you to plead the cause of those injured men; to endeavor to reason before you as they reasoned before you; to follow their example, even if the sequel be a following them to a prison.

I have left a home, in a distant country, where comfort and even affluence surrounded me—a happy home, and the bosom of an affectionate and a happy family. I have left such a home, under the excitement which religious persecution has roused, to make this first and singular appearance before you, for a purpose, I trust that is second to none.

So much, by way of an introduction, where no introduction has been otherwise made. I come at once to the preliminaries of my present discourse.

Would you have from me a profession of faith?—You shall have it.

Faith, in its relation to superstition, I have none. But of faith, in the relation of the word to whatever is lovely, whatever is good, and whatever is true, whatever is morally binding and honorable, I flatter myself that I am rich, and of large possessions. At least, sirs, I submit this my faith to your most severe critical judgments.

But then, we are told, that they who have no faith in relation to superstition, are scoffers and scorners.

…This shall not be the seat of the scorner while it is in my hands, but the theatre of reason, of truth, and of free discussion; of an encouragement to every well expressed desire for mutual instruction.

…I purpose to speak, in my continued discourses, if this shall find favor with you, of superstitions and of reason, of tyranny and of liberty, of morals and of politics.

Of politics!—politics from a woman! Some will exclaim,
yes, I will set before my sex the example of asserting an equality for them with their present lords and masters, and strive to teach all, yes all, that the undue submission, which constitutes slavery is honorable to none; while the mutual submission, which leads to mutual good, is to all alike dignified and honorable.

Superstition, I shall define to be the invention of the human imagination, where demonstration is not to be had, and where a system of alleged causes, falling back into a general first cause, is made of the fanciful idea of a personification of supposed principles…It would not be in vain, if man were superstitious enough to seek to make a paradise of the earth, instead of making his never-to-be-reached paradise of the conceits of his own brain. Help me sirs, in this mighty undertaking, and some of us may see that we have made the world the better for living in it.

The 15 June, 1832 Boston Investigator's excerpts from Eliza Sharples speech begin with Robert Dale Owen's description in column 2, and cover two columns. In the fifth column, there is a reprint from the Workingman’s Advocate, of an article covering RDO’s marriage to Mary Jane Robinson, including the text of their “protest” vows. Owen introduces Sharples (originally to readers of the New York Free Enquirer) with the following:

The Lady of the Rotunda.
New York, 11th May, 1832.

It needs not to repeat what every one admits, that this is an age prolific of interesting mental and moral phenomena; an age rich in prognostics of change and reform. The French Revolution, with the various novelties to which it has given birth (including the St. Simonian) is among the most marked of these. The growth of free opinion in this country is another; the boldness, sometimes verging on violence, of Richard Carlile and Robert Taylor is another; and the fact I am now about to detail is entitled to a place among the number.

A young unmarried English lady, said to be of a highly respectable and affluent family, and who conceals her name because her relations desire that it may not be published, has appeared in London, has hired “The Rotunda,” the same building where Taylor formerly lectured, delivers original lectures there twice every Sunday, and three times in the course of the week; and has commenced, on her own responsibility, a periodical entitled “The Isis.”

She delivered on the 29th January last her opening address, and repeated the same several times in the course of the ensuing week. Her lectured are thronged; how her periodical succeeds I have not heard.

…I am now about to leave this city for London, and hope, while there, to see this Lady of the Rotunda, if I can procure an introduction to her.—At all events, if her lectures are continued, I shall attend them; and “report progress,” as politicians say, to our readers.

Hints to Heretics

Dare to be honest...

This is going to be a place where I post (daily, I hope) excerpts from things written by freethinkers throughout history. In no specific order. The first one, because I happened to find this one just now, while looking at the
Boston Investigator (I've never really heard of him before) is this from Horace Seaver, editor of the Investigator after Abner Kneeland:

Hints to Heretics

Be courageous. Dare to be honest, just, magnanimous, true to your country, to yourselves, to the world. Dare to do to others as you would have them do to you. Most men are cowards. They are afraid to speak and to act when duty calls, and as duty requires. Few men will suffer themselves to be called cowards; and yet they betray their cowardice by the very course they take to resent the insult. A man may intrepidly face the cannon’s mouth, and be an arrant coward after all.

There is a higher, a nobler courage, than was ever displayed in the heat of battle, or on the field of carnage. There is a
moral courage, which enables a man to triumph over foes more formidable than were ever marshalled by any Caesar. A courage which impels him to do his duty, to hold fast his integrity, to maintain a conscience void of offence, at every hazard and sacrifice, in defiance of the world. Such is the courage that sustains every good man, amidst the temptations, allurements, horrors, conflicts, opposition, ridicule, malice, cruelty, or persecution, which beset and threaten him at every stage of his progress through life.

Horace Seaver (1810-1889), Occasional Thoughts of Horace Seaver. From Fifty Years of Free Thinking. Selected from the Boston Investigator, 1888.

So who was Seaver? A New York Times obituary, dated 22 August 1889, reads:

“OBITUARY NOTES. Horace Seaver, editor of the Investigator, died yesterday afternoon in Boston. He was born in Boston in 1810, and his connection with the Investigator dates from 1837, when he contributed to that paper a series of articles that attracted wide attention. In 1838 he became editor of the paper and Josiah P. Mendum proprietor, a partnership which had existed uninterruptedly for fifty-one years. Mr. Seaver devoted a great deal of time to lecturing, his chief theme being "Free Thought." He was a great anti-slavery man, and was a warm friend of Wendell Phillips, Parker Pillsbury, and William Lloyd Garrison.”

Sugar and Empire

Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies, by Matthew Parker, 2011.

I’ve listened to the first half of the audible audiobook version of this, on my drives to and from work. I’m writing about a commodity and about families, so I was very curious. And some of my guys begin their American careers in the “West India Trade,” out of Middletown CT, so I thought I might pick up some data or ideas. And I’ve learned a lot about the chronology of Caribbean settlement, the development of the sugar industry, and even the growth of buccaneering and piracy (which sheds an interesting light on Christopher Hill’s articles about the New Model Army and pirates).

But there’s actually much less about the people than I had hoped. The book opens with a description of the voyage to the Indies, from the perspective of a more-or-less common person who wrote a memoir. But the story moves quickly to the people who’d be central in any traditional political/military history from the last century. The first half, at least, is a pretty standard history in that sense: the main action involves the building of the British sugar empire in Barbados, the Leeward Islands, and Jamaica. There are several people the story revolves around for a while: James Drax, his son Henry, Peter Beckford, Christopher Codrington. They all seem like very interesting characters, but Parker doesn’t give them much room to move around in. For the most part, the story moves quickly from battle to battle, recounting the major events that shaped the development of the British West Indies.

And it really is the
British West Indies. Although the Spanish and French are present as antagonists, there’s very little said about their activities or points of view. Even where a description of their efforts at cultivating sugar could have helped contextualize the scope and style of British sugar production, it’s largely missing. As is any discussion or the demand side or the cultural impact of sugar, beyond a few lines describing changes in per capita consumption over time.

I’m not sure if I’m going to listen to the second, eight-hour half of this audiobook. I’d really like to know whether he gets around to the impact of sugar and the Caribbean on the development of New England. So I’ll probably listen to the rest. These are really interesting characters, and I think it would be a really interesting (and difficult) project, to try to render them completely. Parker sort-of shies away from mentioning slavery and general debauchery when he’s talking about his “heroes” in the story. Not that he tries to whitewash them — they’re not even really “heroes” in the standard sense: they’re just the central characters of a chapter or two, that the story hangs on or close to. But it would be interesting to dig deeper into some of these guys, and see them more completely. Slavery is clearly one of the big elephants in the room, but probably not the only one. The younger Christopher Codrington was a fellow of All Souls, Oxford, who hung around with the lights of London. But he was also a bloodthirsty sod who joined William III’s army in the Netherlands just for the joy of battle. These guys are very complicated, and I would have been really interested in seeing deeper into their complex, self-contradictory personalities.

But that’s my interest, which isn’t necessarily shared by all. The real question for me is, how will I do it? The scope of Parker’s story precludes there being one character who could carry it — but maybe a family could have done the job. In my story, I’m also covering too much time to write it as one person’s story, so I’m trying to write it as the story of three families. What techniques can I use to foreground the personal stories of my characters, without losing the historical context and the narrative thread? Personal motivations, even personal quirks and idiosyncrasies, might shed a different light on the story and on the times. Does that lead to “too much” contingency? I guess we’ll see…

I'll still read Reamde

There are very few authors whose new books I’ll buy sight unseen, in hopes they’re as good as my favorites. Neal Stephenson is one. Snow Crash and The Diamond Age are so full of great material, that even where they fail, they succeed. And the Baroque Cycle is why I went into history. Some of his others didn’t really click for me at the same level. And sometimes people get sort-of mired in the conventions of the genre -- which is another way of saying there didn’t have to be so much about masturbation in Cryptonomicon.

But if I was Stephenson, I’d be pretty unhappy about the
Kirkus review of his new book Reamde, which came out yesterday (and I downloaded yesterday afternoon to my Kindle). The reviewer apparently thinks s/he is way too evolved to be reviewing speculative fiction. “Eek!”? Note to self: don’t ever let Kirkus review any of my work. I mean, it’s possible the book is just bad, I guess (I’ve only read the first two pages). But then, say so! Don’t go all snide and sarcastic. If you think the plot is nothing more than a first person shooter, say so. If you think the characters are one dimensional or “give good Muslims a bad name,” then take your job seriously and warn potential readers. And really, is it necessary to call attention to nepotism? Is that all you’ve got to say?

I hope I like
Reamde. After reading this review, I know nothing more about it than I did before. It’s still by Neal Stephenson. Who’s Kirkus?

America's Most Popular Books

This is a first pass at a list of the books that Americans bought most, throughout our history. The basis for the list, which I'm continuing to build up with additional sources, comes from Frank Luther Mott’s Golden Multitudes: The Story of Best Sellers in the United States, 1947. Mott’s standard of Best Seller status was that the book’s sales exceeded 1% of the population when printed. The (mostly) non-fiction titles that I think I'd like to read, and can find a link to, are highlighted.

Bestsellers before 1700 (at least 1,000 copies sold):

1662, Michael Wigglesworth,
The Day of Doom
1664, Richard Baxter,
A Call to the Unconverted
1665, Lewis Bayly, The Practice of Piety
1679, Samuel Hardy,
A Guide to Heaven
1681, John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1677)
1682, Mary Rowlandson,
Captivity and Restoration
1688, Francis Bacon, Essays (1601)

also (not a best seller, but popular):

1670, Michael Wigglesworth,
Meat Out of the Eater
1699, Jonathan Dickinson,
God’s Protecting Providence (sold over 2,000)

1700-1709 (at least 3,000 copies sold)

1701, Robert Russell,
Seven Sermons
1707, John Williams, The Redeemed Captive
1709, John Flavel, Husbandry Spiritualized


1700, Samuel Willard,
The Fountain Opened
1700, James Janeway, A Token for Children
1700, Thomas Doolittle, Treatise on the Lord’s Supper

1710-1719 (at least 4,000)

Mother Goose’s Melodies for Children
1719, Isaac Watts, Divine and Moral Songs for the Use of Children

1720-1729 (5,000)

1721, Flavius Josephus,
Antiquities of the Jews


1722, Nathaniel Vincent,
The Day of Grace
1727, William Penn,
Fruits of a Father’s Love
1729, John Bunyan, Grace Abounding (1666)
1729, Daniel Defoe,
Religious Courtship

1730-1739 (7,000)

History of Doctor Faustus


1741, William Penn,
No Cross, No Crown
1741, Sarah Rede, A Token for Youth
1741, Isaac Watts,
Horae Lyricae
1744, Samuel Richardson, Pamela
1745, The History of the Holy Jesus
1747, Alexander Pope,
Essay on Man


1740, Ralph Erskine,
Gospel Sonnets
1742, Elizabeth S. Rowe, Devout Exercises of Heart, and Letters
1744, The French Convert
1745, John Tillotson,
1748, Jared Eliot,
Essays Upon Husbandry in New England
1749, Philip Doddridge,


Aesop’s Fables
1750, James Hervey,
Meditations and Contemplations
1751, Robert Dodsley, The Oeconomy of Human Life


1750, Joseph Addison,
Cato: A Tragedy
1751, John Pomfret,
1751, Thomas Elwood,
1753, Edward Young,
The Last Day

1760-1769 (15,000)

1768, John Dickinson,
Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania


1760, William Law,
The Spirit of Prayer
1760, George Anson,
Voyage Round the World
1762, Robert Sandeman,
Letters on Theron and Aspasio
1766, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu,
1768, Samuel Johnson,

1770-1779 (20,000)

1772, Oliver Goldsmith,
The Vicar of Wakefield
1774, Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy
1775, Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
1775, John Gregory,
A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters
1775, Philip D. Stanhope (Lord Chesterfield), Letters to His Son
1776, Thomas Paine, Common Sense
1777, John Milton, Paradise Lost
1777, James Thomson,
The Seasons
1777, Edward Young,
Night Thoughts


1770, William Penn,
A Brief Account of the People Called Quakers
1774, Captain James Cook, Three Voyages to the Pacific
1775, Edmund Burke, Conciliation with America
1779, Ethan Allen, A Narrative of Col. Ethan Allen’s Captivity

also books for which there were “large sales of imported editions before 1775”

Bennel Thornton and George Colman,
The Connoisseur
Charles Johnstone, Chrysal; or, The Adventures of a Guinea
Thomas Gordon and John Trenchard,
Cato’s Letters
Miguel Cervantes,
Don Quixote
John Hawkesworth,
The Adventurer
Samuel Johnson,
The Rambler
Edward More,
The World
Richard Steele, The Tatler
Richard Steele, The Guardian
Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws
Daniel Neal, History of the Puritans
Alexander Pope, Illiad and Odyssey
Thomas Salmon,
The Universal Traveler

1780-1789 (25,000)

1782, John Trumbull,
1786, Samuel Richardson,
1787, William Cowper, The Task
1788, Robert Burns, Poems
1788, Alexander Hamilton et al.,
The Federalist


1784, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe,
Sorrows of Young Werther
1786, Samuel Richardson,
Sir Charles Grandison
1786, Henry Fielding,
Tom Jones

1790-1799 (40,000)

1793, John Fox,
Book of Martyrs
1793, Jonathan Swift,
Gulliver’s Travels
Arabian Nights’ Entertainment
1794, Benjamin Franklin,
1794, Thomas Paine, Age of Reason
1794, Susanna Rowson, Charlotte Temple
1795, David Hume,
History of Great Britain
1795, Constantin Francois (Count) Volney
, The Ruins
1796, William Shakespeare, Plays
1797, Hannah Foster,
The Coquette
1798, Regina Marie Roche,
Children of the Abbey


1790, Alain R. Le Sage,
Gil Blas
1791, Noah Webster,
The Prompter
1791, Thomas Paine,
The Rights of Man
1792, H. H. Brackenridge, Modern Chivalry
1792, Jeremy Belknap,
The Foresters
1794, John Locke,
Essays on Human Understanding
1794, Tobias Smollett, Roderick Random
1794, James Hervey,
A Dialogue Between Theron and Aspasio
1794, Susanna Rowson,
The Fille de Chambre
1794, Mrs. Ann Radcliffe,
The Mysteries of Udolpho
1796, Thomas Day,
History of Sandford and Merton
1796, Tobias Smollett,
History of England
1796, Charles Rollin, Ancient History
1796, J. J. Rousseau, The New Eloisa
1796, Richard Watson,
Apology for the Bible
1797, Lord Lyttleton,
Dialogues of the Dead
1797, Mrs. Ann Radcliffe, The Italian
1798, Charles Brockden Brown,
1799, Charles Brockden Brown,
Edgar Huntly

1800-1809 (50,000)

1800, Mason L. Weems,
Life of Washington
1803, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, The Spectator
1804, Jane Porter, Thaddeus of Warsaw
1808, George Gordon (Lord) Bryon,
1809, Washington Irving,
History of New York


1801, Mrs. Tabitha Tenney,
Female Quixotism
1801, Maria Edgeworth,
Moral Tales
1801, Mrs. Amelia Opie, Father and Daughter
1803, William Wirt,
Letters of a British Spy
1807, Mrs. P. D. Manvill,
1807, Paul Jones,
Life and Adventures
1809, Marie Restaud Cottin, Elizabeth; or, The Exiles of Siberia

1810-1819 (75,000)

1810, Jane Porter,
Scottish Chiefs
1811, William Robertson,
History of Scotland
1811, Walter Scott, Poems
1815, Walter Scott,
Guy Mannering
1815, Walter Scott,
1817, Thomas Moore,
Lalla Rookh
1818, Walter Scott,
Rob Roy
1819, Washington Irving,
Sketch Book


1810, Henry Trumbull,
History of the Discovery of America
1810, Mason L. Weems and Peter Horry, Life of General Francis Marion
1811, Isaac Mitchell, Alonzo and Melissa
1815, Walter Scott,
The Antiquary
1817, William Wirt,
The Life of Patrick Henry
1817, Archibald Robbins, The Loss of the Brig Commerce
1818, Walter Scott,
The Heart of Midlothian

1820-1829 (100,000)

1820, Walter Scott,
1821, James Fenimore Cooper,
The Spy
1821, Walter Scott,
1822, James Fenimore Cooper,
The Pilot
1823, James Fenimore Cooper,
The Pioneers
1824, James E. Saever,
Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison
1825, Emanuel Swedenborg,
Heaven and Hell
1826, James Fenimore Cooper,
The Last of the Mohicans
1827, James Fenimore Cooper,
The Prairie


1820, Walter Scott,
The Monastery
1820, Walter Scott,
The Abbot
1822, Walter Scott,
The Pirate
1822, Washington Irving,
Bracebridge Hall
1823, Walter Scott,
Peveril of the Peak
1824, Maria Edgeworth,
Harry and Lucy
1824, Washington Irving,
Tales of a Traveler
1824, Walter Scott, Redgauntlet
1824, James Fenimore Cooper,
Lionel Lincoln
1825, Walter Scott,
The Talisman
1827, Mrs. Lydia H. Sigourney,
1827, Catharine M. Sedgwick,
Hope Leslie
1828, George Croly,
1828, Edward Bulwer-Lytton,
1829, Washington Irving,
The Conquest of Granada
1829, Sarah Josepha Hale,
Sketches of American Character

1830-1839 (125,000)

1832, Jacob Abbot,
The Young Christian
1832, Jane Austen,
Pride and Prejudice
1832, Jonathan R. Wyss,
Swiss Family Robinson
1833, John S. C. Abbott,
The Mother at Home
1834, Edward Bulwer-Lytton,
The Last Days of Pompeii
1834, Victor Hugo,
The Hunchback of Notre-Dame
1835, Edward Bulwer-Lytton,
1836, Maria Monk,
Awful Disclosures
1837, Robert Montgomery Bird, Nick of the Woods
1837, Charles Dickens,
Pickwick Papers
1837, Nathaniel Hawthorne,
Twice-Told Tales
1837, Hannah F. Lee,
Three Experiments of Living
1838, Charles Dickens,
Oliver Twist
1839, Charles Dickens,
Nicholas Nickelby
1839, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,
1839, Jared Sparks,
Life of Washington
1839, Daniel P. Thompson, The Green Mountain Boys


1830, G. P. R. James,
1830, Edward Bulwer-Lytton,
Paul Clifford
1831, James Kirk Paulding,
The Dutchman’s Fireside
1832, Edward Bulwer-Lytton,
Eugene Aram
1833, Mrs. Lydia H. Sigourney,
Letters to Young Ladies
1833, David Crockett, Autobiography
1833, George Bourne, Lorette
1833, G. P. R. James,
Mary of Burgundy
1833, Timothy Flint,
Daniel Boone
1833, Seba Smith, Life and Writings of Major Jack Downing
1834, George Bancroft, History of the United States
1834, Charles Augustus Davis, Letters of J. Downing, Major
1834, Mrs. Lydia H. Sigourney, Sketches
1835, David Crockett,
Life of Martin Van Buren
1835, William Wordsworth, Poems
1835, Theodore S. Fay,
Norman Leslie
1835, Michael Scott,
Tom Cringle’s Log
1835, Joseph P. Kennedy,
Horse-Shoe Robinson
1835, Augustus B. Longstreet,
Georgia Scenes
1835, Catharine M. Sedgwick, Home
1835, William Gilmore Simms,
The Yemassee
1836, J. H. Ingraham,
Lafitte: or the Pirate of the Gulf
1836, Richard Hildreth,
The Slave
1836, Catharine M. Sedgwick,
The Poor Rich Man
1836, Frederick Marryat,
Mr. Midshipman Easy
1837, William H. Prescott,
Ferdinand and Isabella
1837, Samuel Lover,
Rory O’More
1837, Mrs. Hannah F. Lee,
Elinor Fulton
1837, Julia Pardoe,
The City of the Sultan
1837, Frederick Marryat,
Peter Simple
1837, William Ware,
1838, Benjamin Drake,
Life and Adventures of Black Hawk
1838, Joseph Clay Neal, Charcoal Sketches
1839, Charles Lever,
Harry Lorrequer
1839, Henry W. Longfellow,
1839, Julia Pardoe,
A Romance of the Harem

1840-1849 (175,000)

1840, James Fenimore Cooper, T
he Pathfinder
1840, Richard Henry Dana Jr.,
Two Years Before the Mast
1840, Edgar Allen Poe, Tales
1841, James Fenimore Cooper,
1841, Charles Dickens,
Barnaby Rudge
1841, Charles Dickens,
The Old Curiosity Shop
1841, Ralph Waldo Emerson,
1842, Charles Dickens, American Notes
1842, Rufus W. Griswold, ed., Poets and Poetry of America
1842, Eugene Sue,
Mysteries of Paris
1842, Alfred Tennyson,
1843, George Lippard,
The Quaker City
1843 William Hickling Prescott,
Conquest of Mexico
1843, Robert Sears, The Wonders of the World
1844, Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
1844, Charles Dickens,
Martin Chuzzlewit
1844, Alexandre Dumas,
The Three Musketeers
1845, Alexandre Dumas,
The Count of Monte Cristo
1845, Edgar Allen Poe,
The Raven and Other Poems
1845, Eugene Sue,
The Wandering Jew
1846, Joel T. Headley,
Napoleon and His Marshals
1847, Grace Aguilar, Home Influence
1848, Hans Christian Andersen,
Fairy Tales
1848, Charlotte Brontë,
Jane Eyre
1848, Emily Brontë,
Wuthering Heights
1848, Charles Dickens,
Dombey and Son
1848, William H. Thackeray,
Vanity Fair
1849, Thomas B. Macaulay,
History of England
1849, John G. Whittier, Poems


1840, Charles Fenno Hoffman,
1840, G. P. R. James,
King’s Highway
1841, Mrs. Catherine Gore,
Cecil, or The Adventures of a Coxcomb
1841, Charles Lever,
Charles O’Malley
1841, W. Harrison Ainsworth,
Old St. Paul’s
1841, Thomas De Quincey,
Confessions of an English Opium Eater
1841, William E. Channing, Works
1842, Edward Bulwer-Lytton,
1842, T. S. Arthur,
Temperance Tales; or, Six Nights with the Washingtonians
1842, Samuel Lover, Handy Andy
1842, Frederick Marryat,
Masterman Ready
1842, W. Harrison Ainsworth,
The Miser’s Daughter
1843, Edward Bulwer-Lytton,
The Last of the Barons
1843, Lydia M. Child,
Letters from New York
1843, Charles Lever, Jack Hinton
1843, William Cullen Bryant,
Poetical Works
1843, Honoré de Balzac,
Pere Goriot
1843, Fredrika Bremer,
The Neighbors
1844, Benjamin Disraeli,
1844, G. W. Kendall,
Narrative of the Texan Santa Fé Expedition
1844, William Gilmore Simms, Life of Francis Marion
1845, Nathaniel P. Willis, Dashes at Life
1846, Nathaniel Hawthorne,
Mosses from an Old Manse
1846, Herman Melville,
1847, Herman Melville,
1847, Joel T. Headley,
The Sacred Mountains
1847, W. H. Prescott,
Conquest of Peru
1847, H. Montgomery, Life of Zachary Taylor
1848, Mrs. Emily Judson, Alderbrook
1848, Edward Bulwer-Lytton,
1848, James Russell Lowell,
The Biglow Papers
1848, James Russell Lowell,
The Vision of Sir Launfal
1848, Bayard Taylor,
Views Afoot
1849, Charles Kingsley, Alton Locke
1849, William S. Mayo,
1849, Dinah Marie Mulock,
The Ogilvies
1849, Francis Parkman,
The Oregon Trail
1849, Alexandre Dumas, The Man in the Iron Mask

1850-1859 (225,000)

1850, Giovanni Boccaccio,
The Decameron
1850, Robert Browning,
1850, Charles Dickens,
David Copperfield
1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne,
The Scarlet Letter
1850 Donald G. Mitchell,
Reveries of a Bachelor
1850, William M. Thackeray,
1850, Susan Warner,
The Wide, Wide World
1851, Nathaniel Hawthorne,
The House of the Seven Gables
1851, Herman Melville,
Moby Dick
1852, Charles Dickens,
Bleak House
1852, Mrs. E. D. E. N. Southworth,
The Curse of Clifton
1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe,
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
1854, Phineas T. Barnum,
Struggles and Triumphs
1854, Maria S. Cummins, The Lamplighter
1854, Charles Dickens,
Hard Times
1854, Mary Jane Holmes,
Tempest and Sunshine
1854, Henry D. Thoreau,
1855, T. S. Arthur,
Ten Nights in a Bar-Room
1855, Thomas Bullfinch, The Age of Fable
1855, J. H. Ingraham,
The Prince of the House of David
1855, Charles Reade,
The Cloister and the Hearth
1855, William M. Thackeray,
The Newcomes
1855, Walt Whitman,
Leaves of Grass
1856, Mary Jane Holmes,
Lena Rivers
1856, Dinah Marie Mulock,
John Halifax, Gentleman
1857, Charles Dickens,
Little Dorrit
1857, Thomas Hughes,
Tom Brown’s School Days
1859, Charles Dickens,
A Tale of Two Cities
1859, George Eliot,
Adam Bede
1859, Augusta J. Evans,
1859, Mrs. E. D. E. N. Southworth,
The Hidden Hand
1859, William M. Thackeray,
The Virginians


1850, William S. Mayo,
The Berber
1850, Caroline Lee Hentz,
1850, Edward Bulwer-Lytton,
The Caxtons
1850, Richard B. Kimball,
St. Leger
1850, Elizabeth Barrett Browning,
1850, G. G. Foster,
New York by Gas-Light
1851, Donald G. Mitchell, Dream-Life
1852, William M. Thackeray,
Henry Esmond
1852, Susan Warner, Q
1852, Charles Reade,
Peg Woffington
1852, Philip James Bailey,
1852, Charles Kingsley,
1853, E. S. Creasy,
Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World
1853, Joseph G. Baldwin, Flush Times in Alabama
1853, Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford
1853, Sarah P. Parton,
Fern Leaves
1853, Marion Harland,
1853, Charlotte Yonge,
The Heir of Redcliffe
1854, G. P. R. James,
1854, Solon Robinson,
Hot Corn
1854, Charles Dickens, A Child’s History of England
1854, Mrs. Ann S. Stephens,
Fashion and Famine
1854, Mrs. E. D. E. N. Southworth, The Missing Bride
1855, Miriam Berry Whitcher,
The Widow Bedott Papers
1855, George H. Derby,
1855, Mrs. Ann S. Stephens,
The Old Homestead
1855-59, Washington Irving,
Life of Washington
1855, Charles Kingsley, Westward Ho!
1856, Sylvanus Cobb Jr.,
The Gun-Maker of Moscow
1856, Elisha Kent Kane,
Arctic Explorations
1856, George William Curtis,
Prue and I
1856, Charles Reade,
Never Too Late to Mend
1856, Maria J. McIntosh,
1857, Joel T. Headley,
Washington and His Generals
1857, Mary J. Holmes, Meadowbrook
1857, George A. Lawrence,
Guy Livingstone
1857, H. R. Helper,
The Impending Crisis
1858, Josiah G. Holland, Timothy Titcomb’s Letters to Young People
1858, Josiah G. Holland,
Bitter Sweet
1858, Oliver Wendell Holmes,
The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table
1859, Jules Michelet,

1860-1869 (300,000)

1860, Edward S. Ellis,
Seth Jones
1860, Miriam Coles Harris,
1860, Owen Meredith,
1860, Mrs. Ann S. Stephens,
1861, Charles Dickens,
Great Expectations
1861, George Eliot,
Silas Marner
1861, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm,
Household Tales
1861, Mrs. Henry Wood,
East Lynne
1862, William G. Brownlow,
Parson Brownlow’s Book
1862, Victor Hugo,
Les Miserables
1862, Anthony Trollope,
Barchester Towers
1863, Mary E. Braddon,
Lady Audley’s Secret
1863, Mrs. E. D. E. N. Southworth,
The Fatal Marriage
1863, Mrs. A. D. T. Whitney,
Faith Gartney’s Girlhood
1864, Mrs. E. D. E. N. Southworth,
1864, Mrs. E. D. E. N. Southworth,
1865, Charles Dickens,
Our Mutual Friend
1865, Mary Mapes Dodge,
Hans Brinker and His Silver Skates
1866, Lewis Carroll,
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
1866, Charles Reade,
Griffith Gaunt
1867, Horatio Alger Jr.,
Ragged Dick
1867, Augusta J. Evans,
St. Elmo
1867, Ouida,
Under Two Flags
1868, Louisa May Alcott,
Little Women
1868, Wilkie Collins,
The Moonstone
1869, Mark Twain,
Innocents Abroad


1860, George Eliot,
The Mill on the Floss
1860, Samuel Smiles,
1860, J. H. Ingraham,
The Throne of David
1860, Charles Darwin,
On the Origin of Species
1860, Jules Michelet, La Femme
1860, Mrs. E. D. E. N. Southworth,
The Haunted Homestead
1860, Oliver Wendell Holmes,
Elsie Venner
1860, Wilkie Collins,
The Woman in White
1860, Charles Dickens,
The Uncommercial Traveller
1861, Paul B. du Chaillu, Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa
1861, F. T. Palgrave,
Golden Treasury
1861, Oliver Wendell Holmes,
1861, Metta V. Victor,
Maum Guinea
1861, Thomas Hughes,
Tom Brown at Oxford
1861, Frank Moore,
The Rebellion Record
1862, William M. Thackeray, The Adventures of Philip
1862, J. Sheridan Le Fanu,
Uncle Silas
1862, Charles F. Brown,
Artemus Ward: His Book
1862, John Saunders,
Abel Drake’s Wife
1862, James R. Gilmore,
Among the Pines
1862, Wilkie Collins,
No Name
1863, George Eliot,
1863, Charles Reade,
Hard Cash
1863-64, Joel T. Headley,
The Great Rebellion
1863-65, Mrs. M. O. W. Oliphant, The Chronicles of Carlingford
1863-66, J. S. C. Abbot,
The Civil War in America
1863, Mary J. Holmes, Marian Grey
1863, Elizabeth R. Charles,
The Chronicles of the Schönberg-Cotta Family
1864, Amelia B. Edwards,
Barbara’s History
1864, Mary J. Holmes,
Ethelyn’s Mistake
1864, John T. Trowbridge,
Cudjo’s Cave
1864, Edmund Yates,
Broken to Harness
1864, David Ross Locke,
The Nasby Papers
1865, Georg Ebers,
The Egyptian Princess
1865, Henry Wheeler Shaw,
Josh Billings: His Sayings
1865, May Sophie,
Dottie Dimple
1865, Annie Thomas,
Denis Donne
1865, George Ward Nichols,
The Story of the Great March
1865, Jean Ingelow, Poems
Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War
1865, John Robert Seely,
Ecce Homo
1866, Horace Greeley,
The American Conflict
1866, Wilkie Collins, Armadale
1866, George Eliot,
Felix Holt
1866, Victor Hugo,
Toilers of the Sea
1867, Anthony Trollope,
The Last Chronicle of Barset
1867, A. D. Richardson,
Beyond the Mississippi
1867, B. L. Farjeon, Grif
1867, Emile Gaboriau,
File No. 113
1867, Martha Finley,
Elsie Dinsmore
1867, Josiah G. Holland,
G. Kathrina
1868, Henry Ward Beecher,
1868, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward,
The Gates Ajar
1868, Edmund Yates,
The Black Sheep
1868, Matthew Hale Smith,
Sunshine and Shadow in New York
1869, Horatio Alger Jr., Fame and Fortune
1869, Mary J. Holmes,
Darkness and Daylight
1869, Mrs. E. D. E. N. Southworth,
Tried for Her Life
1869, Charles Reade,
Foul Play
1869, Thomas Bailey Aldrich,
The Story of a Bad Boy
1869, Victor Hugo,
The Man Who Laughs
1869, Anthony Trollope,
Phineas Finn
1869, Emile Gaboriau,
M. Lecocq

1870-1879 (375,000)

1870, Edward Fitzgerald,
The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám
1870, Bret Hart,
The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Stories
1871, Louisa May Alcott,
Little Men
1871, Edward Eggleston,
The Hoosier School-Master
1871, Charles Reade,
A Terrible Temptation
1872, E. P. Roe,
Barriers Burned Away
1873, Jules Verne,
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
1874, R. D. Blackmore,
Lorna Doone
1874, E. P. Roe,
Opening a Chestnut Burr
1875, John Richard Green,
A Short History of the English People
1876, John Habberton, Helen’s Babies
1876, Thomas L. Haines and Levi Yaggy,
The Royal Path of Life
1876, Mark Twain,
Tom Sawyer
1878, Anna Katharine Green,
The Leavenworth Case
1879, Henry George,
Progress and Poverty


1870, Horatio Alger Jr.,
Luck and Pluck
1870, Benjamin Disraeli,
1870, Wilkie Collins,
Man and Wife
1870, Charles Reade,
Put Yourself in His Place
1870, Charles Dickens,
The Mystery of Edwin Drood
1870, Jules Verne,
The Mysterious Island
1870, Rhoda Broughton,
Red as a Rose is She
1871, Horatio Alger Jr.,
Tattered Tom
1871, Samuel Smiles,
1871, Edward Jenkins, Ginx’s Baby
1871, William Black,
A Daughter of Heth
1871, John T. Trowbridge,
Jack Hazard and His Fortunes
1871, William Cullen Bryant, ed.,
Library of Poetry and Song
1872, Mark Twain,
Roughing It
1872, George Eliot,
1872-74, John Forster,
Life of Dickens
1873, William H. Seward,
Travels Around the World
1873, F. G. P. Guizot, History of France
1873, Mrs. Felicia D. Hemans, Poetical Works
1873, Anthony Trollope, The Eustace Diamonds
1873, Will Carleton,
Farm Ballads
1874, William Black,
A Princess of Thule
1874, F. W. Farrar,
Life of Christ
1874, Thomas Hardy,
Far From the Madding Crowd
1875, Louisa May Alcott,
Eight Cousins
1875, Josiah G. Holland,
1875, Justin M’Carthy,
Dear Lady Disdain
1875, Christian Reid,
Land of the Sky
1875, E. P. Roe,
From Jest to Earnest
1875, Samuel Smiles,
1876, George Eliot, Daniel Deronda
1876, Jules Verne,
Michael Strogoff
1876, Ann Eliza Young,
Wife No. 19
1877, J. Cunningham Geikie,
Life and Words of Christ
1878, Jessie Fothergill,
First Violin
1878, Thomas Hardy,
The Return of the Native
1878, Henry M. Stanley,
In Darkest Africa
1879, The Duchess, Airy, Fairy Lilian
1879, Mary A. Sprague, An Earnest Trifler

1880-1889 (500,000)

1880, Joel Chandler Harris,
Uncle Remus
1880, Margaret Sidney,
Five Little Peppers and How they Grew
1880, Lew Wallace,
1880, Emile Zola,
1881, Gustave Flaubert,
Madame Bovary
1882, Ludovic Halévy,
L’Abbe Constantin
1883, James Whitcomb Riley,
The Old Swimmin’ Hole and ‘Leven More Poems
1883, Mark Twain,
Life on the Mississippi
1884, Johanna Spyri,
1884, Robert Louis Stevenson,
Treasure Island
1885, Robert Louis Stevenson,
A Child’s Garden of Verses
1885, Mark Twain,
Huckleberry Finn
1886, Frances Hodgson Burnett,
Little Lord Fauntleroy
1886, H. Rider Haggard,
King Solomon’s Mines
1888, Edward Bellamy,
Looking Backward
1888, Hall Caine, The Deemster
1888, Marie Corelli
, A Romance of Two Worlds
1888, A. C. Gunter,
Mr. Barnes of New York
1888, Mrs. Humphry Ward,
Robert Elsmere
1889, Guy de Maupassant,


1880, Justin M’Carthy,
History of Our Own Times
1880, Ouida, Moths
1880, Samuel Smiles,
1880, Albion W. Tourgée, A Fool’s Errand
1881, Sarah Pratt Greene,
Cape Cod Folks
1882, F. Marion Crawford,
Mr. Isaacs
1882, William Dean Howells,
A Modern Instance
1882, Ella Wheeler Wilcox,
1883, George W. Peck,
Peck’s Bad Boy and His Pa
1883, F. Marion Crawford,
Dr. Claudius
1883, Rhoda Broughton,
1884, Helen Hunt Jackson,
1884, John Hay,
The Breadwinners
1884, Hugh Conway,
Called Back
1885, William Dean Howells,
The Rise of Silas Lapham
1885, E. P. Roe,
Driven Back to Eden
1885, Josiah Strong,
Our Country
1886, Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped
1886, Amelia E. Barr,
A Bow of Orange Ribbon
1886, Louisa May Alcott,
Jo’s Boys
1886, Uriah Smith,
The Marvel of Nations
1886, Mary G. Tuttiet, The Silence of Dean Maitland
1887, Marietta Holley,
Samantha at Saratoga
1887, Palmer Cox,
The Brownies, Their Book
1888, Margaret Deland,
John Ward, Preacher
1888, Amélie Rives,
The Quick or the Dead?
1889, A. C. Gunter,
Mr. Potter of Texas
1889, Marie Corelli,
1889, Rudyard Kipling,
Soldiers Three
1889, Edna Lyall,
A Hardy Norseman
1889, Mark Twain,
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
1889, Karl Marx,

1890-1899 (625,000)

1890, Arthur Conan Doyle,
The Sign of the Four
1890, Arthur Conan Doyle,
A Study in Scarlet
1890, Rudyard Kipling,
Barrack-Room Ballads
1890, Rudyard Kipling,
Plain Tales from the Hills
1890, Anna Sewell,
Black Beauty
1891, James M. Barrie,
The Little Minister
1891, Rudyard Kipling,
The Light that Failed
1891, Rudyard Kipling,
Mine Own People
1892, James M. Barrie,
A Window in Thrums
1892, Arthur Conan Doyle,
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
1893, Sarah Grand,
The Heavenly Twins
1893, Robert Louis Stevenson,
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
1894, George du Maurier,
1894, William H. Harvey,
Coin’s Financial School
1894, Anthony Hope, The Prisoner of Zenda
1894, Ian Maclaren
, Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush
1894, Marshall Saunders,
Beautiful Joe
1895, Stephen Crane,
The Red Badge of Courage
1895, Opie Read,
The Jucklins
1896, Henryk Sienkiewicz,
Quo Vadis
1897, Charles M. Sheldon,
In His Steps
1898, Ralph Connor,
Black Rock
1898, Edward Noyes Westcott,
David Harum
1899, Winston Churchill,
Richard Carvel
1899, Paul Leicester Ford,
Janice Meredith


1890, Hall Caine,
The Bondman
1890, Jerome K. Jerome,
Three Men in a Boat
1891, George du Maurier,
Peter Ibbetson
1892, F. Marion Crawford,
Don Orsino
1892, Thomas Hardy,
Tess of the D’Urbervilles
1892, Mrs. Humphry Ward,
The History of David Grieve
1893, S. R. Crockett,
The Stickit Minister
1893, Lew Wallace,
The Prince of India
1894, Hall Caine,
The Manxman
1894, Stanley J. Weyman,
Under the Red Robe
1894, Paul Leicester Ford,
The Honorable Peter Sterling
1894-95, Rudyard Kipling,
The Jungle Books
1894, Beatrice Harraden,
Ships that Pass in the Night
1895, Max Nordau,
1895, Marie Corelli, The Sorrows of Satan
1896, Parker Gilbert,
The Seats of the Mighty
1896, Stanley J. Weyman,
The Red Cockade
1896, Annie Fellows Johnston,
The Little Colonel
1897, Ralph Waldo Trine,
In Tune with the Infinite
1897, James Lane Allen,
The Choir Invisible
1897, Hall Caine,
The Christian
1897, Richard Harding Davis,
Soldiers of Fortune
1897, Rudyard Kipling,
Captains Courageous
1898, S. Weir Mitchell,
Hugh Wynne, Free Quaker
1898, F. Hopkinson Smith,
Caleb West
1898, Alfred Ollivant,
Bob, Son of Battle
1898, Charles Major,
When Knighthood was in Flower
1898, Countess von Arnim,
Elizabeth and Her German Garden
1899, Rudyard Kipling,
The Day’s Work
1899, Booth Tarkington,
The Gentleman from Indiana
1900, L. Frank Baum,
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

pretty letterhead from 1894

Pasted Graphic

Personal Primary Sources

Photo on 8-4-11 at 2.07 PM
I’ve been reading primary sources for my dissertation lately, trying to get them all transcribed and organized so I can write this thing. Interesting -- especially the personal letters. Here’s part of one, written in the summer of 1874 to one of my principal characters, from his wife. She’s a little ticked off, because he’s been spending most of his time holed up in The Astor House, a fashionable hotel in New York City, to avoid being arrested by his creditors back home. But he’s lonely, so he wants her to come down to a house he’s going to rent on Long Island Sound. She writes:

“Your letter with a $90 was received yesterday in time to pay off the men, for which I am much obliged.

“Will you please inform me for what you claim my sympathy? You seem to be having a good time spending the summer at the best hotels and watering places, leaving me here with all the care of everything, and your creditors to contend with. And I would like to know in what my selfishness consists? Is it because I ask you to pay your honest debts? I am sure I can’t think of any other favor I have asked of you. I think the selfishness is on the other side. You still persist in my going to the seashore, which I should be very glad to do if I can go in my own way.

“… It all depends upon you whether we go or not. If you can possibly make up your mind to send Ellen and Emma the $225 to pay Parshall, pay the note Parshall holds against me and send me $50 so that I can get something for myself and Alice to wear (for I have had nothing but three calico dresses in two years), I shall be more than happy to get away from drudgery care and duns. If you conclude to accept these terms let me know at once as we would like to go as soon as possible. We are in hopes to get through with haying this week, and then I can leave home without any trouble.”

New site: history-punk.com

I've been keeping up too many different pages, so I'm going to consolidate most of my history sites into a new page called history-punk.com, and a history-punk blog. That means I'll be taking down several of my sites, like Rural History and Regular People's History, and doing all my "history business" on history-punk.com.

I also moved my new
American Environmental History project to the new site. So change your bookmarks and enjoy the ride...

Colonial distilling

Some notes from reading John J. McCusker, “The Business of distilling in the Old World and the New World during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: the rise of a new enterprise and its connection with colonial America,” The early modern Atlantic economy, 2000, 186-224.

McCusker says the distilling of spirits in Europe began around 1150 CE. Fermenting grains to make beer and fruits to make wine goes back millennia farther, of course. But distilling spirits from these products of fermentation seems to have begun in the West, in the laboratories of Italian alchemists.

The technology is fairly straightforward, and has really only improved in minor details in nearly a thousand years. The key discovery was that alcohol “vaporizes at a lower temperature (66C) than most other substances, including water.” The device used to evaporate, capture and condense this alcohol, the pot still, “continues to be used widely in the spirits industry even in the twenty-first century.” In the last 500 years, since commercial distilling of alcoholic drinks caught on in Europe, there have been only two major changes: a dramatic increase in the size of stills, fueled by an abundant new source of fermentable raw material in the form of sugar cane.

The initial boiling of sugar cane creates brown sugar and a by-product, molasses. The second boiling of the raw sugar (which in the 17
th & 18th century was often done back in Europe with sugar from the West Indies) produces white table sugar, and a by-product called syrup. West Indians turned molasses into rum, and Europeans mixed syrup with juniper berries to make gin.

Interestingly, not all West Indians made rum. Saint Dominique, the French colony that became Haiti, threw away its molasses because the French government had outlawed the distilling of anything but grapes. Their subsidy to the French wine industry made the French sugar colonies less profitable than their English and Dutch competitors who were able to capitalize on molasses value in the rum industry. It’s interesting to speculate how this may have contributed to the conditions leading to the Haitian Revolution of 1791.

But, back to the story. At the outset of the American Revolution, British North Americans drank 4 gallons of rum annually per capita. That’s twice as much as all the alcohol modern Americans consume, and it only counts rum — not gin, hard cider, beer, ale, wine, brandy, or whiskey; all of which were consumed in substantial quantities. “In 1770 there were more than 25 sugar refineries and 140 rum distilleries in the…colonies.” Shortly after the Revolution, a distillery was established in Middletown CT, the heart of the West Indies trade, that produced 600 (63 gallon) hogsheads of rum per year through the early 1820s. (From
Whittemore, Town and City of Middletown)

Lies My Teacher Told Me (pt. 1)

Actually, this book is really about high school history textbooks, and only peripherally about things teachers say to students. I took a lot of notes while listening to this book, so this will be the first of a two-part review. Loewen looked at twelve major US History textbooks, and catalogued the ways they distort the historical record. Interestingly, he found that even when textbook authors were well-known for holding much more sophisticated opinions, and writing about them in historical monographs; when they turned their hands to the textbook something happened. All the complexity fell away, and the historians became little more than apologists for the status quo.

“Textbooks stifle meaning,” Loewen says, “by suppressing causation.” That’s interesting. The omniscient narrator’s voice in the textbook insulates students from the actual (and much more powerful and interesting) voices of people in history. The reason the failures of these textbooks is important, Loewen continues, is that five sixths of all Americans never take a course in history beyond high school. So, most of us in America are not being exposed to the latest work by historians aiming to set the record straight or qualify older interpretations. This might come as a shock to many historians, and it certainly should have an impact on where we choose to spend our efforts when communicating with the public.

Loewen’s first chapter deals with the process of heroification, which he says is like calcification in that it makes the characters unreal and therefor useless and irrelevant. Their lives become so distorted and decontextualized that they become meaningless. Loewen says that stories celebrating Helen Keller’s struggle to learn to speak have deliberately ignored what she said when she actually achieved her goal. This is especially ironic, because Keller came to believe that she was in fact very lucky to have been born into a family that had the means to care for her and give her the opportunity to learn. Not everyone, she said, has the chance to succeed in America. This is a point of view the textbooks want to avoid, according to Loewen. To encapsulate the sixty years of Keller’s adulthood with the term humanitarian, Loewen says, is to lie by omission. She was a socialist. A Wobblie! This is much more interesting than the bland image of her that comes down to us from the textbooks.

Not only do textbooks leave out controversial facts, Loewen says, they literally lie about them. The 1914 invasion of Mexico, he says, is portrayed as a step Woodrow Wilson was uneasy about taking, even though the record shows he pushed it through an unwilling Congress, against the wishes of most Americans. Now clearly, there’s room for argument whether “most Americans” were for or against this invasion; the point is, the textbooks give us no space to argue, because they present this as a fact that is beyond interpretation. Frequently, Loewen says, textbooks give Wilson credit for ordering troops
out of Mexico, while ignoring the fact that he’s also the guy who ordered them in.

Woodrow Wilson’s racism is only mentioned by four of the twelve textbooks Loewen studied. None of them credit Wilson with segregating the federal government, and one actually creates a “happy ending,” in which “the forces of segregation” were finally beaten back by the end of Wilson’s administration. Loewen suggests that creating a false happy ending is worse than not mentioning the issue at all. Concealing the racism of the leadership, Loewen continues, makes the upsurge of racist violence and Klan activity in the 1920s incomprehensible; so that too must be written out of the story. Along the way, we lose an opportunity to learn something about the relationship between leaders and followers in American culture.

Politics is indecipherable without true representations of these people. Loewen says the 1920 election, in which Republican “nonentity” Warren G. Harding crushed Democrat James M. Cox can only be understood as an expression of national animosity toward Wilson. The textbooks largely portray it as the nation’s “fatigue” with Progressivism, however, because they won’t say anything against the heroified Wilson. So Americans weren’t tired of the Sedition Act, or censorship…just “Progressivism.” Ironically, the issues that are left muddled for students were quite clear for Helen Keller, who called Wilson “The Greatest Disappointment the World has Known.”

Loewen’s argument about heroes is that a lifelike representation of these people that exposed their humanity would actually give students realistic models to emulate. The inhuman perfection of the textbooks’ heroes makes them too distant, and works against the idea that the students can ever have a significant role in their society. Instead, we get a series of discoverers’ names to memorize, from Eric the Red to Neil Armstrong — and we’re asked to remember them not because of the social impact of their discoveries, but because they were white. After giving us a line-by-line debunking of the Columbus myth, Loewen suggests that these fabulous additions (the storms, the near mutiny) are not trivial. They support the archetype, and reinforce the argument that leaders are unlike the rest of us. They are smarter, braver, more resolute, and right. So we ought to obey them.

“Somehow,” Loewen says, “we ended up with 4 million slaves in America, and no owners.” This is a pattern in textbooks, he says. Anything bad that happened, happened anonymously. “War broke out.” “Chaos ensued.” But he suggests an interesting way to look at the American response to the Haitian revolution: whether the President owned slaves. Washington supported the planters, Adams supported the slaves, and under Jefferson “the US retreated from its support of the Haitian revolutionaries.” Now, you could argue that there were political changes or other factors involved…if you were in a position to argue at all. Most of the textbooks don’t cover Haiti, though, so there’s no opportunity.

“There are three great taboos in textbook publishing,” an editor at one of the major houses told Loewen: “sex, religion, and social class.” Only one of the textbooks Loewen reviewed mentioned class, and only in the early colonial period. The effect of not acknowledging class differences in history, Loewen says, is to reinforce the idea that anyone can rise in this “Land of Opportunity,” and if people don’t, it’s their own fault. This alienates all students who are not white, male, and affluent, Loewen says. Or worse, it plants the seeds of prejudice.

One of the most ironic comparisons Loewen makes, is between
After the Fact, Davidson & Lytle’s book about the work of academic historians (assigned in many grad surveys), and Davidson’s The American Nation. All of the complexity, interpretation, and interest is washed away, Loewen says; leaving a dry recital of facts no better than any of the others. Gordon Craig, Loewen says, claimed that the “duty of history is to restore to the past the options it once had.” Historians know this is their responsibility — except, it seems, when they write for high schoolers.

More on this soon…

Cast of Characters

This week, I’ve been reading letters from the 1840s and 1850s. Lots and lots of letters. I made a Tinderbox map to help me keep track of the cast of characters in this story, and how they’re related to each other. So far, this is what it looks like. But this is just the beginning….

My hope is, that the connections between these people will actually
be part of the story, and make a point about the way people related to each other, over time and across distance, in the nineteenth century. So it’s particularly important that I keep close track of these connections -- and then when I edit the story down to a manageable scope, that I keep the key people, who really help me make that point!

John Brown & Nat Turner

brown turner

I was listening to the second half of James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me on the drive to work today (The audio book download from audible.com comes in two roughly-7 hour sections). In chapter 6, which is titled “John Brown and Abraham Lincoln: the invisibility of antiracism in American history textbooks,” Loewen says that history has mostly portrayed John Brown as insane, “narrowly ignorant,” which Loewen says is “perhaps a euphemism for overly religious,” and “a religious fanatic.” In contrast, Loewen says, “consider Nat Turner, who in 1831 led the most important slave revolt since the United States became a nation. John Brown and Nat Turner both killed whites in cold blood. Both were religious, but, unlike Brown, Turner saw visions and heard voices. In most textbooks,” Loewen continues, “Turner has become something of a hero. Several textbooks call Turner ‘deeply religious’…” (170-71 in the book)

So I was wondering, as I drove, what is the difference between John Brown and Nat Turner? At first I thought, maybe it’s easier for modern Americans to believe that Turner had some type of strong religious motivation, because we believe he was an uneducated slave. John Brown, in contrast, was a sophisticated, educated white man. But Loewen quotes John Brown telling the court he was simply applying the golden rule and other biblical teachings. So why is Turner considered genuinely religious, while Brown is considered a fanatic?

Then it occurred to me, that Nat Turner can be understood as simply acting on what might be considered a universal opinion of his peer group: that slavery is intolerable and must be destroyed. So although he may be portrayed as braver and more heroic than others, Turner is simply an extreme expression of a widely held idea. On the other hand, John Brown is a contradiction and an affront to his peer group. Brown’s certainty that Christianity and slavery are incompatible challenges the smug rationalizations of all other white Christians in America.

So maybe the point is, that in addition to the taboo against discussing religion that Loewen finds in history textbooks, there’s an additional taboo against challenging group identity? Nat Turner was doing what fit his group identity. Brown was a traitor to his group.

I’ll have a lot more to say about
Lies My Teacher Told Me, once I’ve listened to the whole thing. From now on, I’ll be listening with this question about groups and individuals in mind…

Liberal Lies

Larry Schweikart, 48 Liberal Lies About American History (That You Probably Learned in School), 2009

This book is Larry Schweikart’s version of
Lies My Teacher Told Me (which I’ve also been listening to and will have something to say about very soon). I have no doubt there are left-leaning distortions in many textbooks, just as there are right-leaning ones. But this book seems to be focused on providing talking points for opponents of the “liberal elite.” I’ve only listened to the first few minutes of this, but my initial impression is that Schweikart is trying to paint college textbooks as irredeemably biased and slanted toward the left, while very carefully trying to hide his own biases and unexamined assumptions.

For example, in the introduction Schweikart argues, “the very focus on ‘everyday life’ defeats the purpose of history, for
no book can accurately reflect the daily experiences of even a few thousand people, let alone millions, even more so over hundreds of years. By its very definition, history must always deal with those events and people who affected the greatest number over time–and that means discussing George Washington and Robert E Lee, not their slaves; Andrew Carnegie, not his steelworkers; and Dwight Eisenhower, not the suburban housewives of Levittown. Heroes, by definition, do what others cannot and do not do–they lift everyone up.” This is an example of the approach, I think: make a seemingly reasonable statement, and hope people don’t think too hard about it.

If people thought about Schweikart’s argument, they might wonder whether it’s relevant to the rise of men like George Washington and Robert E Lee, that they stood on the backs of slaves? They might wonder what Schweikart means, when he says these men do things that others cannot do? And when he says, “they lift everyone up,” isn’t he saying that the slaves aren’t part of “everyone?” Can a legitimate historian get away with statements like that, in this day and age?

I’ll probably have a lot more to say about this, as I listen to the 48 Liberal lies Schweikart is going to debunk.

Old Letterheads

Today, I spent the day reading business letters from the mid-nineteenth century. People had interesting things printed on their letterhead. Here’s an 1877 letter from Stephen F. Whitman, the chocolatier:


This one is an image of the headquarters of wholesale grocers Brodhead, Storm & Co., who were located at 68 Courtland St. in New York City in 1856 (which seems to be
on the edge of the WTC rubble these days).


And this is from the letterhead provided to guests by the Astor House, on
Broadway, between Barclay and Vesey Streets.


Unexceptional Women

This is a 2009 book by Susan Ingalls Lewis, which deals with female proprietors in mid-19th century Albany between the years 1830 in 1885. Although this doesn’t bear directly on the rural industry I’m looking at, I think she makes some really good points about defining entrepreneurship and about the intersecting spheres of activity and women participated in, which I think are equally valid for talking about rural entrepreneurship.

“Most of the more than 2000 individual female proprietors operating in Albany between 1830 and 1885 were involved in modest endeavors that appear to have been strategies for economic survival and means of self-employment rather than business ventures inspired by an entrepreneurial spirit.” The same could be said about a lot of rural entrepreneurs, who were doing business to earn a living rather than because they wanted to be members of an entrepreneurial class. Entrepreneurship, Lewis says, “is a term strongly associated with the most prominent 19
th-century businessman,” and clearly not the women (or farmers). (120)

“Putting small business at the center: It is clear that the study of businesswomen is currently poised on the brink of making an important contribution to the field of women’s history. But can it make an equally important contribution to the study of business history?… What difference can the inclusion of women make to business history field? When considering how to fit women into business history, it will clearly not be enough to simply locate their activities at the edges of traditional narratives, nor to just insert a few outstanding female examples into their rightful places. Instead, I would like to experiment with turning our conception of 19
th-century business history inside out.” (158)

“Intersecting spheres: Moving from economic and business to women’s history, based on evidence about Albany’s female proprietors, it is clear that the so-called ‘separate spheres’ dear to the hearts of Victorian moralists and an earlier generation of women’s historians have little relevance to the lives of businesswomen, especially the majority who came from working-class or immigrant backgrounds...Rather than having a sex segregated, cloistered world, most of Albany’s businesswoman regularly interacted with the male world… most of these women were also very closely tied to their families, neighborhoods, and local business networks, in which they provided a vital link.” (159)

Eating Animals

This is a book by novelist Jonathan Safran Foer about the “everyday horrors of factory farming.” Steph has been reading about food, and pointed this out to me. It looks like a very smart book–I’ve only looked through it briefly so far, but here are a couple of selections:

“At an industrial pig breeding facility in North Carolina, videotape taken by undercover investigators showed some workers administering daily beatings, bludgeoning pregnant sows with the ranch, and ramming an iron pole a foot deep into mother pigs rectums and vaginas. These things have nothing to do with bettering the taste of the resultant meet or preparing the pigs for slaughter–they are merely perversion. In other videotaped instances at the farm, workers sawed off pigs’ legs and skin them while they were still conscious. At another facility operated by one of the largest pork producers in the United States, some employees were videotaped throwing, beating, and kicking pigs; slamming them against concrete floors and bludgeoning them with metal gate rods and hammers. At another farm, a year-long investigation found systematic abuse of tens of thousands of pigs. The investigation documented workers extinguishing cigarettes on the animals’ bodies, beating them with rakes and shovels, strangling them, and throwing them into manure pits to drown…The investigation concluded that managers condoned these abuses, but authorities have refused to prosecute. Lack of prosecution is the norm, not the exception. We are not in a period of “lax” enforcement–there simply never has been a time when companies could expect serious punitive action if they were caught abusing farmed animals."

So, I guess that takes bacon (the last pork product we were actually eating) off the family table for good. Oh yeah, and Nicholas Kristof reports in the New York Times that studies by the University of Minnesota conclude that MRSA (the “flesh-eating” disease that kills more Americans than AIDS) is carried by 25-39% of American hogs. And then there’s this:

“Temple Grandin has argued that ordinary people can become sadistic from the dehumanizing work of constant slaughter. This is a persistent problem, she reports, that management must guard against.… The combination of line speeds that have increased as much as 800% in the past hundred years [that would be since Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle] and poorly trained workers laboring under nightmarish conditions guarantees mistakes. (Slaughterhouse workers have the highest injury rate of any job–27% annually–and receive low pay to kill as many as 2,050 cattle per shift.)… Sometimes animals are not knocked out at all. At one plant, a secret video was taken by workers (not animal activists) and given to the Washington Post. The tape revealed conscious animals going down the processing line, and an incident where an electric prod was jammed into a steer’s mouth. According to the Post, “more than 20 workers signed affidavits alleging that the violent violations shown on the tape are commonplace and that supervisors are aware of them.” In one affidavit, worker explained, “I’ve seen thousands and thousands of cows go through the slaughter process alive… the cows can get 7 minutes down the line and still be alive. I’ve been in the side puller where they’re still alive. All the hide is stripped down to the neck there.” And when workers who complain are listened to at all, they often get fired."

Okay, so beef is off the table too, until we can find a source that not only raises cattle correctly, but slaughters them responsibly. And that isn’t necessarily as easy as it sounds. Even where people are trying to do good and make a difference, there’s a learning curve and there are differences of opinion about what ought to be done. For example, heritage poultry farmer Frank Reese writes a long passage, in which he says:

"Michael Pollan wrote about Polyface Farm in The Omnivore’s Dilemma like it was something great, but that farm is horrible. It’s a joke. Joel Salatin is doing industrial birds. Call him up and ask him. So he puts them on pasture. It makes no difference. Like putting a broken down Honda on the autobahn and saying it’s a Porsche. KFC chickens are almost always killed in 39 days. Their babies. That’s how rapidly their grown. Salatin’s organic free range chicken is killed in 42 days. ‘Cause it’s still the same chicken. It can’t be allowed to live any longer because it’s genetics are so screwed up. Stop and think about that: a bird that you simply can’t let live out of its adolescence. So maybe he just say he’s doing as much right as he can, but it’s too expensive to raise healthy birds. Well, I’m sorry if I can’t pat him on the back and tell him what a good guy he is. These are things, they’re animals, so we shouldn’t be talking about good enough. Either do it right or don’t do it."

This seems to be a very interesting book, that opens up some very troubling subjects. I’ll probably have more to say about it, when I’ve read it completely. One of the things that I suspect I might be in a good position to add to the conversation, is a historical perspective. More on that, later.

Glenn Beck is Broke?

Why the heck am I reviewing Glenn Beck's book? Two reasons. First, because Beck is claiming to write history here. He dedicates the book "to all the historians who have refused to compromise the truth to be popular, rich, or tenured" (Thanks, Glenn!), and second, because the entire first section of the book is titled, "Past is Prologue." Somebody needs to respond to the claims he makes, about American history. I've been listening to the unabridged audiobook version of this, so my quotes may be off by a word here and there, but I think I captured the gist.

In an eerie echo of
Thomas Frank’s description of the “backlash,” Beck begins by saying, “We need to shift the debate from retirement ages and what to do with social security”—that is, the economic issues—“to questions like our inalienable rights and god’s role in our daily lives”—that is, cultural hot buttons that can never be resolved. The fact that these issues cannot be resolved with a unanimous decision one way or another can be viewed either as a source of strength in a multi-cultural society, or as a sign of the collapse of the one, right set of values that once made America great. Guess which one it's going to be?

Beck quotes
Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, saying that the “push for intellectual mediocrity” was part of the Romans’ problem. What? Where are you going with that train of thought, Glenn? Oh, I see: he’s connecting it to Tocqueville’s idea that “when all fortunes are middling, passions are restrained.” So the point becomes, don’t blame the rich, they make us great. Education, Beck says, becomes the privilege of the few. In Rome’s case, the priests. In our case, the Ivy League. “The tempered spirit” of democracy, Beck paraphrases Tocqueville, results in fewer risk takers, less entrepreneurial activity, less wealth, fewer jobs. All this comes back, again and again, to the “job creators” and the idea that we need to stay out of their way. Beck is channeling Atlas Shrugged.

He’s talking about Romans and how excessive taxation of the few allowed more people to be drawing income from the state treasury than were paying into it. But then in the next paragraph, he’s saying that means that all the little guys just get used to paying their taxes and seeing nothing in return for it. Now, I think you can make a case for either of those points (and probably support them with different eras of Roman history)…but you can’t use them both at once! And then he quotes Gibbon saying that Augustus
artfully contrived that people, in the enjoyment of plenty, would forget about their freedom. That may or may not be true, but it certainly isn’t a commentary on the fall of the empire, since Augustus was the first emperor and it lasted centuries after his death!

But one of the things that’s well hidden by all this misuse of Roman history, is the assumption that small to medium sized business in present-day America is not being crowded out of markets by big players like Walmart. The decline of the small entrepreneur, in this story, is due to burdensome taxes, environmental regulations, consumer protection laws, OSHA, and other government measures that interfere with the business models that these small businesses need to practice in order to succeed. Really? Our innovative entrepreneurs can’t make it in business unless they’re free to endanger their workers, their customers, and the environment? If I was an entrepreneur, I’d be yelling, “get off my team, Glenn!” Oh, wait—I am an entrepreneur.

There’s a chapter that begins with frugality, where Beck quotes Lao Tzu — and it’s a great quote. “
Be gentle and you can be bold; be frugal and you can be liberal; avoid putting yourself before others and you can become a leader among men.” This may actually be an example of a good, decent, and not politically over-freighted part of the old-school conservatism. Might be something I can get onboard with. Might be common ground we can use to open a dialog with conservatives…I should double-check where he takes it before I get too excited, though. Beck argues that debt makes us unfree. Can’t argue with that. But I’d extend it to include a critical look at consumerism and the way our economy is set up to encourage these things.

Problem is, Beck jumps right off that pony, and onto the wealth pony. Somehow frugality involves an acceptance of wealth—and of the wealthy. That they got where they are by being good little Ben Franklins and saving their pennies. I can see why he wants to do this, but it seems to be tortured logic. Is it realistic to expect that a person who practices frugality and self-denial will turn a blind eye to the excessive behavior of others? Or, is the real point sneakier than that? Is it that people will say, “Yeah, I should be more frugal,” but then will fail to rein in their own habits. And it’s that combination of the unachieved ideal and
the guilt that leads to the idea that criticizing the lifestyles of the rich and famous is off limits?

Actually, Beck goes on to say that because Liberals have denigrated wealth, people have decided that they don’t
want to be wealthy anymore. They stop saving and start spending. So, consumerism is the liberals' fault, because people have “turned away from wealth?” And then he goes to virtue: In order for a nation to work, most of its people have to be virtuous. But that requires morality, which of course requires religion—but even more subtly, it also seems to require a single, monolithic culture. What happened to a society built on laws that preserved the freedom of people to do what they want, as long as they don’t get in the way of others doing the same? Seems like the libertarians would have an issue with this culture argument, if anyone pushed on it hard enough.

Beck says that the Judeo-Christian basis of America, which we’ve forgotten and fallen away from (??), included charity. This is the way it used to work, Beck says. Rich people took care of their less fortunate neighbors, so America didn’t need government welfare. This is
the Reagan argument, and it requires the reader to be completely ignorant of the way history really played out. I'll have more to say about this, as I listen to the rest of the audiobook. Small doses seem the safest way to go...

So what IS the matter with Kansas?

I know, this was published in 2004, so why am I only getting to it now? Well...I am getting to it...

The basic question behind
What’s the Matter with Kansas, that frames the introduction, is this liberal astonishment: how can anyone who’s ever worked for someone else vote Republican? But the problem with the liberals is, they can ask a question like this with a straight face. To explain this situation, Frank says, maybe they were pushed by Bill Clinton and his patently insincere concern and his contempt for anyone who was not Ivy League. I think he’s onto something here, but again, this is still just the rhetorical veneer. Maybe regular people see through a lot of the BS and posturing, and know these guys are doing nothing for them in Washington.

So the key, Frank says, is that cultural anger is marshalled by the Repubs, to achieve economic ends. That basically, modern ultra-conservatism is a propaganda move on the part of corporations and their cronies in government, to distract their constituents from the real issues, and wave the red sheet in front of the bull. These hot-button issues have little or nothing to do with the interests and goals of the corporations — but then again, they have little or nothing to do with the economic needs or interests of the people, either. They’re just the bloody shirt, all over again.

Will HCR be able to show that the Repubs have ever been about anything else? When Richard John discussed the telegraph monopolists and their opponents, he said Tammany Hall used the anti-monopoly issue as a way of mobilizing people and gaining supporters, even though the politicians really were only interested in power — and that people realized this.
Puck Magazine published editorial cartoons with regular folks standing between the Tammany politicos and the spider of Jay Gould’s monopoly, with nowhere to turn. So how widespread was this understanding that the “issues” of the day were merely opportunities for politicians to differentiate themselves from each other?

“Because some artist decides to shock the hicks by dunking Jesus in urine, the entire planet must remake itself along the lines preferred by the Republican Party, U.S.A.” Almost makes you wonder whether the shock-artists aren’t part of the machine? “You vote to stop abortion and you receive a roll-back in capital gains taxes.” Beautifully put.

Kansas food deserts. What? See post here...

So his thesis about class is that the Repubs have redefined it, so that class is not based on economic or even power differences, but on “authenticity.” John Kerry’s wealth makes him an elitist because he’s a snob, and George W. Bush’s wealth doesn’t register, because he doesn’t like French wine. It’s pathetic that people are taken in by this, but equally sad that anyone would attempt to defend John Kerry. Really? Is that all we have to choose from? And isn’t that our real problem?

All claims from the right, Frank says, arise from a sense (or at least a pose) of victimhood. Okay, but don’t
all claims in American politics arise from a sense of victimhood? Isn’t this what HCR and Patricia Limerick were talking about? Are all these political fights really about seeing who gets to wear the label of the “true victims of America?” One of the points of these cultural battles, Frank says, is that they can never be won. The leaders have chosen causes that are lost, because they’re the gift that keeps on giving. If there’s a chance of winning, then you have a whole different type of energy. This is the lesson of the 2008 election — “Hope” and “Change” will hurt Obama in the long run. The conservative machine is much smarter. Their objective is not to win, but to continue to mobilize outrage. After all, the politicians who fail to deliver can be cast aside and replaced by others. This isn’t a program for the benefit of politicians, it’s a program for the corporations.

Frank suggests comparing the rhetoric of the rabid conservatives with 1930s communist writer
Mike Gold’s language, which might be fun to do at some point. The difference, he suggests, is that once you drain the economics out of these arguments, you have very little explanatory power left. But why should that be a problem? The game isn’t about explanation, it’s about anger.

Back at it

I'm back to reading. Today, it's volume 1 of Frank Luther Mott's A History of American Magazines.

How often do you run into a word you've
really never seen before? Here's one that surprised me today: Hebdomadal. It means weekly, as in a weekly magazine. So, there you go. "The limits of my language are the limits of my world." Keep reading...

and the winner is...

I haven’t been reading this week, I’ve been writing my comprehensive exam. As an experience, it’s been a sort-of summing up of all the themes in the material I’ve read over the last year. I have to say, I’m pleased with the way my three fields have complemented each other. In a couple of cases, books I didn’t really use in the essay for the field I read them in, came into play in one of the others.

The book I think is the overall winner, in terms of its relevance to all the fields I’m working in, and to its importance in helping me formulate my own ideas and see connections, is
Morton Horwitz’s The Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860. Horwitz says in his introduction, “I seek to show that one of the crucial choices made during the antebellum period was to promote economic growth primarily through the legal, not the tax, system, a choice which had major consequences for the distribution of wealth and power in American society.” The legal system he’s talking about, though, isn’t the legislative system, where changes can be debated and representatives accountable to constituencies can vote on them. It’s not even the Supreme Court, where judgments receive a lot of scrutiny and comment. Most frequently, Horwitz says, major changes happened incrementally, in lower (or even local) court decisions, and in evolving laws and conventions governing contracts.

These changes were invisible to most people. They turned around one day, and things were (often distressingly) different, but they couldn’t say how it had happened. This is really helpful, especially when you extend it, as Horwitz’s student Ted Steinberg did in
Nature Incorporated, to a particular set of changes. As soon as I’m done with these exams, I think I’ll go back and reread Horwitz. It’s not an easy book — I don’t know if I could push undergrads through it. But maybe parts of it, along with applications of it like Steinberg’s…

Seeing like a state and evading states

James C. Scott
Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, 1998

“Nomads and pastoralists…hunter-gatherers, Gypsies, vagrants, homeless people, itinerants, runaway slaves, and serfs have always been a thorn in the side of states,” says Scott. (1998, 1) Premodern states, Scott continues, had great difficulty “seeing” their people, and this interfered with “the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion.” (2) Efforts to render populations more “legible” included “processes as disparate as the creation of permanent last names, the standardization of weights and measures, the invention of freehold tenure…language and legal discourse.” These “simplification” practices of early modern states, Scott says, paved the way for “huge development fiascoes” of the modern era like China’s Great Leap Forward. (
which killed at least 45 million people, 3)

These modern-day state disasters, Scott says, rest on four elements: the administrative ordering of nature and society, a high-modernist ideology that puts undue confidence in technicians’ ability to reorganize the world through top-down planning, an authoritarian state that can enforce the technicians’ plans, and a prostrate population that cannot resist these plans. (4,5)

“Designed or planned social order,” Scott reminds us, “is necessarily schematic; it always ignores essential features of any real, functioning social order. This truth is best illustrated in a work-to-rule strike, which turns on the fact that any production process depends on a host of informal practices and improvisations that could never be codified. By merely following the rules meticulously, the workforce can virtually halt production.” (6) This is such a rich analogy—I can think of a dozen ways to use it in domestic history. And of course, for my purposes, this is the point.

To support his point, Scott describes early modern forests, modern city-builders, Bolsheviks, African villages, and modern agriculture. Comparing modern monoculture to shifting and polycultural farming styles, Scott calls attention to the difference between experimental results and real-world results. He describes the “Blind Spots,” “Weak Peripheral Vision,” and “Shortsightedness” of industrial agriculture, as well as the fact that “Some Yields are More Equal than Others.” (290-306)

The missing link, Scott says, is local, practical knowledge, which he calls “M
ētis.” (309) Interestingly, Scott says that many early technocrats, including Frederick Taylor, were aware that “under scientific management…the managers assume…the burden of gathering together all of the traditional knowledge which in the past has been possessed by the workmen…” (Taylor, quoted in Marglin, Dominating Knowledge, 336) The objective, from the manager’s perspective, is to eliminate the possibility of a work-to-rule strike by owning all the knowledge. Interesting implications for contemporary intellectual property theory.

The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, 2009

The Art of Not Being Governed, Scott continues this story, from the perspective of the “runaway, fugitive, maroon communities who have, over the course of two millennia, been fleeing the oppressions of state-making projects in the valleys—slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée labor, epidemics, and warfare.” (2009, ix) “Civilizational discourses,” Scott points out, “never entertain the possibility of people voluntarily going over to the barbarians,” and often even have difficulty understanding why the outsiders resist their civilizing influences. And of course, most of our histories come from these valley civilizations.

The region Scott looks at in this book is called the
Zomia, which is a new name for all the territory above 300 meters in southeast Asia. It covers 2.5 million square kilometers and includes about 100 million people from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. The common feature of all these people is that they are relatively out-of-reach of the nation-states that nominally include them in their territories. And that the authorities of these nation-states consider them upland barbarians.

But “the valley imagination” of the authorities, Scott says, “has its history wrong. Hill peoples are not pre-anything. In fact, they are better understood as post-irrigated rice, postsedentary, postsubject, and perhaps even postliterate. They represent, in the longue durée, a reactive and purposeful statelessness of peoples who have adapted to a world of states while remaining outside their firm grasp.” (337) This is really interesting to me, in the context of people who choose to live far from the centers of power, in modern America. Not to mention anarchists, who choose to live off the grid…

Back to John Sanderson's Farm

I was driving along today and it struck me (really, I can’t believe how many things I’d miss if I didn’t carry a digital recorder!)...Since the map is not the territory, I wonder if Raup’s maps in his famous 1966 Sanderson Farm article about the decline of the New England countryside are accurate. Do they really represent what’s happening on the ground, in terms of roads disappearing? Or do they represent what’s happening in people’s minds, as these roads become less important?

It’s not conclusive evidence, but compare the two maps Raup uses to show his rural declension with a Google Map of the area I grabbed today:




It’s entirely possible that things have changed
again, since Raup made his second map. But the Google map seems to have a lot of detail on it that Raup says had disappeared by 1964. Even though it doesn’t have all the 1830 roads on it, it makes me want to go back to the original maps, and untangle what was really going on in Petersham, and what the cartographers thought about it.

Henry Thoreau

I read Walden with my environmental history sections last week. Only a couple of them had ever read any Thoreau, although they all had a sense of who he was and what he stood for. It was interesting talking about Walden in a history class, rather than in English, which was where I first encountered Thoreau. I wonder if that led to a greater effort on my part to talk about context—or is that just me?

There were certainly things about
Walden that surprised me, and that I had not picked up on when I read it as a teenager. One thing was, the way Thoreau seems to jump back and forth from the sublime to the ridiculous. On the same page where he says “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” Thoreau also says “It is hard to have a southern overseer; it is worse to have a northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave driver of yourself.” Stephen Fender, the editor of the Oxford World Classics edition, apologizes for this passage by saying Thoreau was one of the first critics of the northern factory system. Fender tries hard to put a “free labor” spin on what really amounts to a ridiculous, ignorant, insensitive statement. But I think it’s this middle-class, northern-white-guy ignorance and self-centeredness of Thoreau’s that makes Walden so rich and enduring.

Sure, there are enough literary and cultural references to keep classicists and concordance-writers happy. But is this why we still read
Walden? And there are beautiful, graphic passages about nature, and about Thoreau’s experience of the woods and the pond. But I don’t think this accounts for his continuing popularity, either. I think it comes down to two things: Thoreau gives us a view of nineteenth-century America from a perspective way outside the frame; and he’s a white, middle-class, suburban intellectual, like most of us.

It’s very difficult to critique the system from within. By leaving and looking at his society from the outside, Thoreau helps us see things that ought to be obvious, but are not. He reminds us that “the principal object” of the new textile factories is “not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but, unquestionably, that the corporations may be enriched.” Once we’re pulled out of the frame a bit by that thought, Thoreau continues, “In the long run men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high.” Thoreau keeps reminding us that his perspective is personal and limited. “Often the poor man is not so cold and hungry as he is dirty and ragged and gross,” Thoreau says. “It is partly his taste, and not merely his misfortune.” But just when you want to hit him upside the head with a 2x4, he concludes the paragraph by saying “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”

When he looks at Concord and sees “the village was literally a
com-munity, a league for mutual defense,” it’s easy to see that culture of fear playing itself out in our own time. Thoreau is right: “if a man is alive, there is always danger that he may die, though the danger must be allowed to be less in proportion as he is dead-and-alive to begin with.” The wish to “live deliberately…and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived” is as contemporary as it could possibly be. Thoreau’s critique only becomes stronger, as we move farther from simplicity. In the end, it may be the ahistorical nature of Walden that has made it so enduring. Marching to the beat of a different drummer and cultivating wildness (a fabulous oxymoron!) are timeless. As opposed to something like Bellamy’s Looking Backward, which was filled with specific recommendations that don’t wear nearly as well, a hundred years later.

But I’m reading
Walden with my history class, and for all of that timeless wisdom, I question the historical reality of those “lives of quiet desperation,” even though the statement is intuitive and resonant. I suspect that it’s a projection, both when Thoreau originally said it, and when we read it and nod knowingly. But yeah, there’s something to it…Similarly, the idea that they built a telegraph from Maine to Texas, but Maine and Texas have nothing meaningful to say to each other is a sneering, elitist misrepresentation. There will be a lot of data and facts in my dissertation, but the real meat of the thing will come from thousands of letters that people wrote to family members. They clearly thought they had something meaningful to say to each other, even if it was only “I planted six acres of potatoes” and “How is Mother?” Thoreau doesn’t deign to consider that type of communication worth the penny postage—but that’s his problem.

Times and Life

Nick Salvatore
“Biography and Social History: an Intimate Relationship,”
Labour History 87 (Nov. 2004)

Salvatore’s article was a postscript to a volume of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History’s special issue on “the Individual in Labour History.” His 1982 biography of Eugene V. Debs, Salvatore says, had been originally planned as his dissertation, until he was told “You can’t write a biography for your dissertation.” (187) The classic objections to biography, Salvatore says, are its lack of periodization, “the purported absence of an analytical heart,” and the fact that social historians have been trained to favor groups over people. (187-8) Samuel Hayes “defined the field’s expectations in 1965, for the social historian: ‘the crucial questions concern human institutions and the types of organization of economic, social, political, and intellectual life that develop and change over time.’” (188) Salvatore suggests that a dismissal of individuals as legitimate subjects perpetuates the “condescension of history” that E.P. Thompson wanted to save regular people from.

Eugene V. Debs
, Salvatore says, was conceived as a “social biography,” that would explore “in what ways, with what success, does an individual interact with, create a life from, and possibly alter a culture and a society not of their own making, one which they largely inherit?” (189) He answers the literary critics by arguing “the impossibility of absolute objectivity is not therefore an invitation to sophistical relativism,” and by suggesting that by exploring the tension between abstractions like “the promise of American democracy” and the day-to-day realities of his subjects’ actual experience, he is in fact adding new dimensions of nuance, subjectivity and complexity to the historical picture — which actually ought to appeal to them. (189)

Social biography, which I think is roughly the same as what I’ve been calling times and life, “sheds light far beyond any individual,” Salvatore says, “even if it does not always reach into every corner of social life.” (190) But the point is not to find a representative subject who closely fits a demographic or ideological mold. “I would never claim that my subject was in any fashion representative of his times,” Salvatore continues. “That sentiment recalls the well-known ‘great man’ historiography and obliterates the central dynamic I find interesting, that between the public life and the known private reality.” (189) That private reality, if we can see it on its own terms, will also help us contextualize the events, groups, and social movements the subject experiences, and see how the subject’s relationship with them changes over time. (So much for no periodization!) “The test, then, for biography is not whether the subject is representative, whatever than may mean, but rather what is it that we might learn from a study of a particular life.” (190)

This is not an easy task, Salvatore admits. “To evoke a life in full motion with the world requires a broad and extensive research strategy, one that recognizes that the particular is in fact the prism that reveals social as well as personal meaning.” (190) The researcher must “grant the individual his particularity in all its dimensions—or as many as one can possibly discover; and…explore these byways wherever they may lead.” I think this is particularly important, because this fidelity to the subject’s actual life is the difference between a cherry-picked “sample” of individual responses to social change, and a fully contextualized view of how a real individual actually responded.

“It is essential,” Salvatore concludes, “to follow one’s subject out of the union hall…and into the other dimensions of his or her life. Not to do this would be to deny to that person and to historical thought the very complexity we as individuals experience daily.” Research and writing need to be “both broad and deep…to explore the particular response of one individual who occupies a specific [changing] social and cultural space without losing perspective on those transformations. Indeed, it is precisely the play between the two that is the crux of the matter.” (191)

Nitrogen and Gas

Vaclav Smil
Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production

Smil identifies the nitrogen-fixing technology of the Haber-Bosch process (invented by Fritz Haber and brought up to commercial scale by Carl Bosch) as the single most important invention of the modern age. Without nitrogen fertilizers provided by the process, he says, the world population would not have been able to grow from the roughly 1.6 billion level of 1900 to the current 6 billion. Only in the postscript does Smil mention that Haber also oversaw the German Chemical Warfare Service.

Ten days after Haber supervised the first German gas attack at Ypres (4-22-1915), his wife Clara shot herself through the heart with his army revolver. A scientist herself, she left behind not only Haber but their thirteen year old son, Hermann. “By the war’s end,” Smil says, the casualties of gas warfare amounted to about 1.3 million.” (227)

Although it might be going a little too far to place the nitrogen-fixation process alongside the invention of chlorine gas; from a planetary perspective, the resulting population bomb has been problematic, to say the least. And there is a certain similarity in the instrumentality involved, it seems to me. I can’t help wondering what the history of the 20
th and 21st centuries would have looked like, without Haber-Bosch nitrogen fixation…


De-centering Europe

Kenneth Pomeranz
The Great Divergence: Europe, China, and the Making of the Modern World Economy

Pomeranz de-centers Europe, in part by emphasizing “reciprocal comparisons between
parts of Europe and parts of China, India and so on that seem…to have been similarly positioned within their continental worlds.” (10) The use of nations as the basis of analysis makes little sense, he suggests, when China was as large and populous as Europe, and the Yangzi Delta was equivalent in many ways to England. (13) “Our perception of an interacting system from which one part benefited more than others,” Pomeranz says, “does not in itself justify calling that part the ‘center’ and assuming that it is the unshaped shaper of everything else. We will see, instead, vectors of influence moving in various directions.” (10)

Pomeranz suggests that the timely discovery of America by Europeans provided them an opportunity to avoid moving onto the type of labor-intensive, land-scarce economic path taken by India and China. The discovery of coal was the other major element of the divergence, although in a very interesting aside, Pomeranz calls attention to the influence of the addictive New World stimulants sugar, tobacco, cocoa, and coffee, which along with tea became early mainstays of a mass consumer market. (281) Overall, he concludes that “forces outside the market and conjunctures beyond Europe deserve a central place in explaining why western Europe’s otherwise largely unexceptional core achieved unique breakthroughs and wound up as the privileged center of the nineteenth century’s new world economy.” (297)

An Aside

“What was the Sherlock Holmes principle? ‘Once you have discounted the impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’ ”

“I reject that entirely,” said Dirk sharply. “The impossible often has a kind of integrity to it which the merely improbably lacks. How often have you been presented with an apparently rational explanation of something that works in all respects other than one, which is that it is hopelessly improbable?...The first idea merely supposes that there is something we don’t know about, and...there are enough of those. The second, however, runs contrary to something fundamental and human which we do know about. We should therefore be very suspicious of it and all its specious rationality.”

(Douglas Adams,
The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, 169)

LaFeber's American Empire

Walter LaFeber
The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860-1898

Interesting, given LaFeber’s reputation as a critic of American Empire, that he refaces this book by saying “I have been profoundly impressed with the statesmen of these decades…I found both the policymakers and the businessmen of this era to be responsible, conscientious men who accepted the economic and social realities of their day, understood domestic and foreign problems, debated issues vigorously, and especially were unafraid to strike out on new and uncharted paths in order to create what they sincerely hoped would be a better nation and a better world.” (ix) This sincere appreciation on LaFeber’s part for the people whose decisions he will be criticizing so thoroughly, suggests his story is much more subtle than the standard good guys vs. bad guys approach taken in many texts (especially by critics of the establishment).

Similarly, LaFeber begins his first chapter by debunking the myth of antebellum isolation. “Between 1850 and 1873,” he says, “despite an almost nonexistent export trade during the Civil War, exports averaged $274,000,000 annually; the yearly average during the 1838-1849 period had been only $116,000,000.” (1-2) So while it is true, LaFeber admits, that “until the 1890’s the vast Atlantic sheltered America from many European problems,” the fact that we were not drawn into European wars does not mean that many Americans (especially businessmen and financiers) were not intimately connected with the continent. These connections had important implications in politics and diplomacy, as the twentieth century began.

LaFeber says William Henry Seward “deserves to be remembered as the greatest Secretary of State in American history after his beloved Adams. This is so partially because of his astute diplomacy, which kept European powers out of the Civil War, but also because his vision of empire dominated American policy for the next century.” (25) “Grant, Hamilton Fish, William M. Evarts, James G. Blaine, Frederick T. Frelinghuysen, and Thomas F. Bayard assume secondary roles,” LaFeber says. (24) He notes also that Seward suggested “Mexico City was an excellent site for the future capital of the American empire.” (28) Seward also predicted that “Russia and the United States may remain good friends until, each having made a circuit of half the globe in opposite directions, they meet and greet each other in the region where civilization first began.” (30)

LaFeber’s point is, that American empire was seen by everyone as an inevitable result of the economic changes of the late nineteenth century. There was very little pressure to “occupy every piece of available land in the Pacific,” but there was also a general understanding that “Latin -American and Asian markets were vitally important to “the expansive American industrial complex.” (416) The machine, late-nineteenth century policy-makers seem to have realized, bedded to be constantly fed with new markets. The growth economy had begun.

John Sanderson's Farm

There are two very influential articles in the Environmental History canon, separated by forty years, written about “The View from John Sanderson’s Farm.” The first was written in 1966 by Hugh M. Raup, the director of the Harvard Forest in Petersham Massachusetts (on the site of Sanderson’s farm). Raup described the growth and decline of New England agriculture and its impact on the forest, attributing change to economic forces outside the area and beyond its residents’ knowledge or control. Although this isn’t the main point of his essay (his main point is that conservation planning doesn’t work), Raup paints a picture of the declension of New England farming, with the farmers as first the beneficiaries and then the victims of market forces they can neither anticipate nor influence.

An important element of Raup’s essay is the fact that it was originally a public lecture that Raup frequently gave to diverse audiences. The story he presented has over the years become the dominant history of eastern agriculture. Raup’s story of farming popularized the accounts of Harvard and Yale professors Percy Wells Bidwell, Harold Fisher Wilson, and John Donald Black, whose books are still required reading for Ag. Historians despite the fact that many of their conclusions have been contested. And it popularized their ideas very successfully: in addition to the many lectures where Raup presented his case, the essay has become possibly the most widely read and cited article in the history of the
Journal of Forest History (now Environmental History).

According to the story, early New England communities were based on subsistence farming, because the roads were poor. Farm products could not be easily brought to seaport markets, so rural life reflected the “simplicity and self-contained quality of the farm economy.” (Raup, 3) Between 1791 and 1830, better roads and the growth of local industrial centers caused a farm boom, and the cleared area of land increased to 60 percent. (4) But although New Englanders like Sanderson planned for the future and invested in their farms, “a different kind of people,” investors, built the Erie Canal which spurred “expansion of agriculture in the Middle West.” New Englanders were caught by surprise, because “the conceptual frame they had for their lives didn’t allow for such unknowns.” Their farm “economy collapsed…rather suddenly and on a large scale,” and the abandoned farms of the region were overgrown with second growth forests. (6)

I have several issues with this story. First, neither Raup nor his sources actually demonstrate the supposed cultural simplicity of rural people. The claim, like the supposed condition, is economically determined. The story of the building of the Erie Canal puts the cart before the horse: transportation did not produce products, a growing volume of expensive overland freight justified the canal project. This is shown by the extensive use of portions of the Canal, as they were opened prior to the entire line (Raup not only fails to mention this, he gets the Canal’s opening wrong by five years). But perhaps the biggest flaw with this story is Raup’s continuing use of the idea of “another kind of people.” (8) “The people who visualized and built the canal,” he says, were only interested in the flow of products, and “where they came from or went, at either end, was of secondary importance as long as the flow continued.” (10) This is not only extremely presentist, it’s inaccurate. The promoters of the Erie Canal were mainly western New Yorkers like William H. Seward or agriculturalists like Elkanah Watson (who incidentally was born in Plymouth Massachusetts and lived in Pittsfield, which by Raup’s logic should have made him either ignorant of or opposed to the project). And perhaps most anachronistic and damaging is Raup’s assumption that capital is always external (and, so obviously that he doesn’t need to say it, urban). Economic development projects were investments that “had to be made attractive to investors so that capital would flow into them.” (8) Raup’s assumption of rural people’s passivity and ignorance as capitalists is especially difficult to swallow, because a few paragraphs earlier he notes that the Sanderson heirs liquidated their father’s farm at a profit, “took their capital and started a bank.” (8)

One final note, based on my own primary research: Raup seems to conclude that although Sanderson’s “heirs did well by themselves when they sold their property while land prices were still high,” their profit was basically accidental. (10) The story he tells hinges on “comfortable old New England farmers…actors in each segment [who were] essentially uninformed about what those in other segments had in mind.” (10) I don’t think this was the case. Most New England farmers (possibly the Sandersons themselves) by the 1830s and 1840s had relatives in the newer western farming regions. My research suggests that these family connections were extremely active in passing information, money and people along the new east-west land, water, and rail connections. I suspect that the farmers of New England towns like Petersham were not only aware of the changes going on around them, but that many of them welcomed these changes.

In “Another Look from Sanderson’s Farm,” environmental historian Brian Donahue takes issue with Raup on several of the points I’ve mentioned. The thrust of Donahue’s article (published in
Environmental History, January 2007) is that the American economic growth that Raup believes will always provide better solutions than planning actually depends on unsustainable and environmentally destructive practices that generally happen far away, where we don’t see them. Donahue concludes that conservation provides a “moral brake on economic drives [that] is necessary to ensure greater ecological and social well-being,” but that “conservation cannot succeed if it is subjected to short-term economic tests.” (Donahue, 31) Along the way, he challenges many of Raup’s facts and interpretations.

In Donahue’s story of the New England farm economy, Petersham grew naturally (and forests were cleared steadily) as the population grew and sons became farmers. Returning agency to people like the Sandersons, Donahue says population and farm growth would have happened, “increased outside stimulation or not.” (18) And, looking closer at the structure of these farms than Raup had, Donahue points out that “the idea that Midwestern grain could have caused the collapse of New England farming is an odd one, considering how little of New England farmland was committed to tillage to begin with.” (20) Contrary to Raup’s story, Donahue says “the number of acres in tillage scarcely grew at all and never rose above 4 percent of all the land in town.” (18) Pastureland was added, partly for wool but mostly for dairy production. Western grain actually replaced marginal pastures, which were allowed to grow up to pines. As a result, “Between 1880 and 1910, the acreage in agricultural production in Massachusetts fell in half…[while] During the same thirty years, the value of agricultural production doubled.” (20) Massachusetts agriculture actually peaked not “around the time of the Civil War, as standard accounts like Raup’s would have it, but about 1910,” 85 years after the opening of the Erie Canal and 41 years after the completion of the transcontinental railroad.

But the farm economy of New England did ultimately decline. “Population in hill towns like Petersham fell in half between 1860 and 1910,” Donahue says. (20) But then he turns aside from the agricultural story, to return to his main theme about conservation. I’d like to stay with the farmers a little longer, and find out what happened to them. Population decline could be the result of people moving away, people dying, or simply of no one moving into a town like Petersham for a couple of generations. Who dies, who moves away, and who decides not to come seem to be the crucial questions at this point in the story. If most Petersham families had sent sons and daughters into the west, then the deaths of the old folk back home or their retirement to the homes of children in New York or Michigan takes on a much different emotional tone than the standard tale of a region crushed and impoverished by the wheels of progress. But we won’t know, until someone looks for the actual people, examines their records, and tells their story. This is the next step in the growth of rural history as a discipline. I need to take another look from Sanderson’s farm, and this time follow the people rather than the trees.

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Latin American Environmental History

Shawn William Miller
An Environmental History of Latin America

One of the things that surprised me about this (but in retrospect maybe doesn’t) is that in the introduction Miller notes that although “Ideas matter,” history shows that “regardless of a culture’s religious or scientific views of nature, we of the human race have joined hands in reshaping and devastating the earth.” (4) I suspect Miller’s intention was to begin combatting the “Pristine Myth,” which he takes on a few pages later. But I think he gives too much of a pass to Europe’s dominant religion and its ideas about nature. Miller also, like Steinberg in
Down to Earth, decides to use sustainability as a measure of cultural success, although he is critical of its anthropocentricity. But like Steinberg, Miller does not offer a solid alternative criterion that balances human and non-human values.

The Pristine Myth, that “depicts precontact America as an unspoiled, lightly peopled wilderness in environmental harmony and ecological balance, is an image that manages to remain standing,” Miller says, “even though recent scholarship has cut off its legs.” (9) Miller cites recent estimates of American population in 1492 that range from 40 to 70 million, with a high of 115 million. All but 2 to 3 million of these pre-Columbian people lived in Central and South America, though. And even
Down to Earth proves Miller’s point that “the story has been too often told from a North American perspective,” although Steinberg tries to adjust the typical “late beginning” with British colonization in 1607 or 1620. (10)

Miller also stresses the urbanity of the pre-Columbian natives. The Aztec capitals of “Tenochtitlán and Texcoco, in the Valley of Mexico, each had more than 200,000 inhabitants, larger than contemporary Paris, London, or Lisbon…In 1492, the Valley of Mexico had 1 million inhabitants, to use the more conservative estimate.” Mexico City was America’s largest city in 1600, 1800, and 2000. (10) Jungle people planted trees they valued, and managed the forest. (18) Urban Mexicans used intensive gardening techniques in raised
Chinampas to “support 15 people per hectare in the fifteenth century. Chinese agriculture, one of Eurasia’s most successful…supported fewer than three people per hectare in the same century.” (21) And the natives substantially changed the landscape surrounding their cities. “In Peru alone there are some 6,000 square kilometers of terraces, and in the region of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia there are another 5,000…many of the Andes jungled, eastern slopes, such as those of Machu Picchu, were also terraced but have been covered and torn apart by rainforest trees over the last centuries.” (23)

The Incas also mined guano off the coast of Peru, and “passed harsh laws to protect it,” suggesting they may have been the first people to adopt soil amendment techniques beyond the use of animal and human manures. (25) Although guano was recognizably manure, which provided a conceptual framework for its use, the techniques of acquiring, distributing, and using is would have been completely different from fresh manure. The organizational skills the Incas used to take advantage of guano also helped them compensate for wide swings in crop yields by “storing large quantities of surplus food, by working collectively in the construction of their fabulous infrastructure and their fields, and by distributing their communities and their kin across an unusually broad range of altitudes and microclimates.” (26) This last element is especially interesting, and has been overlooked, I think, in North American rural history as well as South.

Miller argues for a fairly high amount of cannibalism, especially among the Tupi in Brazil and the Aztecs. The Tupi, he says, had abundant sources of protein, and ate their enemies for cultural reasons. The Aztecs ate everything, MIller says, “including snakes, lizards, wasps, flying ants, and insect larvae,” as well as dogs, roasted red worms called
ezcahuitli, and tecuitatl, the dried algae spirulina, which “looked like bread and tasted like cheese.” (38) Since they had none of the other European food taboos, and since they probably killed over 20,000 people a year in religious sacrifices (136,000 skulls were counted at Tenochtitlán’s main temple), Miller suggests eating the victims was the most practical way of disposing with the bodies. (39, 40) Native cannibalism continues to be a hotly contested issue, not least because the invading Europeans used it as evidence of the savagery of the inhabitants, who they thought clearly needed to be conquered, Christianized, and put to work.

Unfortunately for the conquerors, most of the natives were never available for labor. “In the century after 1492,” Miller says, “some 50 million Indians vanished, more than 90 percent of America’s once vigorous populations…In the Caribbean, a region that held as many as 7 million Indians, mortalities reached 99 percent…fully 100 percent on many smaller islands. On the Mexican mainland, deaths exceeded 99 percent along the main arteries…The city of Zempoala, formerly housing some 100,000 citizens, had only 25 native inhabitants by 1550.” (50) But in spite of the human tragedy, Miller suggests that the introduction of European species and the decreased human load on the environment might be seen as a net gain to the Americas, at least in terms of biodiversity. (although I think others would argue that the new species crowded out many older American plants and animals, 61)

Miller tells the stories of colonial sugar and silver, mentioning that Potosí, the “world’s highest city,” had a 1660 population of 160,000, larger than Seville, Madrid, or Rome, nearly all of whose agricultural, timber, and other needs were provided by imports from other colonies like Chile. Miller describes the
patio process of refining silver and gold using mercury, and notes that due to mercury’s deadliness, “indigenous mothers were reported to have crippled their children to disqualify them from work at Huancavelica.” (90) As we get into the modern era, Miller describes hookworm, vulcanization of rubber, and the Gran Canal of Mexico City (which it’s very hard to find a photo of on the web!). He tells a really interesting story of Mexican children marking their heights on steel well-casings, and returning years later to find “the landscape was sinking faster than Mexico City’s children were growing.” (147) Miller also mentions that of the sixty islands claimed under the US Guano Act, “nine of them remain U.S. attachments.” (149)

Miller provides several interesting perspectives on northern hemisphere history, as well. “The intensification of world trade contacts with Peru, the home of the potato and all its endemic pathogens,” Miller suggests, “explains the coincidence of the simultaneous opening of the guano trade and the outbreak of the potato famine in guano’s primary destinations.” (154) He also points out that the Haber-Bosch process was incredibly dependent on fossil fuels (the hydrogen it bonded with atmospheric nitrogen came from coal), and that Nobel Prize winner Fritz Haber also invented chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gases for Germany’s war effort, causing his wife Clara to kill herself “within days of his return from directing the world’s first gas attack at the battle of Ypres in April 1915.” (155) In the modern era, Miller notes that “Chile relies on falling water for 60 percent of her electricity, Colombia 75 percent, and Brazil 95 percent. By contrast, the United States…gets only 13 percent of its electrical generation from dams.” (160) He says most of the projects were built to create rather than satisfy demand, which I think is a weaker criticism than “the disastrous cultural and environmental consequences” of the 1984 Tucuruí dam on the Tocantins River in Brazil. “The dam’s primary beneficiary is Alcoa…which receives two thirds of the plant’s generating capacity and employs very few people [and spends the profits it makes on the aluminum produced there outside of Brazil]. The dam’s reservoir [1100 square miles, bigger than Rhode Island] displaced 35,000 people in 17 towns and villages…all of whom lived by flood agriculture.” (162-3)

Modern Latin America equals the urban density of the US and Europe, with 75% of its people living in cities. (168) But “already in 1600, 48 percent of those in Spain’s American colonies lived in cities,” before there ever
were any British colonists. (169) Urban spaces are imagined differently by Latin Americans, and have grown at alarming rates. “In its 50-year growth spurt (1850-1900) London grew from 2.6 to 6.6 million, about 2.5 times. Mexico city, a century later but in the same length of time (1940-1990) grew from 1.5 to 15 million, a factor of ten.” (173) Urbanity, Miller says, leads to lower family sizes and reduced national fertility rates. “Brazil’s total fertility rate is 2.3, slightly above the long-term replacement rate of 2.1…Argentina, Costa Rica, and Uruguay, are essentially [at zero population growth]; and a few, such as Cuba, Barbados, and Chile, are already well below it.” (190)

But this does not mean these nations are out of trouble, Miller says, because “while the city inhibits family fertility, it breeds household consumption.” (191) Consumerism and emulation of North American lifestyles threaten Latin American economies and environments. In a very interesting that might make a good short reading assignment in a survey class, Miller describes “Cuba’s Latest Revolution,” the “Special Period” in Cuban history that began in 1989 when Russian subsidy inputs abruptly ceased. With massive Soviet aid in the previous decades, Cuba had “developed one of the most mechanized and chemical-intensive agricultural systems” in Latin America. (230) “Before 1989,” Miller says, “Cuba imported nearly 60 percent of its food, and its citizens consumed an average of 2,800 calories per day. By 1993, average caloric intake had fallen to 1,800.” (231) Cuban agriculture, institutional gardens, and 100,000 family farmers (many of them urban) went organic, and “by the late 1990s, no longer were Cubans no longer going hungry, they were eating better food and a greater variety of it than they had in 30 years.” (233) The big question, Miler suggests, is what will happen when Fidel dies and the blockade comes off? Hopefully, the Cubans will resist the lure of American consumerism and remain a model for the rest of the western hemisphere.

Victorian Genocides

Mike Davis
Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World

This is a scary book. The genocidal imperialists in this story are the British (and briefly, the Americans in the Philippines), but dial the clock ahead a hundred years and
it’s all us. Seriously. Davis begins his story with a description of ex-president Ulysses Grant’s “family vacation” around the world. As the hero of the Civil War sailed from feast to banquet, a copy of Innocent’s Abroad in his lap (I wonder if this is documented, or if it was just an anecdote that was too ironic to pass up?), the world was in the grip of a climatic event of global proportions. The late-1870s famine was the first of a series of three that together killed more than 50 million people. Davis argues that these deaths, however, were not due to natural disaster, but to political choices made before, during, and after the droughts and crop failures occurred.

One of the main points Davis makes in
Late Victorian Holocausts is that “We are not dealing…with ‘lands of famine’ becalmed in the stagnant backwaters of world history, but with the fate of tropical humanity at the precise moment (1870-1914) when its labor and products were being…forcibly incorporated into [the British Empire’s] economic and political structures.” (9) This is an important point, because even today well-meaning writers publish sympathetic articles that perpetuate the myth that “Of course, famine and pestilence are part of India’s ancient story.” Actually, says Davis, “India and China…did not enter modern history as the helpless ‘lands of famine’ so universally enshrined in the Western imagination.” (287) An 1878 study in the Journal of the Statistical Society “contrasted thirty-one serious famines in 120 years of British rule against only seventeen recorded famines in the entire previous two millennia.” Similarly, China had a ridiculously long history of successful state and local famine relief. And the two nations were economically competitive. “The looms of India and China,” Davis says “were defeated not so much by market competition as they were forcibly dismantled by war, invasion, opium, and a Lancashire-imposed system of one-way tariffs.” Although it has been forgotten by history, “The use of force to configure a ‘liberal’ world economy…is what Pax Britannica was really about.” (295)

And it really does seem to be the fault of history (that is, historians). Because a lot of this was known at the time, at least among radicals and socialists who opposed the British government’s imperial policies. Davis refers several times to Henry Hyndman’s speeches and articles, and to radical journalist William Digby’s chronicle of the 1876 Madras famine. “If Kipling’s verse exalted colonizing optimism and scientific racism, Conrad’s troubling stories warned that Europe itself was being barbarized by its complicity in secret tropical holocausts.” (140) Even “
Cosmopolitan pointedly published photographs of famine victims from the Central Provinces next to an illustration of a great monument erected to Queen Victoria.” (157) It was clear that at least some contemporaries saw “mass starvation as avoidable political tragedy, not ‘natural’ disaster.” The elimination of these perspectives from history supports Davis’ claim that “the great famines are the missing pages — the absent defining moments, if you prefer — in virtually every overview of the Victorian era.” (8)

Throughout his story of these horrific famines (in which parents regularly sold and sometimes ate their children), Davis calls attention to the fact that food surpluses existed close at hand, and that previous systems of social organization had been much more effective at mobilizing these surpluses to avert starvation. The difference under British rule was the “theology” of capitalism, which idealized free markets even while it encouraged speculation and hoarding. “Millions die,” Davis concludes, “was ultimately a policy choice.” (11)

“Although crop failures and water shortages were of epic proportion…there were almost always grain surpluses elsewhere in the nation or empire that could have potentially rescued drought victims.” Sound familiar? But it wasn’t just ignorance or lack of concern for the colonized people, Davis suggests. “Each global drought,” he says, “was the green light for an imperialist landrush.” (12) Although
Late Victorian Holocausts includes a detailed scientific account of our emerging understanding of ENSO cycles, the real power of the book is in Davis’ identification of the link between “social vulnerability” and “climate variability.” (288) “There is compelling evidence,” Davis quotes Prasannan Parthasarathi, “that South Indian labourers had higher earnings than their British counterparts in the eighteenth century and lived lives of greater financial security…enjoyed better diets…possessed superior rights of contract and exercised more economic power.” (292) The changes over time that eliminated these eastern advantages need to be examined. And not just for the British—Americans benefited. “Opium shipments from India [to China] reached a peak of 87,000 chests in 1879, the biggest drug transaction in world history.” (300) The deliberate addiction of millions of Chinese to opiates by the British not only impoverished the Chinese economy (and coincidentally, even darling of the Neoliberals, Hans Rosling, admits a causal connection between social insecurity and high birth rates that might help explain the Chinese population boom), but “enabled Britain to sustain her deficits with the United States and Europe on which those countries depended for export stimulus and, in the case of the United States, capital inflow.” (Quoting A.J.H. Latham 1978, 359)

Economic vs Microhistory

Martin Bruegel
“The Social Relations of Farming in the Early American Republic: A Microhistorical Approach”
Naomi R. Lamoreaux
“Rethinking Microhistory: A Comment”
Journal of the Early Republic 26, Winter 2006

In the first of a recent pair of articles that takes the debate on the market transition to a new and much more interesting place, Bruegel argues that the economic determinism represented by most business histories can be counteracted by a very detailed, microhistorical approach to the tasks and relationships necessary to running an early nineteenth-century farm. Bruegel criticizes histories that simply reduce “the scale of observation to illustrate the local impact of larger processes,” suggesting that they simply “normalize” peculiarities and thus validate the “general hypothesis.” (525) In contrast, he says, microhistory “deepens and enriches the analysis of economic transactions” by providing “a more circumscribed, grass-roots focus [that] suggests…the malleability of conventions.” (552)

Lamoreaux responds by suggesting that attempts like Bruegel’s verge dangerously on “antiquarianism” (a term she uses frequently, 555). Speaking for economists, Lamoreaux says she does “not see why making an analysis more complicated should necessarily be considered a good thing.” (556) While at first glance, Lamoreaux’s suggestion that historians writing narratives are doing the same thing as economists building models might strike historians as annoying and just, intuitively,
wrong; I think it’s incumbent on historians to think about this and articulate the differences.

Lamoreaux suggests that in order to lead to new knowledge, acts of “complication” must not only show us how the previous “simplification” failed to account for some thing both real and
important, but must then return to a new re-simplification that incorporates this new insight. (557-61) Lamoreaux deploys Paul David’s elaboration of Robert Solow’s famous growth model to illustrate her point, in a way that I think illustrates both the validity of her point, and a fundamental gap between the interests of economists and those of historians. Her point is that economists have recently begun to understand that “Many economic phenomena are…’path dependent’ in that they are conditional on the particular sequence in which events unfolded.” (558) This is important, because in addition to what might seem like a belated acknowledgement by economists of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, it means in Lamoreaux’s words, “that contingency matters—that history matters.” (557-8) That’s good news for historians who want to work with economists, but Lamoreaux’s argument also highlights the main difference between the two fields.

“The words
exogenous and endogenous are economic jargon,” Lamoreaux says, “but they capture an essential feature of all narratives. There is always an inside and outside to a story; there is always something external to the dynamics of a story that sets its events in motion.” (558) This may or may not be true, but I suspect it is nowhere near as relevant to the historian as it seems to be to the economist. Lamoreaux argues that the two important elements of any story are the “equilibrium growth path” and the “external shocks” that can alter it. Shocks are usually big events, occasionally big people. “They are unlikely to be induced by the actions of people who are relatively powerless. If that is the case, however, what is the role for microhistory? What is the role for history written ‘on the ground’?” (559)

I think the answer is obvious to historians. But again, I think we have to spell it out. So here’s my answer, as it occurs to me today at least:

History can’t afford to, and historians couldn’t bear to, reduce the past to a series of equilibrium growth paths and exogenous shocks. We’ve been in that trap before. The path dependency and contingency we see have infinitely more variables than those sought (and therefore usually found) by economists. Historians should take college-level statistics and econometrics courses, so they can understand the way economic models are constructed. No matter how much they strive to be empirically descriptive rather than normative, the fact that they put the equation at the center means that the assumptions, caveats, exceptions are all pushed to the margins. And then there’s temperament. The economist wants to simplify: wants to find rules that can be projected into the future. To predict. Most historians I know would prefer to complicate a picture than to “clean it up.” Sometimes this introduces trivialities—but from whose perspective? Is it fair to say that everybody who fails to be big enough to be an “external shock” is irrelevant? Irrelevant to whom?

In the end, I think it comes down to two things. Epistemology and markets. What do you think is important in the nature of reality? Waves, or particles? And, who do you think you’re working for?

New Business History

Naomi Lamoreaux, Raff, and Temin
“Beyond Markets and Hierarchies: Toward a New Synthesis of American Business History”
AHR 108:2, April 2003

This is a fairly influential article, that seeks to redirect business historians away from Chandler’s essentially celebratory account of highly integrated firms outperforming the market, toward a history in which “long-term connections (and the informal restraints on self-interested behavior with which they are linked) have continued to play an important role in exchange—that they constituted…a third major type of coordination mechanism [between one-off transactions in the market and a completely determined, command economy] whose significance has waxed as well as waned overtime.” (430) I think this is a promising change in direction for business historians.

Chandler claimed that firms integrated to improve “on the workings of the market,” where distrust and inadequate information limited efficiency. (406) Lamoreaux praises Chandler for providing “a compelling alternative to the robber-baron view of big business,” while at the same time giving business historians a grand narrative that “made sense of the many (often antiquarian) histories of individual firms and industries.” She chooses to forget, for the moment, that by “the workings of the market,” we mean the aggregate decisions of not only producers, but consumers. Chandler’s approach, in a sense, has these early 20
th-century integrating businessmen saying “the consumer be damned,” in just the same way the Progressives were saying “the voter be damned.”

I find economic history frustrating, when it says things like “in industries where technological change …reduced skill requirements, apprenticeship tended to decline, and a more impersonal labor market developed.” (411) Explanations like this forget both the supply side, changes in the cost of labor, and the demand side, decisions by managers and owners. People
chose to substitute machines for workers. The assumption that technology adoption happened for purely “practical” reasons of efficiency hides the other possible reasons for the change. Similarly, the idea that middlemen drove farmers toward a standardized, undifferentiated product simply because it made for easier handling (following Cronon’s description of the Chicago grain market in Nature’s Metropolis), ignores the fact that it was incredibly profitable for them to do this. The middlemen gained profit and power by eliminating the old system of delivering grain, where a farmer’s name could be recognized by end-purchasers, profiting farmers with better reputations. We should at least consider the possibility that some of the middlemen knew what they were doing, and were changing the system on purpose, to make a profitable place for themselves. “If the personal identity of the producer could no longer serve as an indicator of quality,” Lamoreaux says, “What the Board of Trade had to do…was add an element of hierarchical enforcement to what was otherwise a relatively pure market exchange.” (415) This is a prime example of theory getting in the way of common sense. The Board of Trade was a costly (that is, profitable) infrastructure made necessary by the fact that farmers were no longer able to rely on their good names. The middlemen had created the vacuum they intended to fill, and then made it seem inevitable and “natural.”

But I like the idea that “Long-term relationships are sometimes superior to both markets and hierarchies,” (408) especially because as Lamoreaux mentions several times, “businesspeople in these…communities interacted socially as well as economically.” (417) Seems to me, these “multidimensional relationships” open the possibility for values and decision criteria other than strictly economic calculation to influence choices and drive change.

Telegraph and Government

Richard R. John
Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications

Much like Steinberg’s
Nature Incorporated, which I just read, John’s main point in this book is that “The first electrical communications media—the telegraph and the telephone—were products not only of technological imperatives and economic incentives, but also of governmental institutions and civic ideals.” (1) John points out at the outset that the telegraph was no “Victorian internet,” and that even the much more popular telephone system was really only used by regular people for local calls until World War II. (2, 3, 11) These tools were mostly used by elites, and the businessmen who ran them had a very narrow vision of their potential market. (6) John mentions the concept of the “network effect,” (that the value of a network expands with its user base), but suggests that historians might be wrong to project our understanding of it onto even the most forward-looking 19th century telegraph developers. (8,9) John distinguishes between the skills and temperament of inventors and innovators, suggesting that like Samuel F.B. Morse himself, the people who patented the technology were often not the ideal developers of nationwide systems.

The issue of patenting, actually, turns out to be a prime example of the intersection of technology, business, and government. Morse built his historic Washington-Baltimore demonstration line with a $30,000 grant from Congress. (24) And from 1837 through the granting of the all-important patent in 1840, and its subsequent defense and promotion, the “assistance” that patent commissioner Henry L. Ellsworth gave Morse, his friend of over thirty years, was “little short of astounding.” (49) Similarly, Postmaster General Amos Kendall actively promoted “the rapid diffusion of intelligence” through telegraphy, and then went to work for Morse defending his patents. (33) But the patenting of technical improvements was new and controversial. “Scientist Joseph Henry…refused as a matter of principle.” (43) The creation of “intellectual property” in the 1830s might be an interesting topic to look into, at some point.

To some extent, the success of the post office in moving business letters much more quickly than had been possible in recent memory probably dampened the market for telegraphy. John says an upstate New York postmaster told the Postmaster General in 1841 “merchants were the only class of postal patrons who demanded high-speed communications; for everyone else, low coast was the key.” (58) And since letters took only part of a day in upstate New York, to get from town to town, and even postal communication with the City was possible in a day or two, the number of messages that needed to move faster than the mail must have been small. I wonder, though, why sight drafts don’t seem to be part of the story at this point, when the movement of funds between Western Union stations later became such a big part of their business?

Hiram Sibley, the founder of Western Union, seems like an interesting character for further study. A lot of interesting names appear in the telegraph story, including Ezra Cornell, Samuel Colt, Thurlow Weed, William Seward, Henry O’Rielly, and Francis O.J. Smith, who apparently “issued his euphoric congressional report on Morse’s invention” in 1838 in expectation of a share in the “still-to-be-issued telegraph patent.” (85) Even Chief Justice Roger Taney makes an appearance, upholding Morse’s patent rights while setting limits on the patenting of underlying scientific principles. (87) And Sibley’s multi-million dollar mistake, promoting a trans-Siberian connection to Europe, paved the way for the annexation of Alaska. (100) And finally, John shows how personality can be a factor in history: “The fact that Mr. Jay Gould was the principal owner of the telegraph company [he took over Western Union in 1881] was another circumstance which led the people generally to side with the strikers,” according to an 1883 article in
Banker’s Magazine. (156) Gould’s takeover of Western Union was attacked by Henry Demarest Lloyd in the Chicago Tribune, and even by the New York Chamber of Commerce, which called for congressional consideration of a postal alternative. (171, 174)

While there is no bibliography, the endnotes contain a lot of useful information and titles like Reid’s
Telegraph in America and Plum’s Military Telegraph During the Civil War in the United States. There’s also a “Chronology of American Telecommunications” covering the years 1792 to 1996 (I’ve only read the first half of the book, which is within my period, for my field reading—but I’ll be coming back to this later, when I have more time.

Nature, Inc.

Theodore Steinberg
Nature Incorporated: Industrialization and the Waters of New England

This was Steinberg’s dissertation; his advisors were David Fischer, Morton Horwitz, and Donald Worster. Steinberg’s thesis is that “industrial capitalism is not only and economic system, but a system of ecological relations as well.” (11) This idea goes beyond the obvious (but important) recognition that environment constrains social and economic choices, towards a more subtle discussion of how “the natural world came to represent new sources of energy and raw materials…perceived more and more as a set of inputs.” Steinberg mentions Cronon and Merchant in this context, but the thrust of his argument develops Horwitz’s theme of “an instrumental conception” of both resources and “law that sanctioned the maximization of economic growth.” (16) A critical issue in Horwitz, which Steinberg picks up, is that this sneaky institutionalization of common law and the attitudes toward ownership and the public and private sectors that spring from it has distributional consequences. So the point is not only that over time it became “commonly assumed, even expected, that water should be tapped, controlled, and dominated in the name of progress,” but that the rewards of this control legitimately belong to the few, to the exclusion of the many.

Steinberg’s narrative of the beginning of textile milling in Massachusetts calls attention not only to the contested nature of all the changes the mills tried to make to the flow and control of rivers like the Charles, but also to how much these changes owed not to free competition in the market, but to government interference through the courts. Despite the regular complaints of area farmers, by 1795 people in the Charles valley believed “their natural rights stolen from them, and their best property at the mercy of one or two Millers, still the luck favorites & likely to remain, so long as the rage for Factory at every place, whether others sink or swim, continues the rage of Government.” (37) Along the way, Steinberg’s story brushes up against several interesting people (Nathaniel Ames, Robert Owen, Harriet Martineau, Charles Dickens), whose personal reactions to what they saw in the Charles and Merrimack valleys would have added an interesting dimension to the account.

Steinberg continues the story with accounts of the Boston Associates’ campaign to control Lake Winnepissiogee, the destruction of fisheries and the capitalists’ attempt to reintroduce and manage what was formerly a common good, and the problem of industrial and urban pollution in the rivers controlled by the industrialists. Each of these topics have been expanded by others, along the lines Steinberg suggests. The only flaw in the book, for me, is the Thoreau-ian wrapper Steinberg adds at the beginning and end. Clearly Thoreau would have been horrified by what he saw, but I don’t think Steinberg makes a strong case that Thoreau represents any type of viable alternative. At the end, Steinberg admits that “greater command over…nature in general, had its positive points.” But, he concludes, “this aggressive, manipulative posture toward the natural world [is] a problem that penetrates to the core of modern American culture.” (271) This conclusion steps beyond the scope of the book, and although Steinberg may have felt that it was implied by his approach, it is not a natural end to the story and requires either a leap of faith or a prior agreement and understanding that makes the book’s very valuable argument irrelevant.

Oklahoma Radicals

John Thompson
Closing the Frontier: Radical Response in Oklahoma, 1889-1923

Thompson was apparently motivated to write this history of his home state by the discovery that riots his grandmother remembered from her youth “did not coincide with the history textbooks.” (xii) Thompson begins with Webb’s Great Frontier, which he says was “inextricably bound” with corporate capitalism. (3) Sweeping Braudel, Wallerstein, Turner, Billington, Gates, and Bogue into the net as elaborators (albeit sometimes unconsciously) of the Great Frontier thesis, Thompson claims the speed of development in search of quick profits was the key to disaster in Oklahoma, both in the arid west and the more industrial east.

Thompson’s claim is interesting, because he extends it beyond simple land speculation and oil development. Competition among speculators and developers, he says, “prompted bribery and fraud and helped corrupt the political and judicial institutions of new societies.” (5) It is not the freeholder or small-time bandit who really benefited from the lawlessness that lasted until statehood in 1907, Thompson says, but large-scale capitalists from the east. They were able to operate without checks during the territorial stage, and once they seized control of state government, they institutionalized their dominance. The result has been hidden by Dust Bowl histories, which blame Oklahoma’s 440,000 migrant refugees on ecological disaster. Thompson says “Despite the common misconception that Oklahomans were ‘dusted out and tractored out,’ an estimated 97 percent of the net population loss occurred in the eastern half of the state, which was not crippled by dust and underwent almost no farm mechanization. These migrants were instead dislocated by landlords, merchants, and bankers.” (218)

Populism, Socialism, and Neopopulism were much more prevalent, and developed to a much higher degree of sophistication in Oklahoma, Thompson says, due to the confluence of pioneer values of “individualism, cooperation, and democracy,” and the abuses heaped on the Oklahoma poor by capitalists. (8) “In 1904, Standard Oil controlled 84 percent of the nation’s oil production,” and much of that oil came from its Oklahoma subsidiary, Prairie Oil and Gas. (64) Possibly the bigger point, which is not evident here because there is no antebellum counterpoint, is that this is the end of the frontier period, and the conditions are very much different from those encountered by migrants at the beginning a century earlier. Again (I keep coming back to this), I think the big change is in capital and credit consolidation under Lincoln.

“From 1925 to 1930 the driest county in the state averaged more than nineteen inches of rain a year.” (217) This goes a long way to explaining why credulous people from elsewhere believed they could make a go there. It doesn’t explain why the rest of Oklahoma society let it happen, though. Thompson says the downfall of the socialists in Oklahoma was the Russian revolution: “The flexibility that had been the strength of the old Socialist party was replaced by the dogmatism of the new Communist party.” (221) This is an interesting idea in the larger national context, but I’m not sure it’s a satisfying answer locally.

Hydraulic Society

Donald Worster
Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the american West

Worster draws heavily on Wittfogel’s idea of the hydraulic society, to argue that despite American myth, the western states really grew as a result of “authority and restraint, of class and exploitation, and ultimately of imperial power.” (4) In the process of harnessing nature in the form of water, to raise cities and farmlands where local conditions would not allow them to be, Americans created in the West “a culture and society built on, and absolutely dependent on, a sharply alienating, intensely managerial relationship with nature.” (5) This culture “was increasingly a coercive, monolithic, and hierarchical system, ruled by a power elite based on the ownership of capital and expertise.” (7) But the public or private nature of ownership isn’t the main issue, because even in Wittfogel’s ancient examples (Egypt, China) a society that centralizes to conquer nature finds itself organized around “the qualities of concentrated wealth, technical virtuosity, discipline, hard work, popular acquiescence, a feeling of resignation and necessity…[not] what Thoreau conceived as freedom.”

This organizing thought of
Rivers is both its best and worst feature. Worster points the reader toward important questions about the nature of societies that live far from a natural equilibrium with their environments — and the majority of 21st century communities increasingly fit that mold. The west may have been an early example, but eastern cities like New York, Detroit, and Miami live just as far from nature as does Los Angeles. Even with respect to water, as illustrated by the 1930s construction of the Quabbin reservoir, to supply Boston’s taps. But the best solution Worster offers to the region’s overpopulation and political centralization is “redesigning the West as a network of more or less discrete, self-contained watershed settlements” where people could live a quieter, less acquisitive lifestyle. (333) So, while Worster provides a valuable introduction to the idea that “What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument,” the task of figuring out what to do about that (or even what history might suggest) falls to others. (Quoting C. S. Lewis, 50)

Beyond the Western Paradigm

Robert D. Johnston
“Beyond ‘The West’: Regionalism, liberalism, and the evasion of politics in the New Western History”
Rethinking History 2:2 (1998)

Johnston takes issue with the western exceptionalism of Cronon, Limerick, White, and Worster, arguing that they have jointly created an artificial West as a “category of analysis,” which is ahistorical and evades local variations, contingency, and “the messy realm of the political.” (240) Although he grants that “the mythic-historical Turnerian narrative is so strong that it can only be displaced by a story line of equal power,” (241) Johnston argues that the story has been oversimplified to the point where it hides more than it reveals.

Limerick, Johnston says, focused so exclusively on property allocation that she channeled Louis Hartz and told a story in which “everyone…is obsessed with getting rich quick.” (244) In doing so, she “fails to take into account the genuine complexity and ambiguity of white Americans’ conceptions of property,” and she misses the point of agrarian radical traditions like populism, where “community consistently triumphed over individualism.” (245) Similarly, in his critique of Worster, Johnston finds in the “hydraulic society…an almost completely unrelenting hegemony of bureaucratic corporate capitalism,” which he considers every bit as Hartzian as Limerick. (248, 249)

Johnston’s objection to Cronon is that in his attempt to read Turner backwards, Cronon “stresses continuity over change and portrays the dominant society of the American West as inherently liberal and thus bereft of meaningful politics.” (252) Partly this may be due to the lack in
Nature’s Metropolis of the native/white conflict present in Changes in the Land. But Johnston is right that Cronon’s purpose in the later book was to apply central place theory “to reveal the unity of city and country that agrarian ideology has obscured.” (252) Cronon is not quite as straight-ahead in that sense as Margaret Walsh; but the resulting ambivalence when he briefly describes agrarian resistance to the elevator operators and other urban powers, and then writes it off as ignorant farmers misunderstanding their situation, doesn’t help his case.

There’s an interesting moment when Johnston mentions that Cronon misses the point of the Grange, and observes, “farmers were dependent on urban sources of credit.” (253) This fact is actually much more contingent than people (including Johnston) seem to realize. But it won’t be, when my dissertation is complete.

Richard White, Johnston says, overstates the “basic ways [in which] the federal government created itself in the West.” (256) This thesis, Johnston believes, “seems more plausible than it really is.” But White also provides “the most flexible, light-handed, and indeed ‘political’ approach to using ‘The West,’” so Johnston’s objections may be more about how White’s work is perceived than about what it claims. (258) Or, Johnston just feels obligated to object to anyone using “The West,” preferring that “how historians conceptualize space should depend on why they want to think about it.” (259)

In the end, Johnston’s claim is that especially when we look at the West, historians fall victim to “false necessitarianism.” (262) Following Roberto Unger, Johnston says that if we believe with Limerick, Worster, and Cronon, that there is “only one route to and manifestation of capitalism,” then “Modernity…becomes naturalized; what Unger terms the ‘transformative resistance’ of ordinary people disappears.” Since “The central value of historical understanding is that it transforms historical givens into historical contingencies,” (quoting Herbert Gutman, 264) our histories need to guard against the tendency to ignore or suppress counterarguments or challenges to the way things ended up. Even if they now seem impossible and silly, these challenges to inevitability can tell us about how the future looked to people who didn’t know how the story was going to end. Or how they hoped it could look.


Frederick Jackson Turner
Frontier and Section: Selected Essays

Touted by the back-cover copy as “not
one, but the explanation of American history.” If we scrape away all of that, it’s a thoughtful essay that contains a lot of good ideas that can be debated and expanded almost indefinitely, as the historiography has proven.

“The Significance of the Frontier in American History” was an address given by Turner to a special meeting of the AHA, held at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, July 12, 1893. Turner was not the president of the AHA at this time (Henry Adams was), and the talk was regarded as interesting but not earth-shattering. Turner’s thesis is contained in the first paragraph: “The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.” (37)

Turner’s point is obvious and irrefutable. But that doesn’t mean that all the ways he and other people have elaborated on it are equally true. Or in fact, that it was all inevitable; since America’s acquisition of the continent was contingent, and the ways we acquired the various parts of it certainly influenced the history of those parts and of the whole. Turner includes a quote from Calhoun, who in 1817 said America was “rapidly—I was about to say fearfully—growing,” suggesting perhaps that
the way it all happened so quickly was not entirely unproblematic, even for Turner.

The idea that “American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier,” has been a particularly contentious element of Turner’s argument. (38) The claim that American character has been formed by this “continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society” sounds a little too much like Ernst Haeckel’s
recapitulation theory, which was popular among contemporary biologists. Haeckel said “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” that the evolutionary progress of the species could be seen in the developing embryo. But as it turns out, as poetic as this idea is, it isn’t true. Even so, it’s possible to agree with Turner that there’s something different about American culture because it was not determined solely by aristocrats in the Northern metropolises and on Southern plantations. Frontiersmen, farmers, miners, and immigrants who went into all these professions left their marks; and none of that would have been possible without the western frontier.

Turner has also been criticized for ignoring the Indians, which he clearly doesn’t do. Although we may not like what he says about them, they are present in the essay and Turner claims their role in American history is important. (46) I think the main flaw of the argument, really, is that Turner fails to distinguish any change in the nature of the frontier over time, or any difference in the people who went to it. We can agree that the frontier experience was powerful enough to wash away some of the eastern or old-country culture that people brought to the west, but if it didn’t remake them completely, then what they brought mattered. And clearly, people traveling to a mining camp in northern Michigan were going to experience a different frontier from sod farmers in Minnesota or miners in Virginia City, Nevada.

But let’s be fair. This was a speech delivered at the White City on a summer evening in 1893. Turner returned to these themes a generation later, in “The Significance of the Section.” In this 1925 essay, he says “The West was a migrating region , a stage of society rather than a place.” (116) I think the idea works better in this mythic western sense, rather than as a concrete economic or social theory. True, the West was generally a debtor section, under the thumb of eastern bankers (after 1864, that is—as my dissertation will argue). So maybe to some extent “frontier regions stressed the rights of man, while the statesmen who voiced the interests of the East stressed the rights of property.” I don’t think it’s accurate to think of the “economic society” of the frontier as inherently separate from the East. Or to think of western “pioneer traditions” as a return to an embryonic stage of human society. But even so, there’s still a lot to think about in these essays.

Labor v. Capitalism

In his introduction to the volume of essays entitled The Human Tradition in American Labor History, Eric Arnesen begins with a quote from an 1886 issue of the Journal of United Labor, extolling the virtues of work for individuals and society. Arnesen deemphasizes the point, I think, that if labor papers were waxing poetical about the positive aspects of labor, it was because someone else was running labor down. These things never appear in a vacuum.
Similarly, I think Arnesen accidentally misrepresents “mid-nineteenth-century Free Soilers and Republican Party members” who “argued that labor might be noble, but workers’ goals should be to escape from the ranks of those who work for others and instead try to achieve a modicum of economic independence.” (xii) He sees contempt for workers in the Free Soil emphasis on economic independence, when I think many of them were really acknowledging that work was hard and employment was uncertain, so it was up to wage laborers to continually work to improve their circumstances. In an era before monolithic, monopolistic, gigantic corporations, this often meant by getting out from under the small employer, and going into business for oneself. Many people saw this as a reasonable progression — the chasm between employer and worker was not nearly as deep or wide as it seems to be today.

Paul Krause’s article, “Beeswax Taylor: The Forgotten Legacy of Labor Insurgency in Gilded Age America,” highlights some of the issues faced by recent labor historians. Taylor was an English Chartist who came to America and became active in the Knights and AFL. Krause has trouble with the fact that Taylor “was as great a republican as anyone of his era, and he located within the republican tradition the seeds of his criticism of the emerging corporate order.” Following traditional labor-historical practice, Krause tries to tell Taylor’s story as a conflict between an ideal of “cooperative, noncapitalist social order” on the one hand, and a “diversion” into the “competitive marketplace” brought about by Taylor’s inability to resist the “truly transformative power of the ‘capitalist enemy.’” But Taylor didn’t “fall” into liberal republicanism, he brought it with him from England. American labor historians don’t believe that labor advocacy can lead anywhere but toward socialism, or that nineteenth-century workers could embrace free markets but want to protect themselves from monopolists and oligopolists.

Colin Davis’ article on Eugene V. Debs mentions his speech before the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce, at the invitation of J. J. Hill. Hill thought it would discourage Debs, but his plan backfired. This might be an interesting way into a piece on chambers of commerce.

Food, Inc. in the 1970s

John L. Shover
First Majority-Last Minority: The Transforming of Rural Life in America

Shover traced the rapid change of American agriculture and rural life in the three decades following World War II. “Farming,” he says, is “one of the last vestiges of the individual entrepreneur” in America. (1) He argues for what he calls the “Great Disjuncture,” and although his name for it didn’t stick, his observations have become widely-accepted truisms. And yet, thirty-five years after its publication, many of the issues Shover calls attention to in
First Majority are farther from resolution than ever.

Shover calls attention to the fact that “emigration from country to city in the years following the Great Depression has been greater in numbers than the entire immigration from foreign shores to the United States in the 100 years between 1820 and 1920.” (xvi) The rural exodus was enabled—actually forced—by increases in productivity. In 1820, Shover says “one farm worker was required to supply subsistence for four people; in 1945 the ratio was 1 for 14.6; in 1969 the estimate was 1 for 45.3.” (5) The first improvement was brought about by tractors and nitrogen fertilizers, Shover says; the second by pesticides, herbicides, and hybrid crops and livestock. Along with these productivity increases went “consolidation. Nine-hundred thousand fewer farms operated in 1970 than in 1960, but virtually all the land except that diverted by government policy, remained in production.” (6)

A lot of the information Shover provides will be well-known to the contemporary reader of agricultural or rural history. But it’s interesting to see how much of the material publicized by others in the last few decades was already being discussed in the 1960s. Shover notes, for example, that “rural America has traditionally been on the move,” (38) and he notes that “surprisingly few studies of American farms and villages have given attention to their ethnic makeup. This lack has produced a myopic view of rural politics, overlooking often intense and deep-seated ethnic and religious rivalries.” (48) Both these observations are still quite relevant for historians and sociologists. Shover also notes that “the major market for motor vehicles shifted between 1905 and 1908, from the big city to the country town.” (116)

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of
First Majority, which is fascinating precisely because the book is a generation old, is Shover’s coverage of agribusiness. Recent bestsellers like Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, documentaries like Food, Inc. and King Corn, and the recent Justice Department/USDA probes of Walmart’s “stranglehold” on rural communities, have sensitized us to problems facing food producers and rural Americans, but may also have created an impression that these issues and crises are recent. In fact, Shover was calling attention to the same problems 35 years ago. In 1968, he says, “the 1 percent of the feedlots that have a capacity greater than 1,000 fed 47 percent of the cattle marketed.” (160) Poultry consumption, which had been stable at about 16 pounds per person in the first half of the twentieth century, rose to 50 pounds per person in the early 1970s. (146) And even then, the industry was already dominated by “producer corporations” that paid the “farmer-caretaker in 1972…fifty dollars for every 1,000 chickens he raised.” (146)

By 1970, the declining power of farm operators relative to their corporate overlords was already apparent. In a 1970 report, the USDA declared that “poultry growers were working at an average wage of
minus fourteen cents hourly.” (My emphasis, 147) “Us folks in the chicken business are the only slaves left in the country,” Shover quotes an Alabama striker saying. “They call all the shots—they give you a contract for as many or as few chickens as they want and then they pay you whatever they want.” (147) Shover also called attention to the environmental cost of agribusiness. “In 1969,” he says, the nation’s 107 million cattle, 57 million hogs, 21 million sheep, and 2.1 billion chickens produced approximately ten times more biological waste than the entire human population.” (161) And the factory farms were just getting going!

While the producer’s share of the food dollar “pie” wasn’t as low in the 1960s as it has become, the growing slice taken by manufacturers and marketers was already a concern. “Thus in 1969,” Shover says, “farmers received 67c of every consumer dollar spent on eggs…50c for milk; 22c for fresh oranges; 14c for two loaves of bread…Producers of wheat and cotton could give away their entire crop free without creating more than a minor effect on the price of bread or shirts.” (177) The fact that these problems have been known for decades, and during that time the situation has only gotten worse, should concern today’s activists. Shover shows some of the changes rural historians were beginning to explore in the mid-1970s, in the last few years before the election of Ronald Reagan and the political sea-change it brought about or reflected.

Heroes or Machines?

Alf Hornborg
The Power of the Machine: Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment

“Like all power structures,” Hornborg begins, “the machine will continue to reign only as long as it is not unmasked as a species of power.” If only it was so easy. We may realize that the emperor is naked, but that doesn’t stop him from being the emperor.

Hornborg’s analysis is built on two big ideas. The first is a definition of power as “ a social relation built on an asymmetrical distribution of resources and risks.” (1) When I read this today, the image that came to my mind was Beowulf (but I couldn't find a good pic, so here's Aragorn). Risks can either be taken or imposed. When you take a risk, you accumulate honor. When you impose a risk on someone else, you accumulate power.

The second is the idea that beyond the cultural construction of our idea of “the machine,” there are
actual machines. And Hornborg says, “the actual machine contradicts our everyday image of it.” Hornborg believes “the foundation of machine technology is not primarily know-how but unequal exchange in the world system, which generates an increasing, global polarization of wealth and impoverishment.” (2) We believe machines embody progress, and an escape from Malthusian disaster. But “We do not recognize that what ultimately keep our machines running are global terms of trade. The power of the machine is not of the machine, but of the asymmetric structures of exchange of which it is an expression.” (3)

The way machines concentrate resources from the periphery into the center, while seeming to be making something out of nothing, is by keeping our attention firmly focused on that center. To prove his point, Hornborg cites the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and Ilya Prigogine’s elaboration of it in his theory of Dissipative Structures. Increases in order, which Hornborg calls negative entropy or negentropy, are only possible locally, and are taken out of the wider environment. “Any local accretion of order,” Hornborg says, “can occur only at the expense of the total sum of order in the universe.” (123) In the case of biomass, the energy to create this order is taken from sunlight by photosynthesis. This isn’t a completely efficient process, but it hardly matters on a human scale (so far). Where the entropy law becomes really important, though, is in the creation of what Hornborg calls “technomass” out of non-renewable resources. This is not only a zero-sum game, Hornborg says, but it has distributional implications that are deliberately, “systematically concealed from view by the hegemonic, economic vocabulary.” (3)

“Industrial technology,” Hornborg says, “depends for its existence on not being accessible to everyone.” Industry presupposes cheap energy and “raw material” inputs, and high-value outputs. Entropy insures that there isn’t enough to go around. “The idea of distributing [technology] evenly among all the peoples of the world would be as contradictory as trying to keep a beef cow alive while restoring its molecules to all the tufts of grass from which it has sprung.” (125)

What are the historical implications of this bleak argument? Well for one thing, once machines and the exchange relationships they use and represent “assumed the appearance of natural law…the delegation of work from human bodies to machines introduced historically new possibilities for maintaining a discrepancy between exchange value and productive potential, which in other words means encouraging new strategies for underpayment and accumulation.” (13) Why? Because while it is relatively easy to recognize the basic justice that an individual owns his own work, it’s harder to say who should own the work of the machines built with (cheap) resources and (cheap) labor bought far from the high-priced central markets.

This was the thing that Marx missed, either because it was harder to see in his time, or because (as Hornborg suggests) he “fetishized” machines and expected them to solve the historic problem of the proletariat (there’s a whole chapter redefining Marx’s theory of fetishism and applying it, but I won’t go there now). At some point, Hornborg says, global growth became primarily based on “
underpayment for resources, including raw materials and other forms of energy than labor.” Hornborg replaces Marx’s labor exploitation with resource exploitation as the central factor in capitalist accumulation. This change may be the bridge from a traditional Marxist critique of capitalism, to a “green” critique. Money values may increase and the illusion of global economic growth may temporarily hide the zero-sum nature of the game, but in the long run “what locally appears as an expansion of resources” turns out to be “an asymmetric social transfer implying a [hidden] loss of resources elsewhere.” (59)

Another implication is that, historically and “still today, industrial capitalism is very far from the universal condition of humankind, but rather a privileged activity, the existence of which would be unthinkable without various other modes of transferring…resources from peripheral sectors to centers.” (60) This should impact discussions of the “market transition” in history just as it affects our understanding of contemporary economic development.

The other major implication, for me, is that locality is important. In nature, systems tend to regulate themselves. “As long as a unit of biomass is directly dependent on its local niche for survival, there will tend to be constraints on overexploitation and a long-term (if oscillating) balance. Industrial growth, however, entails a
supra-local appropriation of negentropy.” (123) The concept of capital breaks this local ecology, and creates what Hornborg calls “a recursive (positive feedback) relationship between some kind of technological infrastructure and some kind of symbolic capacity to make claims on other people’s resources.” (61) When capital can begin to be accumulated far from its source, we’re on our way to a world where “the 225 richest individuals in the world own assets equal to the purchasing power of the 47 poorest percent of the planet’s population.”

So how should historians respond to this? One possible response might be to point out that people in the past did not necessarily
know what thermodynamicists now know, and what Hornborg argues applies to society. So, there was not necessarily the same sense of a conspiracy to evade this knowledge in the past, that Hornborg suggests there is in the present. After all, enlightenment rationality grows out of and responds to the longstanding medieval world view, in which people took for granted that the world had been created and peopled for a purpose.

Another reaction might be to argue that Hornborg is wrong: that in fact dissipative structures do not make the center-periphery relationship look like he describes it. Critics could argue that technology actually breaks the zero-sum nature of the game, and acts as a rising tide that lifts all ships. Different data sets could be assembled, to support both sides. So if theories like these can never be conclusively proven, what’s the solution? Locality? Honor instead of power? Maybe history, seen through the lens of thermodynamics, will provide some illustrative stories…

Cold War Labor

Robert W. Cherny, Ed.
American Labor and the Cold War: Grassroots Politics and Postwar Political Culture

A collection of essays, looking at the period from 1945-1960. The editor says central question is, “what kinds of relationships existed among the labor unions of the AFL and CIO, the radical left and the conservative right, business and other interest groups in American communities.” (4) Really, this can be boiled down to: what was the relationship between the American communist party and labor leaders, and did McCarthyism impact the development or retardation of the labor movement?

These are interesting questions, in the sense that they suggest there was both a “genuine and principled” communism and anticommunism “in the working class communities of the nation,” and that what went on in front of TV cameras in Congress was in some way related to the grassroots conflict. (5) But even so, they are very narrow questions, and the detailed narratives and oral histories related here need to be understood as a special case. It might even be a stretch to imply that these types of things were happening in working class communities across the nation, much less that they represent some type of broad social event that mobilized large groups of regular people.

In the first article, Ellen Schrecker points out that most labor leaders who joined the communist party “felt it would help them build a strong labor movement. None of them…tried to transform their unions into revolutionary organizations.” (9) If they were indeed focused on building organizations that would be effective in promoting the agenda of actual workers, it stands to reason that they would have become disillusioned with the CPUSA after time; since it pretty much failed to deal with the reality of American society the same way it failed to deal with the reality of the Soviet Union. Schrecker criticizes the AFL and CIO for being “so thoroughly co-opted that its leaders provided cover for the CIA, and its conventions endorsed the war in Vietnam.” (19) Clearly, the leaders of these unions do seem to have “enlisted in the Cold War” to some degree; but the framing of the discussion avoids the larger issues. Who was the labor movement supposed to turn to, for guidance? The CPUSA was useless. The rank and file were, in many cases, conservative working stiffs who
did support the war in Vietnam. Remember “America, Love it or Leave it”?

Gerald Zahavi’s oral histories of Schenectady GE workers are very interesting. They suggest ethnic and religious dimensions to the working-class encounter with communism that make the picture much richer and more satisfying, while at the same time suggesting that communism was not as central on the streets of company towns in upstate New York as it has become on the pages of histories. This is the type of thing I’d like to see more of, and I think the book succeeds when it focuses on actual people and lets them tell their stories. The outline of labor and church leaders interacting with government and business leaders was tedious and didn’t leave me feeling I understood what had really happened.

Bidwell's Rural America

Percy W. Bidwell
Rural Economy in New England at the Beginning of the 19th Century

Bidwell based this book on the 1810 Census and related documents. So, he was writing about what Southern New England had been like 100 years earlier. He begins with a description of the inland town and the types of people found there. He is careful to note that in 1810, proto-businessmen like the “taverner or innkeeper, the country trader, the proprietors of the saw-mills, the grist-mills, the fulling-mills, the tanneries; the village artisans or mechanics, the blacksmiths, the carpenters and joiners, and the cobblers” were usually only able to ply their trades part time. Farming was their primary, and fall-back, occupation. (256-7)

Bidwell attributes the “union of all trades, businesses, and professions with agriculture,” and the lack of division of labor to the lack of a market. Quoting the
Wealth of Nations, he says “No better illustration than this could be desired of the famous dictum of Adam Smith that ‘the division of labour is limited by the extent of the market.’” (267, n. 1) The outside markets available to New England farmers in 1810 were New York (population nearly 100,000), the Southern states, and the West Indies. (294) The problem was, getting products to the coast.

“The Connecticut River furnished the only means of cheap transportation through the central region of New England. Although originally navigable only as far as the falls at Enfield, Connecticut, some sixty-five miles above its mouth, a series of canals constructed in the years 1790-1810 had made possible the passage of small boats to the village of Barnet in northern Vermont, about 180 miles further.” (309) Since transportation limited access to markets, one would expect farmers to be less interested in “improvement” and production for market than their counterparts in England and Europe. This was the case, in the opinions of both foreign visitors and critics like Timothy Dwight of Yale.

Bidwell says “Contemporary criticisms were deserved,” but suggests that there were good reasons for the state of farming. (345) “Inefficiency in Agriculture was not due to ignorance,” he insists. (346) “Land was cheap and labor dear,” he says, “Washington’s explanation.” (349) Bidwell agrees that emigration to the frontier drained New England’s population and postponed intensive agriculture (351-2), but he insists that the “real cause of inefficient agriculture was the lack of a market for farm products.” “The expense of labor was at this time a hindrance to the growth of manufactures also,” he observes, “but when the market was opened through the failure of European competition, during the period of the Embargoes and the War of 1812, manufacturers found it profitable to employ workers even at the high wages demanded.” (353) “All other stimuli to agricultural improvement,” Bidwell insists, “were futile as long as a market was lacking...Between the years 1810 and 1860 such a population arose in the manufacturing cities and towns of New England, and the market thus created brought changes which opened up a new era to the farmers of the inland towns.”

Interestingly, in the final page of his appendix, discussing “Other Causes of Emigration,” Bidwell says “Some men were unable to fit into the rigid, Puritanical social and ecclesiastical systems. They emigrated in order to breathe the freer, more unconventional atmosphere of the pioneer communities.” (391) Also, while describing the Connecticut Valley, Bidwell says “Middletown depended for its prosperity chiefly upon its commerce...Up to 1810 the following manufactures had been established: A rum distillery with an annual output of 600 hogsheads, a paper mill...a powder mill...and a cotton factory.” (287) Middletown, with 5,300 inhabitants, was Connecticut’s third largest town in 1810, which was about the time Samuel Ranney moved from there to Ashfield.

Agrarianism & Empire

William Appleman Williams
The Roots of the Modern American Empire

“One of the striking problems confronting the modern executive…is created by the way the organization and operation of the corporation destroy the old social and economic ecology without creating a new balance based on a community of association, interest, and mutual responsibility. That was precisely what happened…when consolidated capital from outside the region moved into the Red River Valley and created the huge bonanza grain farms of the 1870s and early 1880s. The approach ultimately failed because its economies of scale proved insufficiently rewarding over a period of time, because it provoked serious political opposition, and because it failed to generate the development of a society (let alone a community).” (xi)

This is interesting, because it’s what I’ve been thinking about colonialism in rural America. I think Williams is right: once the focus became colonial, rewards were judged based on competing opportunity costs of capital, not the inherent qualities, (success or failure, viability, sustainability, etc.) of the local operation.

Williams goes on to cite J. J. Hill as “a corporation leader who did learn from the weaknesses and failure of the bonanza farms, and who applied that lesson for the benefit of his own corporation and for the rest of the people in the region. Hill did not become a utopian, or even a reformer in the usual sense of the term, but he did recognize and act on the necessity of dealing with the needs of the agricultural society in which he operated. He realized that all corporations would go the way of the bonanza farms unless they became more relevant and responsive to the requirements of the rest of society.”

I wonder if a bio of Hill has ever been done on this middle ground, where he’s neither a robber baron nor a saint?

Thesis: (italics his)
“The expansionist outlook that was entertained and acted upon by metropolitan American leaders during and after the 1890s was actually a crystallization in industrial form of an outlook that had been developed in agricultural terms by the agrarian majority of the country between 1860 and 1893.”

In Williams’ account, the desire to expand agricultural markets pushes what is ultimately American expansionist foreign policy. In the early 19
th century, this takes the form of Adam Smith’s “tension and antagonism between the metropolis and the country.” (103) Britain is the metropolis in this case, and the whole US is the “granary and slaughterhouse” that feeds it. As America grows, Williams says the farm sector’s export focus remains a prime mover of expansionism. Although William Jennings Bryan claimed “agriculturalists were as truly businessmen as their metropolitan counterparts,” Williams says he did not convince them he could improve conditions for their business. (404)

Williams concludes that both the “agricultural expansionists” and the urban leaders who appropriated their ideas failed to “maintain an operating balance between the expansion of freedom and the expansion of the marketplace” because “the overwhelming majority of farm businessmen shared the more conservative views of the dominant metropolitans. Indeed, they had generated and shaped that outlook. And, for that matter, many of the reformers soon acquiesced or assented.The result was an overpowering imperial consensus that defined freedom in terms of what existed in America; or, in its most liberal form, in terms of what Americans sought for themselves.” (450)

In the final lines of his epilogue, Williams cautions radicals: “because we are now just beginning, I suggest that we be very careful about winning when it requires us to become more like what we find so unacceptable. For those kinds of victories can very easily change us into small businessmen promoting a marginal product.” (453)