Author: jhiblog

What We’re Reading: August, Part 1


Regular readers of the blog will have noticed the (temporary) disappearance of our “What We’re Reading” feature, which used to run every Friday. Starting today, we’ll be replacing our weekly link round-ups with monthly reading recommendations from our editors. These longer-form recommendations will allow our editors to share some of the why, as well as the what, of what we’re reading. Here is part one, part two will be published next Saturday.


Self-parody that I am, I have invited John Calvin to accompany me back from Geneva, in the form of his commentaries on Paul’s Epistles to the Romans and the Thessalonians. Calvin composed one of the greatest pieces of systematic theology ever written in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, an achievement that has obscured the crucial fact, to quote Bruce Gordon, that the reformer “never taught theology as a separate discipline: he taught scripture” (300). The commentaries are texts of superlative erudition—filled with careful discussions of variant readings and the opinions of previous exegetes—and of polemical vitriol (“No words can express how foul is the abomination of the Papists…” [407]). All just as one would expect from the pugnacious theological architect of reformed Protestantism. The commentary on Romans, in particular, is something of a magnum opus, “a work that radically transformed Protestant theology” (Gordon 103). But not every note is scholarly or savage: “whatever may happen, we must stand firm in the belief that God, who once in His love embraced us, never ceases to care for us” (186). Of the correction of others’ faults he writes, quite movingly, “if we want to be of service, gentleness and restraint are necessary so that those who are reproved may still realize that they are loved” (422). Love is an apt word: Calvin loved Paul, whose prophetic mission he embraced as his own, and he loved the Bible, the revealed Word of God whose very existence was a miracle—these loves fill every page of his commentaries. It has been nothing short of wonderful this summer to discover the loving Calvin.



Olivier Rieppel, Phylogenetic Systems: Haeckel to Hennig (Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2016).

As I grapple with the concept of time(s) in modern biology I return to Olivier Rieppel’s Phylogenetic Systematics: Haeckel to Hennig. Rieppel, an evolutionary zoologist, maps the development of modern phylogenetic systematics. He covers 100 years, from the German Darwinist Ernst Haeckel to Willi Hennig, the German founder of modern cladistics, as biologists vacillate between materialism and idealism to find a methodology to uncover nature in its “real” form. Rieppel reconstructs the origins of many contemporary big questions that have haunted the discipline since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of the Species (1859). Is evolution the basis of comparative anatomy, or idealistic morphology? What morphological characters need to be elevated to understand an organism’s history? How do we use characters to reconstruct a tree? Are all characters equal? Rippel’s impressive cannon of German biological literature is the major strength of the book. Rieppel also offers a perspective on German biology during the Third Reich, a welcome addition to a literature more generally focussed on medicine and the atomic bomb. The author argues that idealistic morphology and phylogenetic systematics represented two antagonistic ideological traditions, empiricist-positivist and organicist-holistic, and critically evaluates the impact and influence of Nazism on evolutionary biology. Side by side, I read Brent D. Mishler’s What are Species? as one always needs to balance those charismatic zoologists perspective. Mishler, an evolutionary botanist, argues that the multitude of single species concepts needs to be abandoned for a more fluid, pluralistic concept of species.  Whilst this has been happening in contemporary practice it has yet to reach consensus formally within the biological community. These books leave me contemplating time, its measurability, its complexity and the work done to tame time on evolutionary trees.


Edna Lewis published The Taste of Country Cooking in 1976. In the very first paragraph of the book, Lewis informs us: “I grew up in Freetown, Virginia, a community of farming people. It wasn’t really a town. The name was adopted because the first residents had all been freed from chattel slavery and they wanted to be known as a town of Free People.” The book, a hybrid between a memoir and a cookbook, is both a historical document and a commentary on a moment in history. Structured as a series of seasonal menus, the book takes us through the rhythms of life in Freetown, where the bonds (and pleasures) of family and community were not taken lightly, for slavery–and emancipation–were both still held in living memory.

Her memories of Freetown are beautiful and tender, but never saccharine. After all, it is a book that includes the menu and recipes for an Emancipation Day Dinner. “My grandmother,” Lewis wrote, “had been a brick mason as a slave–purchased for the sum of $950 by a rich landowner.” The Emancipation Day dinner included a Guinea fowl casserole, wild rice and wild grapes, and a simple plum tart. We learn what the residents of Freetown might have enjoyed for a midday dinner during the wheat harvest, what might have been served for dinner after a Sunday Revival, and what went into packing a picnic basket for a day at the horse races. Lewis gives us that other history, the one written by the body, on the land. In an interview with the New York Times, Judith Jones (who also worked with Julia Child on Mastering the Art of French Cooking) recounted that “when they were working on the book together, Jones noticed that there wasn’t a menu for Thanksgiving. She asked Lewis about it, who said, quietly: ‘‘We didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving. We celebrated Emancipation Day.’’ And so she wrote a menu for that, leaving it to the reader to figure out why.”


Since the end of my research trip to England, I have gradually been working through my rather long list of readings not directly related to my own research. Though most of my time has been taken up with Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman’s epic novel about the Second World War, I have recently read Noah Millstone’s excellent Past & Present article ‘Seeing Like a Statesman in Early Stuart England.’ Millstone, currently based at the University of Birmingham, argues that early Stuart politics was characterized by a specific form of political thinking which he describes as ‘politic.’ It relied on decoding hidden intentions and was obsessed with secrecy and intrigue. Since simple inference could be misleading, it was deemed necessary to use a number of hermeneutic techniques that allowed one ‘to unveil the true, hidden causes behind events.’ (82).

What makes Millstone’s research and argument so impressive is his insistence that this mode of thinking cannot be understood only through printed treatises written by elite actors. He has combed through a vast amount of manuscript material that allows him to understand how ‘politic’ thinking, best thought of as a technique of interpretation rather than as an ideology, pervaded all levels of English society. Millstone is also very good at explaining the wider implications of his argument. He suggests that ‘politic’ thinking implies that there was such a thing as a ‘distinctly early modern form of the political.’ (84) Historians, therefore, should no longer think of politics as a transhistorical category that necessarily retains some common features across time and space.

Social Defiance and Counter-Institutions: What Aesthetic Philosophy Misses in the Ontology of Rock Music

By guest contributor Jake Newcomb


Rage Against the Machine End of set, before leaving stage
Vegoose Music Festival, 28 October 2007.

With the publication of Rhythm and Noise: An Aesthetics of Rock, philosopher Theodore Gracyk made the first breach into a modern ontology of rock music in 1996. Gracyk’s ontology postulated the idea that rock music is separated from other genres of music by identifying sound recording as the most important facet of the genre of rock music – which contrasts the centrality of live performance in classical music. By downplaying the role of live performances, songwriting, and songs themselves in the ontology of rock, Gracyk’s left his assertion open to critique. Some of the critiques that followed Gracyk’s ontology, like Andrew Kania’sin 2006, keep the ontology of rock music “recording-centered,” but try to refine the exact contours of what “recording” is. Kania also acknowledged that rock music is a recording centered phenomenon, and argued that the primary goal of rock musicians is to “construct [recorded] tracks,” as opposed to writing songs. Kania used this assertion to then make the claim that recording tracks precedes the existence of a song, and that it isn’t until after a track is recorded, that a “song” can exist. In 2015, Franklin Bruno entered the debate, arguing not only that songwriting and the existence of songs can precede the recording of a track, but also that the quality of songwriting and songs are as important to the fans of rock music as the skill of recording tracks. Bruno emphasized the viewpoint that songs and recordings are not mutually exclusive, but mutually dependent.

This chain of argumentation leaves out the cultural and social dimensions of rock music, which could be of particular interest to historians. Rock musicians have openly defied the status quo and socio-political norms of their times, and became symbols of resistance to the social structures that surrounded their art. Defining moments in the development of rock, and how that development was perceived by the public, are entangled with the contemporary political and economic situations that surrounded those moments. The examples below demonstrate how rock musicians have symbolized social and political conflict.

Take for example, the identity of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain in the 1990s. In, The Man Whom the World Sold, Mark Mazullo argued that Cobain’s aggressive music and superstar status in the early 1990s for many people brought into the public consciousness a generational conflict between “Generation X” and the “Baby Boomers.” Nirvana’s confrontational music resonated with Generation X, who felt that the generation that directly preceded them, the Baby Boomers, had raised them in a system that could not provide the the pathways to happiness and prosperity that were promised to them by the idealism of post-war America. Mazullo quotes Sarah Ferguson, a journalist, who published an article after Cobain’s suicide saying that, “the hit ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was… a …resounding fuck you to the Boomers and all the false promises they saddled us with.” Following Cobain’s suicide in 1994 “every major print venue in the country ran obituaries and commentaries on Cobain’s heroic cultural role,” and “suicide hotlines were established across the country,” because there was an immediate fear of copycat suicides. Lorraine Ali writing for the New York Times chalked up the significance of Cobain’s death to the generational tension that allowed Nirvana to sell “millions of albums to peers who can relate to their rootless anger.” Here, Ali uses the word “peer” to describe the people who purchased Nirvana’s music, not “fans,” because to many listeners of Nirvana, Cobain was one of them, not just a rockstar. Cobain, plagued by many of the same ills that the listeners of his music were, triggered a deep emotional response from others in his generation who suffered from drug addiction, depression, chronic illness, and childhood trauma, like himself. For many young people in his generation, those characteristics of his personality and the social conditions in which he published his music were as important as the songs he wrote and the tracks that he recorded, and it is a big part of the reason why Nirvana’s music had immense and immediate commercial success.

Punk rock, a subgenre of rock that influenced Nirvana, actively resisted the mainstream and commercial entertainment industry. According to Dawson Barrett, punk engaged in “direct action” politics and “built its own elaborate network of counter-institutions, including music venues, media, record labels, and distributors,” that acted as “cultural and economic alternatives to corporate entertainment industry,” instead of trying to “[petition] the powerful for inclusion.” Which, Barrett argues, “should also be understood as sites of resistance to the privatizing agenda of neoliberalism,” because creating their own institutions and economic circuits was a conscious political choice to not participate in the dominant cultural economic ideology and social system. Barrett’s article, DIY Democracy: The Direct Action Politics of U.S. Punk Collectives, asserts that punk culture descended from “New Left Principles,” like “consensus-based decision-making, voluntary participation, and relatively horizontal leadership structures,” in direct defiance of the neoliberal ideology that evolved alongside punk in the United States. The punk rock musicians who engaged in “DIY democracy” had no desire to exist within the neoliberal commercial entertainment structure and built their own structures. Punk musicians created new modes of living to accompany their art. The development of punk music is also a history of a counter culture openly defiant of materialism, consumer culture, and mainstream political thought.


Václav Havel, photograph by Jiří Jiroutek

The Czechoslovakian rock movement in the 1970s also created “counter-institutions.” The existence of these counter-institutions and the desire to create modes of living outside of the state-accomodated social structures of the communist regime came to a head in 1976 when the members of a rock band called “The Plastic People of the Universe,” were put on trial and convicted for their music and their concerts. The state believed that the music and community of musicians put Czechoslovakia at risk. The trial, and the verdict, were the catalysts for the creation of the Charter 77 organization in Czechoslovakia. Charter 77, made up of the Czech intelligentsia who feared that the state could and would remove their freedoms of speech and assembly, was instrumental in bringing down the communist regime in the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Vaclav Havel, a founding member of Charter 77 and a spectator at the trial of The Plastic People of the Universe, wrote in his highly influential essay “The Power of the Powerless,” that the trial between the communist judicial system and the rock band was a confrontation between “two differing conceptions of life.” The state feared that the rock band’s music and concerts could undermine the solidarity and the morality of the state. Havel criticized the state’s viewpoint and actions as an “attack on the very notion of living within the truth, on the real aims of life.” The state according to Havel, acting from fear, took judicial measures to prevent the rock band from living and acting according to principles of freedom of expression and individual choice, because the very act of “living within truth” put the rigid totalitarian ideology of the Czechoslovakian state into question.

Havel identified that the Plastic People of the Universe had created their own counter-institutions, and he defined them as a “parallel polis.” In the Czechoslovakian state structure, Havel theorized that rock bands, and dissident groups in general, created their own organizational and economic structures in order to perpetuate their existence, and these “parallel polis” structures developed naturally as a response to the state rigidity and limitations of communist Czechoslovakia. Creating and maintaining these “parallel polis” structures was the only way that these musicians could live out their truth, playing the music that they wanted to play and living out the communal experiences that they wanted to have. The parallel polis that The Plastic People of the Universe created had two enormous effects on Czechoslovakian society: 1) it forced the state to take judicial action and punish an entity that they perceived as a threat, which began a new crackdown on elements in Czechoslovakia that the state perceived to be subversive, and 2) inspired part of the intelligentsia to found the Charter 77 organization in order to protect the rights of free speech and criticism. The Plastic People of the Universe inspired immediate action on both sides of a political conflict. While Cobain embodied a generational conflict, the Plastic People of the Universe’s embodied a political one.

The ontologies of rock music developed by Gracyk, Kania, and Bruno all abstract rock music from the social and political conditions that surround the art. At best this is incomplete, but at worst it is misleading. The aforementioned examples elucidate rock music’s tendency to embody social and political conflict, and in the case of The Plastic People of the Universe, inspire action on both sides of a political conflict. Kurt Cobain became a spokesman for his generation not only because of his ability to write popular songs and record popular tracks, but also because he was seen by some as a martyr-like figure. Punk rock musicians often denied mainstream consumer culture and replaced it with counter-institutions and grassroots organization to avoid having to work within the neoliberal economic system. These aspects of rock music are as important to our understanding of its history as the fact that the artform is primarily mediated from the artist to the recipient through sound recording. To move toward a more comprehensive ontology of rock, the cultural and political symbolism that rock music and its practitioners embodied should be taken into account.

Jake Newcomb is an MA student in the Rutgers History Department, and a musician. His essays on his personal experience with music can be found at

Graduate Forum: Writing Art in the Present Tense

This is the second in a series of commentaries in our Graduate Forum on Pathways in Intellectual History, which will be running this summer. You can read the first piece, by Andrew Klumpp, here.

This second piece is by Contributing Editor Cynthia Houng.

Truism: All histories are subjective.

Truism: All historical narratives are the products of a series of choices and decisions–of evidence and argument, of style, emplotment, tone.

Truism: All narratives are representations.



Douglas Crimp, Before Pictures (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

Douglas Crimp’s Before Pictures (University of Chicago Press, 2016) is obviously a work of memoir. It is–less obviously–also a work of history. Less obvious, because Before Pictures is so clearly grounded in the experience–in the mind and body–of a single person, Douglas Crimp, and so the work’s claims to truth and to knowledge remain, at least in our more conventional (or academic) ways of thinking about history, too narrow, too personal, too subjective. How do we leap from this single data point to broader deductions about a society and an age? Here we have one experience, one voice, one point of data — but can it be serialized, integrated into ever broader series of documents, or data points, until finally we come to a bird’s-eye view of the situation?

Crimp’s answer: maybe we do not. Maybe that leap is impossible–and undesirable. Maybe we acknowledge the limits of our ability to know.



T. J. Clark, The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

Since 1999’s Farewell to an Idea, T.J.Clark has grown increasingly increasingly skeptical of conventional art history, which Clark finds, on the one hand, hopelessly positivistic, shackled to dreams of objectivity and universalism, and on the other, excessively logocentric, more interested in text and context than in the artwork itself. The Sight of Death (Yale University Press, 2008), Clark’s diaristic account of his encounter with two Poussin paintings at the Getty, marked a decisive turn toward a different mode of writing, one that emphasizes the experiential, subjective nature of all writing on art.

The practice of art history proceeds along two axes–the critical and the historical. The critical component occurs in the present tense–it is bound up with the historian’s experience of the work, and it harkens back to art history’s roots in connoisseurship, which emphasized that beholder’s critical judgment of a work’s quality. This turn (or return) to the subject and to experience is only partially a consequence of postmodernism. It carries with it a degree of faith in the integrity of both subject and experience, an insistence that by grounding narrative and argument in the personal, the private, the contingent–we can come up against something both material and real. Doubt must end somewhere. It ends with the touch of flesh and blood.

In that sense, in their recourse to the personal, the subjective, to the first-person experience, neither Clark nor Crimp are decisively breaking with the art historical tradition. Neither the insistence on the primacy of the object nor the turn towards a transparently subjective mode of writing are new. What, then, is new? The answer lies in the logic behind this emphasis on the subject’s relationship to the object, and the insistence that we–both writer and audience–remember that this relationship occurs in the present tense. Ontologically speaking, it is the only tense possible, as one material being confronts another — object to object, one might say, existing in the same temporal plane.

These two books, though very different in their interests and investments, share a certain common ethical and political grounding: they refuse transcendence. They take immanence as a basic condition of experience. There can be — there will be — no God’s eye dream of meta-vision, no fantasy of transcending the boundaries of space/time or of this material world. This commitment–to remaining immanent in this time, this world, fully contained and bounded by its material constraints–is both political and ethical. It grounds the writer in the present, and so the writer must remain both agent and participant in the now. Transcendence can also be a mode of escape, a turning away from the exigencies of the moment, a refusal of responsibilities, even of agency.



Opening Reception, Pictures, Artists Space, September 23, 1977. Photo courtesy of Artist’s Space.

This refusal of transcendence has different resonances for Clark and Crimp. For Crimp, it represents a kind of freedom, or liberation, from the burden of history–but of a specific kind of history. Before Pictures is ostensibly a memoir of Crimp’s life before “Pictures,” the 1977 Artists Space exhibition that launched Crimp’s career and also gave name to the “Pictures Generation.” In that sense, it is a personal bildungsroman (and closely follows the conventions of that genre). Before Pictures is also an intellectual history, an account of how Crimp moved away from the practice of conventional academic art history towards something more personal. And here, “Pictures” is not the inflection point. The “change of direction” is precipitated by his 1989 essay, “Mourning and Militancy.” This essay, “the final essay I published in October during my thirteen-year stint as an editor there,” was also “the first in which a personal experience formed the germ of the argument.” In an interview with Jarrett Earnest, Crimp described the two dialectical poles in Before Pictures as “autobiographical and critical.” This is the moment when the autobiographical and the critical come together. And it is also, in a way that would become important to the subsequent shape of Crimp’s career, the moment when Crimp’s two worlds–the gay world and the art world–are no longer separated. One self need not be alienated from the other self. It is also a re-imagining of the subject position of the writer, as both critic and historian. That subject is no longer imagined as one that conforms to the ideal subject of the liberal/capitalist regime, that of a heteronormative, white, bourgeois male.

“One thing I can say for certain,” Crimp wrote, in the final paragraph (echoing the denouement of Joan Didion’s Play it as it Lays), “When I wrote the Pictures catalogue essay, and even more when I rewrote it for October, I was convinced that with sufficient insight a critic could–even should–determine what was historically significant at a given moment and explain why. That conviction was a result of my intellectual formation as an art historian and aspiring art critic. Moreover, it was possible to believe such a thing then: the art scene as I experienced it from 1967 to 1977 was small enough to seem fully comprehensible. That, of course, no longer holds true. And because it is so clearly not true now, it seems unlikely that it could really have been true then. In the meantime, coming to the understanding that my knowledge of art can never be anything but partial has been liberating. It has allowed me to write about what attracts  me, challenges me, or simply gives me pleasure without having to make a grand historical claim for it. No doubt that is why I respond to the reception of Pictures with ambivalence. It historicizes me.”

Note the final word here, the choice of the verb form, to historicize, over the noun. Note the resonance with historicism. Note Crimp’s ambivalence about submitting to this process, with all of its overtones of pastness, of being finished, of belonging to the past–and therefore being shut out of both present and future).

To be historicized is to become historical — and it comes with its own sense of triumph, as well as sadness. (For Crimp, who would become very involved in AIDS activism in the 1980s, this is a melancholic victory, won by virtue of having survived.) It also means submitting to historical representation, finding one’s self shorn of its particularities and slotted into a narrative–submitting, in other words, to being shaped, edited, and represented by another.

And this carries the danger of being re-inserted into tradition, being made to carry the burden of that grand history, when the point was to work oneself loose from it.



Giotto di Bondone, Scenes from the Life of Joachim: 5. Joachim’s Dream, 1303–1305, Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua, Italy.

“I am with Walter Benjamin in thinking the pretense of the historian to enter the lost mental world of a long-ago maker a hopeless fantasy,” Clark declared in a 2017 lecture on “Joachim’s Dream,” one of the episodes in Giotto’s fresco cycle for the Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel in Padua. “In front of Joachim’s Dream, I don’t believe it can ever be me who time travels to the Trecento, on the contrary, it’s this stubborn fragment of an utterly unknowable past that brings, or refuses to bring, its now with it, into my present, putting my picture of pastness and continuity in doubt. I either own up to my naive claim on the work, the way the work answers or resists that claim, the way it suspends my usual pragmatic sense of history, or I settle for that far flight of historicist fancy called looking with a period eye.”

Crimp shares, with Clark, a radically constrained sense of the possibilities of making knowledge via conventional academic historical approaches. What any individual can really, truly know–what one can deduce from historical evidence–is narrow, straitened, far from the promise of universal history. While neither Clark nor Crimp is quite as radically skeptical as, say, Hayden White–who came to hold an unfavorable view of the relationship between professional historians/historiography and state ideologies and apparatuses–they share a sense of discontentment with the status quo of institutional historical practice. They share a discomfort with the profession’s conventions and structures, and Clark, at least, is also uncertain of its value (even while continuing to practice as an academic art historian, a disjunction between theory and practice highlighted by James A. van Dyke in his review of The Sight of Death).


Clark closed The Sight of Death with a gloss on a Hugh MacDiarmid verse: “The present may be theirs,/but a’ the past and future’s oors.” MacDiarmid’s “bluster,” Clark argues, “at least has the virtue of pointing to what an antithesis to modern life will now have to be made from.”

And this is where Clark diverges from Crimp. For Clark sees, in the past, the tools for making the future–and poignantly, perhaps, for making the future revolution. Let me finish, then, with Clark’s own words. The antithesis to modern life “will have to live in the past–retrieving the second term in MacDiarmid’s last line will mean (will depend on) retrieving the first. It is never the present that dreams the future, for the present has no past life with which to to make the non-existent real.”

Louis-Sebastien Mercier, between prophetic and historical engagement with time

by guest contributor Audrey Borowski


Portrait of Louis-Sébastien Mercier (1740-1814), (Public Domain).

In his novel The Year 2440 published in 1770, the French homme de lettres Louis-Sebastien Mercier (1740-1814) evokes an idealized Paris in the twenty-fifth century. In it, Paris has been rebuilt on a scientific plan, luxury and idleness have been banished and education is governed by the ideas of Rousseau.  The historical past, that “shame for humanity, every page being crowded with [its] crimes and follies” has effectively been superseded in favour of an atemporal Enlightenment vision of the ancient regime in such a teleological fashion that the vision of the future delivered by Mercier has merely been “deduced” from the present with which it was already pregnant. Both present and future constitute two distinctive points on a same linear continuity that merely follows its natural course of indefinite ‘perfectibility’.

And yet Mercier seems to repudiate this vision almost as immediately as he had laid it down on paper by questioning the conditions of its enforceability, something The Year 2440 had neatly sidestepped through the device of the dream. In the sequel to The Year 2440, The Iron Man, Mercier presents the reader with a rather different picture, one of Paris in disarray in which an “iron man,” embodying force and justice, deambulates throughout the city in an attempt to wipe out any trace of its barbaric past through moralization, graffiti, and even force when necessary, and to bring it in harmony with the ideal it ought to be. His attempt to enforce the dream of The Year 2440’s enlightened ideal society, and to rewrite the past and script the future, fail miserably and rather farcically when the protagonist is captured and dismembered.

Mercier could not resist the urge to ridicule the demiurgic pretensions of the “fabricators of universe” and self-proclaimed sages of his time who had imposed the tyranny of their own certainty and dogmas on knowledge. They had confiscated knowledge and obfuscated reality through the dissemination of an inaccessible jargon in the shape of ‘artificial algebraic formulas’ which had reduced the infinite complexity of the world to illusory certitudes. And, in the belief in their own narrative of triumphant progress, they had spawned a new form of occultism and intolerance towards knowledge other than mathematical. Reality, in its infinite and sensible complexity was a force made up infiniments petits which escaped all control and defied any simple causal explanation and which, in the revolutionary period, had morphed into a “force,” a chemical poetic replete with “fermentations,” “toxins,” and “explosions.”

Ultimately, “the sphere of sentimental moralities was lit up by a sun whose phases were unknown to our calculators.” Against the tyranny of abstract calculations and predictions, Mercier sought to rehabilitate alternative forms of knowledge including linguistic, in particular. He rejected the mathematization of the sensible in favour of the vibrancy of language.  For Mercier, the writers were the true painters of their time. Language, under the influence of court society, had lost its “colour;” it had become stultified, denatured and “expressionless” and fallen into such a state of decomposition as to have become reduced to “exaggerations” and “unintelligible utterances.” The Terror itself had occurred through the “abuse of words” which, in its dissemination of “magical and sanguinary” jargon had turned words into “words that kill.” For Mercier, meaninglessness bred violence.

Language needed to be constantly renewed for only a language embedded in the here and now could enliven us and “make that unknown fibre vibrate” in us. It was not the preserve of grammarians or bound by fixed rules but a “mysterious art-form” which conveyed the “power of our ideas” and the “warmth of our feelings.” Periods of unrest, such as the French Revolution presented auspicious junctures for the renewal of language. In the preface to the Nouveau Paris, Mercier even advised young authors “to make their own idiom since [they] had to depict the unprecedented.” Mercier’s own endeavour to emancipate language from the hold of the academies culminated with his Neologie of 1801.

In Mercier’s two following Parisian works, Le Tableau de Paris (1781-1788) and Le Nouveau Paris (1798), Mercier reasserted his materialist take on history. Uchronia gave way to concrete and fragmented day to day accounts which sought to convey the urban tumult at the heart of Paris, that gigantic organism which bound together rich and poor, and criminal and law-abiding. In Le Tableau de Paris, Mercier was engaged in the seemingly impossible task of capturing in writing a contemporaneity which was constantly slipping away from beneath his feet.  The city he described was like a palimpsest, a vessel which was constantly renewed but whose past lay hidden just beneath the surface. In this manner, the history of the city of Paris was first and foremost thought through the multitude of superimposed layers which composed its ground. Its temporal density offered itself to the discerning eye; a walk through the city was a walk through time. Within this historical configuration, the past was fully integrated to the present into which it continuously flowed. Each corner and monument resurrected ghosts from the past, further blurring the different temporalities at play.

In Le Nouveau Paris (1798), written after the outbreak of the French Revolution, the experience of time had been still further accelerated and even the immediate past had already been historicized:  Mercier henceforth walked in Paris on “that no longer [was].” The Revolution had marked a radical rupture and given rise to a new sharpened historical consciousness. Historical writing henceforth played the role of a funerary rite, acknowledging the past whilst firmly excluding it. The Terror was held at an incommensurable distance and exorcized: the “shadow” of Robespierre was only evoked to be better purged.  Crucially, history, in the awesome forces it conjured, acquired an aesthetic dimension: in its admixture of greatness and brutality, it became a source of sublime.

Cut off from its past and with no discernible future, post-revolutionary Paris was drifting aimlessly in a state of generalized confusion caught between fantasies of regeneration and prospects of looming destruction. Construction inevitably seemed to spell future destruction, linking ruins, past and future in a strange and seemingly inexorable “poetic of ruins” before which all civilizations were called to disappear. Pure historicity seemed to have reached its logical conclusion.

Ultimately neither fiction nor any authority which struck Mercier as sacralized could ever stand the test of time nor the fickle judgment of the historical process. Writers could imagine the future from the past and speculate as to what of the past would survive but ultimately, only time would tell. In those circumstances, it was incumbent on us to resist the temptation of “pantheonising lightly.” Renown, like all else, was “beholden to the course of events.” Seeking to decide on ruins or great men from the present was absurd: only the future looking back on its past could pass those kinds of judgments. Attempts to overwrite history or to seek to predict it retrospectively through future projections were not only futile, but also hubristic.

Yet, Mercier’s gaze was never stable, torn between present and future, between a materialist and prophetic engagement with time. On the basis of his Year 2440, Mercier would, for instance, later self-style himself the “genuine prophet of the revolution” in the new preface he penned in 1798. He recognized that those projections also expressed a deep yearning toward something that went beyond the purely factual. As he wrote in Adieux à l’année 1789 published in the Annales patriotiques et littéraires, one still had to “dream of public felicity in order to erect its immutable edifice.” (« il faut encore rêver la félicité publique, afin d’en bâtir l’édifice immuable »)

Dream acted as a powerful motor in history; it offered the hope of tearing mankind “from the formless chaos” in which it was mired; it provided it with a horizon toward which it “could run with all its might,” ready to “precipitate its march to reach out for it and grasp it.” That The Year 2440 with its “mass of enlightened citizens” would never come about suddenly was eminently clear; but this would not stop man of dreaming of seeking to escape the historical predicament in which he found himself trapped and its final overcoming, once and for all.

Audrey Borowski is an historian of ideas at the University of Oxford.

Dutch Pasts and the American Archive

By Editor Derek Kane O’Leary


Edmund Bailey O’Callaghan

Edmund Bailey O’Callaghan (1797-1880) was an unlikely candidate for the mammoth translation and historical project that he undertook at mid-life. A paradigmatic Atlantic creole, he had for decades crossed borders, learned new languages and skills, enmeshed himself in diverse networks, and, always, adapted to his sundry beachheads around the Atlantic.  He migrated from County Cork in Ireland to medical school in 1820s Paris; to Lower Canada where he practiced medicine and turned journalist and politician in the 1830s, and then on to the Democratic political machine of New York and his major intellectual labor: translating and writing about the reams of Dutch documents from the colonial history of New Netherland, the short-lived Dutch colony along the Hudson River and current-day New York, which fell to the English in 1664. He has, mostly, been forgotten.

It is a seemingly cacophonous life. But a motif holds together each movement. O’Callaghan passed a childhood amid “The Liberator” Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic emancipation movement against British rule; observed university opposition to the policies of the Bourbon Restoration (under which his medical school was shuttered); and provided medical care to the impoverished community of newly arrived Irish immigrants in Quebec. Then and there, as the editor of The Irish Vindicator and partner with Canadian Patriote leader Louis-Joseph Papineau, he shifted to political activism in support of local autonomy within the British empire, an opposition that tenuously united Irish and Francophone Canadian interests. And, when the Lower Canada Rebellion of 1837 misfired, he fled across the border to New York. There, he encountered the Dutch colonial archive, in the faded margins of a national narrative based on the Anglo-American founding. It enthralled him, and he devoted years to re-centering it in the national epic. Throughout, he bore with him an anti-hegemonic disposition–especially to British power in the Atlantic–which sprouted in Ireland, matured in Paris, peaked as strident political opposition in Montreal, and transmuted to state-sponsored archival revisionism in New York.

In 1846 O’Callaghan released his first historical account, the History of New Netherland; or, New York under the Dutch.  It drew on Dutch-language records in Albany and would be followed by his sprawling New York state-sponsored translation and publication project of Dutch-language documents held in the state archive and gathered abroad. He lauded the virtues of these Dutch founders, and hoped to present them as the ideological forebears of the U.S.

To the North in New England, it met a chilly reception. In 1846, the North American Review—redoubt of elite New England letters—deflated O’Callaghan’s endeavor to elevate the Dutch record alongside New England’s founding story. The Review placed the work in contrast to another, wildly popular depiction of the Dutch colonial period: Washington Irving’s (1783-1859) History of New York, from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, published in 1809 under one of his pseudonyms, Diedrich Knickerbocker. It found that in O’Callaghan’s effort to counteract Irving’s “mock-heroic style,” he “errs, if possible, in going to the opposite extreme” –that is, he had gone overboard in praise of the Dutch (The North American Review, Vol. 62, No. 131 (April, 1846), 448). To the Review and many other readers, Irving’s work, if beyond belief at times, appeared eminently entertaining, informative enough, and in proportion to the Dutch presence in the continent’s past.

Diedrich Knickerbocker

Rendering of Diedrich Knickerbocker (1849)

In casting Dutch North America in this new light and receiving this riposte, O’Callaghan was writing into a decades-old debate about the place of New Netherland in the national narrative. Irving had fashioned the genre with his History, in which his fictive narrator performed as an affable, hapless, Dutch-descended chronicler of his city and state. For years, in New York, elsewhere in the U.S, and across the Atlantic, the book delighted audiences. Reprints ensued through the century. Though the early editions were burlesques in text rather than imagery, by the mid-1830s they were accompanied by a new sub-genre of Dutch-themed art, which was spurred by the book’s success.

In passing, here is one such image, the frontispiece to the 1836 edition, which will echo in a moment:

Dutch and natives

The point of humor here, including the physical and sartorial features ascribed to the Dutch, is clear enough. It is easy to imagine how those proud of their Dutch descent grimaced at the caricature. The analogy struck between the two Dutch and two Indian figures is more suggestive, though. The downward diagonal composition from Dutch to Indian (likely Mohawk fur traders from the west of New Netherland, on whom the Dutch depended) signals their perceived power dynamic. But all four figures are held tightly together, their placement and pipe-smoking mirror images, and their dependence on commercial transaction the fulcrum of the scene.

GCVerplanck portrait, 1855-1865

Gulian Crommelin Verplanck

Amid the widespread praise of young Irving’s work, one contrary assessment reverberated strongest. Gulian Crommelin Verplanck’s name implies the genealogy that connected him to New Netherland’s founding generation. He was a long-time New York politician and generally busy civic figure. In December 1818, he addressed the New York Historical Society, then still a stumbling, underfunded institution, where he was an active member. After a sweeping comparative survey of European states and their respective colonial projects in the Americas, he paused toward the end to note the special accomplishments—and then, more importantly, the troubled historical legacy—of the United Provinces and their North American colony, New Netherland. “These remarks,” he began, “ought to have been wholly unnecessary in this place; but I know not whence it is, that we in this country have imbibed much of the English habit of arrogance and injustice towards the Dutch character.” If ambivalent about the root cause of the anti-Dutch sentiment he perceived in the U.S., he did have a more proximate culprit in mind.

It is more ‘in sorrow than in anger’ that I feel myself compelled to add to these gross instances of national injustice, a recent work of a writer of our own, who is justly considered one of the brightest ornaments of American literature. I allude to the burlesque history of New-York, in which it is painful to see a mind, as admirable for its exquisite perception of the beautiful, as it is for its quick sense of the ridiculous, wasting the riches of its fancy on an ungrateful theme, and its exuberant humour in a coarse caricature. This writer has not yet fulfilled all the promise he has given to his country [Collections of the New-York Historical Society for the Year 1821, volume III (New York, 1821), 41-124, emphasis added].

Verplanck’s speech was published in 1821 in the Collections of the New York History Society, which was then sent to members and peer institutions throughout the U.S., parts of Europe, as well as Latin America. In this passage, then, we observe an important civic institution calling out Irving, a roving New Yorker, then living his long expatriation in London. His famous Sketch-Book had just been published to considerable acclaim, and more than any U.S. writer in these years, he embodied American identity before European audiences. From Verplanck’s vantage point, Irving had triply sinned, remaining subservient to British anti-Dutch prejudices, squandering his talent on this fanciful topic, and failing to live up to what his country expected. A pivotal chapter in the state’s history had been shunted outside the bounds of national history and would need to be properly inscribed within it.

Over the ensuing decades, the State of New York and the New York Historical Society worked in tandem to refurbish the colonial archive of New York, in part to outdistance the long shadow cast by Irving. In addition to proper translations of the records held in the state house at Albany, they believed that the grand narrative of its state depended on a mission to collect documents relating to the colonial history of New York, led by the young New York lawyer John Romeyn Brodhead between 1841 and 1844 in Holland, London, and Paris. The goal, as announced at the New York Historical Society, was to bring this past into

the limits of well-attested history, [which] at once dissipates the enchantments of fiction; and we are not permitted, like the nations of ancient Europe, to deduce our lineage from super-human beings…It is a sufficient honour to be able to appeal to the simple and sever records of truth (Chancellor Kent’s Discourse, Proceedings of the New York Historical Society (New York, 1844), 12).

What would amount to a $12,000-project was animated at its core by a sense of archival deficiency—that the colonial history of the state could not be properly told, that certain records belonged there, and that a comprehensive documentary past could be reassembled. The Dutch record was especially deficient, with just fragments moldering in Albany, and the rest across the ocean in Dutch archives. Brodhead returned in 1844 with 80 volumes of records, most culled from London, and the remainder drawn from Holland and France.

O’Callaghan both wrote into this longer tension about the Dutch colonial period and publicized this newly accessible archive for a national audience. The tension around writing the history of New Netherland for two centuries–from Verplanck to more recent studies of Dutch America–has been presented in terms of proportionality: has the Dutch role in the American narrative been adequately represented or not? Is our depiction of it in proportion to its historical reality? But O’Callaghan encountered a deeper impediment: not only were the Dutch illegible or underrepresented in the national narrative, but that they had been relegated to prefatory remarks as a people fated to fade. (In Firsting and Lasting, Jean O’Brien analyzes the practice of reducing American Indians to a preface to the nation’s history during this period.)

To return to the North American Review’s take on O’Callaghan’s History, while he documented the Dutch colonists’ industry and sobriety, the review fingered instead their fatal sin of “rapacity.” This, it countered, led to New Netherland’s demise at the hands of the English. For, unlike New Englanders, the review showed, the Dutch tore resources (the furs, above) from the land, but did not improve it. Within an early U.S. worldview, this placed them closer to the indolent Indian than to the productive English colonizer of New England. It almost included them in the trope of the vanishing American Indian. Just as the Indian was fated by its very nature, it seemed, to disappear from the American landscape, so too could this depiction of the Dutch help to normalize their fading from national story. Meanwhile, this trope could stress the preeminence of a national story that traced the emergence of Anglo-American communities to the north in New England. Judith Richardson has written compellingly about the “ghosting” of the Hudson River Valley, notably in Irving’s tales of “Rip van Winkle” and “Sleepy Hollow”, in that both American Indians and Dutch-descended inhabitants take on a spectral, otherworldly quality. In this review, we see a similar elision between indigenous and Dutch, not in terms of their aesthetic or ontological qualities. Instead, they are kindred in a type of antiquated, extractive labor that could not persist in the westward arc of American empire.

Not to stress this analogy too much, or to detect a clear genealogy between these two images (John Otto Lewis‘s 1835 Indian portrait, left, and John Quidor’s rendering of Rip van Winkle‘s degenerated son, 1849, right), but these visualizations of Indian and Dutch figures rhyme, each cast at the inactive margins of history and the nation.

The author emphasizes this link between pasts and present by closing with a comment on the Oregon boundary dispute with Great Britain, which would soon settle competing land ownership claims in the Pacific Northwest. This ongoing geopolitical question is a seeming non sequitur; but it in effect leverages the historical rationale for New Netherland’s decline and New England’s success to tell a larger story about the continent:

Should the negotiation upon this subject long continue open, the same result can scarcely fail to happen in that territory which took place two centuries since in New England. The tiller of the soil will drive out the hunter.

The tiller of the soil will drive out the hunter: By this, he meant the inevitable triumph of Anglo-American settlers over the continent, as well as over those lesser peoples who only extracted wealth from but could not improve upon it.  O’Callaghan, Irish expatriate and resistant leader, worked for years to inscribe the Dutch on the first page of the nation’s history. The effort mobilized considerable resources from his state and an array of its elite political and literary figures to build a Dutch archive that could help to elevate the state’s place within the national historical narrative. But this encounter with the New England literary establishment reveals the terms on which access could be granted and refused.


Balloons, Dreams, and the Spectral Arctic after the Franklin Expedition

By Contributing Writer Shane McCorristine. See Shane’s book-length study around this topic, The Spectral Arctic (2018).

For centuries British explorers and their audiences imagined the Arctic as a place of magic and mystery, an otherworldly environment where ships and men could vanish beneath the enchanting rays of the Aurora Borealis. This Arctic imagination went beyond aesthetics: notions of a spectral Arctic inspired people to develop new relations to the region, through practices such as consulting psychics, reporting strange dreams, and engaging with Inuit shamans in the field.


Poster offering a reward for help in finding the lost expedition

At the center of this story is the disappearance of Sir John Franklin’s Northwest Passage expedition. In 1818 the British Admiralty rebooted the early modern quest to explore and map what is now the Canadian Arctic, in order to discover a maritime shortcut to Asia. After several failed attempts, in 1845 Franklin was headhunted to lead 128 officers and crew into the Arctic ice onboard the restructured bomb vessels HMS Erebus and Terror. In their second winter, the ships became locked in the ice near King William Island and after dozens of deaths (including that of Franklin) in April 1848 the survivors abandoned the ships and launched the first of several doomed attempts to reach the Canadian mainland.

The disappearance of the expedition, a loss perhaps comparable to the recent MH370 plane disaster, sent shock waves through Victorian Britain, inspiring an outpouring of gothic speculations on the mystery and causing the Admiralty to downsize its subsequent polar expeditions. Early search and rescue attempts by the Admiralty and other polar experts came to nothing, and this created a powerful information vacuum.

Ordinary people in Britain quickly seized the opportunity to speculate wildly, and in 1854 revelations about cannibalism among the starving survivors led to further dark imaginings. Through media such as panorama shows, ghost stories, letters to newspapers, seances, and dreams, people felt they could intervene in the mystery, creating new ways to connect with the Arctic. The Frozen Deep, a play written in 1856 by Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens, emerged from this confluence of Arctic exploration, popular culture, and supernatural experience. This was a democratisation of the culture of Arctic exploration and a challenge to the long-held authority of the Admiralty over the region.


Chart of a vision experienced by the explorer and mystic William Parker Snow (Skewes, 1890).

A good example of this can be seen in an anonymous letter sent by a “Humble and true dreamer” to Jane Franklin, wife of the explorer, in 1850. In it the correspondent detailed a “remarkable dream” they had of two “Air Bloon’s” in the Arctic, one which was destroyed and another which “stands well” among the inhabitants of the region – a providential sign, the correspondent believed, that Franklin would return to Britain soon on his ship (Polar Archives, Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, SPRI, MS 248/335; D). This link between dreaming, ballooning, and the Arctic is worth exploring further because it demonstrates how a spectral Arctic imagination was expanding the relationship between ordinary people and a region that was previously only accessible to Admiralty explorers.

By the time of the Franklin expedition aeronautics had caught the public imagination, appealing to scientists, dare-devils, monarchs, and the massive crowds that paid to attend ballooning spectacles and experiments. The balloon was attractive by virtue of its novelty, danger, and potential, but it also highlighted the links between air, emotions, and mobility. As things which affected, and were profoundly affected by, atmospheres, balloons confused the boundaries between materiality and immateriality, between technology and dreams (McCormack, 2010).

In the context of Arctic exploration, ballooning has mostly been associated with the Swedish expedition led by Salomon August Andrée in 1897. In July of that year Andrée and his two companions left Danskøya, northwest of Spitsbergen, in the hydrogen balloon Svea on a voyage towards the North Pole. Andrée’s expedition vanished without a trace until 1930 when passing sealers discovered the remains of their bodies and final camp on the island of Kvitøya in the Svalbard archipelago.


“Salomon Andrée’s balloon takes off from Danes Island”

Andrée’s balloon expedition became a gathering point for dreams and fantasies as rumors circulated, untethered, around the disappeared object. Indeed, barely two weeks after Andrée’s departure, reports reached Britain of a “Parisian prophetess” who had followed the balloon expedition “in spirit” to the North Pole. There she discovered that it was not made up of “ice and perpetual snow, but of luxuriant grass and umbrageous trees” (The Aberdeen Journal, July 22, 1897).

However, Andrée was not the first to propose using balloons to navigate the Arctic regions that naval and land-based expeditions found so difficult to traverse, nor was his expedition original in taking to the air. In fact it was the disappearance of the Franklin expedition decades earlier that activated aerial fantasies of exploration.

ILN balloon

“Mr. Green’s Signal Balloon, Dispatches, and Parachute for the Arctic Expedition”, Illustrated London News, May 11, 1850.

After finding no sign of Franklin through land and naval expeditions, in the early 1850s officials in the Admiralty began experimenting with aerial means of search and rescue. Rockets and kites launched from ships in the Arctic were not very successful, but the Admiralty placed more hope in a newly designed messenger balloon – an apparatus made of oiled silk and filled with hydrogen. The balloon’s basket contained a slow-match that would, after a launch from a ship, cause a gradual scattering of hundreds of colored pieces of paper and silk on the ice for hundreds of miles, giving lost explorers details of rescue ships in the vicinity. In practice the furthest distance these papers were found from a ship was only 50 miles.

This was a period of “ballooning mania” in Britain and the mystery of the Franklin expedition started to attract aeronauts who vied for attention from the general public and the Admiralty. In October 1849 Lieutenant G.B. Gale wrote to Jane Franklin volunteering to voyage by balloon in search for her husband’s expedition. Gale’s proposal was to ascend from an expedition ship in his balloon where, if he gained a height of two miles, a “panorama of at least 1,200 miles would be placed within observation”. Gale’s idea received a mixed reception in the press. The Era balanced its ribbing of this “‘Columbus of the skies’” with an admission that it could be of great benefit (The Era, October 28, 1849). A rather more scathing riposte came from Punch which, predictably, could not resist lampooning the aeronaut’s unfortunately appropriate surname:

Imagination forms icicles on the tips of our nose as we figure to ourselves the daring GALE ‘blow high, blow low’, with the thermometer 15 degrees below zero, his gas contracted, his balloon congested into a flying iceberg, or like the head of an airy giant with his night-cap on, while the poor frozen out aeronaut surveys his brandy-bottle solidified into a mass of ice à la Cognac, and his cold fowls too cold for his knife to penetrate them. The mere picture throws us into a chilly pickle; and we trust GALE, for his own sake, will not be able to raise the wind for so absurd a purpose (Punch, 1849)

Yet as affectual forces traveled back and forth from the Arctic, balloons actually did allow people to think with the Franklin expedition, in terms of their ability to “balloon back” with news. Around this time it was reported that a woman in a mesmeric trance claimed to have “ascended in a balloon, and proceeded to the North Pole in search of Sir John Franklin”. The woman found Franklin alive and well “and her description of his appearance and that of his companions was given with an inimitable expression of pity” (Carpenter, Quarterly Review, 1853).

As with clairvoyantes, balloons drew the Arctic and Britain into new spatial relationships because they enacted an aerial subjectivity that was untethered by the Franklin disappearance. As a metaphor for a geography of the spectral Arctic, balloons unsettled the “where” of the Arctic, activating techniques and technologies of what McCormack calls “remote sensing”, a geographical practice that is also spectral in that it “is always remote yet always potentially sensed as a felt variation in a field of affective materials” (2010).

Dreams of polar flight did not decline with the passage of time and shift to a different geographic quest. During the preparations for his final North Pole expedition (1908-9), Robert Peary received a flood of “‘crank’” letters from members of the public offering unsolicited advice and counsel, and “flying machines occupied a high place on the list”. One inventor even gamely proposed that Peary play the part of a “‘human cannon ball’”: “He was so intent on getting me shot to the Pole”, Peary wrote, “that he seemed to be utterly careless of what happened to me in the process of landing there or how I should get back” (Peary, 1910).

Yet “crank” letters like this remind us that Arctic exploration could be performed in many ways. Now that the Northwest Passage had become a labyrinth crowded with cumbersome and bumbling search and rescue expeditions, movement through the Arctic was fantasized to be dreamlike and flighty.

From the throbbing silences of the Arctic diverse audiences sensed a multiplicity of voices which meant that Franklin was now circulating uncontrollably through strange dreams, rumors, mesmeric visions, and balloons. Through clairvoyance and mesmeric trances, women were suddenly a major part of these cultural productions of remote sensing, taking on the “Icarus” perspective that characterized so much of masculinist fantasies of actual polar exploration. As someone who was affected and affecting, Franklin went from being a contained explorer outside the world to a body that gathered together the heterogeneous thoughts, dreams, and emotions of unsolicited audiences and new international explorers. In all this, the otherworldly was worldly; dreams had a social history and were not sudden eruptions of the irrational.

Shane McCorristine is a lecturer in Modern British History at Newcastle University where he specializes in the cultural histories of exploration, death, and the supernatural. He graduated from University College Dublin in 2008 and then gained postdoctoral fellowships in Maynooth University, University of Cambridge, and University of Leicester. His website is and his new book (available in open access) is entitled The Spectral Arctic: A History of Ghosts and Dreams in Polar Exploration (UCL Press, 2018).  

Reappearing Ink

By Sandrine Bergès, Bilkent University. See her full article in this season’s Journal of the History of Ideas: Family, Gender, and Progress: Sophie de Grouchy and Her Exclusion in the Publication of Condorcet’s Sketch of Human Progress.

The late Eileen O’Neill once referred to women’s past contribution to philosophy as ‘disappearing ink’. What she meant was that however much they wrote, no how matter how insightful their analyses or how powerful their arguments, by the nineteenth century women philosophers had all but disappeared from historical accounts of the discipline.

And then slowly, progressively, thanks to historians of philosophy such as O’Neill, the ink reappeared. Volumes were edited about women philosophers, monographs focused on their contributions to a particular topic, and it’s no longer such a surprise to read a journal article about a woman philosopher of the past (more frequently in some journals than in others).

Sometimes what helped women’s reinsertion into the history of philosophy was their close association with famous men. So as interest in Newton grew, Emilie du Chatelet’s works were rediscovered. And Cartesian scholars came to ask themselves why he put such work into his correspondence with the Bohemian princess, Elizabeth. Other times such associations resulted in the woman philosopher being pushed further back into obscurity. This is what happened to Sophie de Grouchy, marquise de Condorcet (1764-1822).

Sophie de Grouchy was an aristocrat who aligned herself with the republican party of the Girondins during the revolution, translating works by Thomas Paine, and writing political pieces of her own and together with her husband, Nicolas de Condorcet. Although most of her writings are lost, she did leave one significant work of philosophy, the Letters on Sympathy. This work was published in 1798, together with Grouchy’s translation of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiment. The Letters were a commentary on that work. There is a forthcoming translation by Berges and Schliesser, and a simplified translation is included here.

Grouchy’s education was fairly conventional for her time, class, and sex. She learned Latin, English, and some German by muscling in on her brothers’ private classes. One aspect of her education she recalls as most important were the charity visits she made with her mother and sister: learning how to recognize suffering, helping to relieve it, and generally learning to value the well-being of others. At the age of eighteen she was sent to an exclusive convent finishing school. There she practiced her languages and put them to good use translating works from the English and the Italian – all fashionably political works, such as Arthur Young’s Tour of Ireland and Tasso’s Jerusalem. She also read, discovering Voltaire, Diderot, and especially Rousseau. She lost her religion, but her early training in Christian charity–with her mother showing her how good it felt to relieve others’ trouble–blended together with her new readings and turned her towards social justice.

Through her readings, Grouchy became a republican. She was not yet concerned with the question of how the administration of France – although she later became in favor, like her husband, of representational, rather than direct democracy.  Her focus at that time was with eradicating the psychological distance between the rich and the poor, wanting everyone to be a citizen, not a subject, and no one so rich or powerful that they could become a tyrant. This is reflected in the Letters on Sympathy, where her political discussion is primarily one about the psychological effects of tyranny on the flourishing of the population.

By the time Grouchy met Condorcet, they already had much in common, both being republicans and atheists. They married in 1786 and moved into Condorcet’s apartments in the Hotel des Monnaies, where Condorcet worked as the Inspector General of the Mint, under the economist Turgot. There the couple set up a salon which, thanks to Grouchy’s excellent English, became the house of choice for foreign visitors such as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Anarchasis Cloots, and the Swiss Etienne Dumont – speechwriter for Mirabeau and editor/translator for Jeremy Bentham. Cabanis, who later married Sophie’s sister, Charlotte, was a frequent attendant.

At the start of the Revolution, the Condorcets became associated with the Girondins. They frequented the salon of Madame Helvetius, in Auteuil, where republican ideas were being debated, and Brissot’s anti-slavery club (of which Condorcet and Olympe de Gouges were members) was founded. By 1791, Grouchy and Condorcet were among the strongest advocates of the republican movement, working with Thomas Paine, Jean-Pierre Brissot, Etienne Dumont and Achilles Duchatellet, on Le Républicain, a newspaper that would disseminate republican thought in France. Grouchy contributed at least two anonymous pieces to that journal, both offering powerful republican arguments against preserving monarchy, which drew on the moral psychology she develops in her Letters on Sympathybut until recently, little effort had been made to attribute them.

In 1793, the Girondins fell out of favor and Condorcet had to go into hiding. He stayed in Paris while Sophie moved to the suburb of Auteuil with her daughter, travelling to the Capital on foot twice a week to visit her husband and to paint portraits in a studio she had rented on the rue St Honoré.

While in hiding, Condorcet started to write an apology (Justification) which was meant to explain and justify his role in the revolution and show that he had been wronged by his persecutors, the Jacobins. Grouchy, sensing that this work would be of little value philosophically or personally, urged him to give it up, and instead to turn back to a work of encyclopedic nature that he had begun several decades before: a history of the progress of human nature. This work, divided into ten periods, was to discuss human evolution with a special emphasis on perfectionism, and a running argument on how this was affected by freedom and tyranny, science, religion, philosophy, and technology (in particular the printing press). Grouchy worked with Condorcet, encouraging him, bringing him notes and readings (he had taken very little with him when he went into hiding). Although we do not have any hard evidence that they wrote together, it seems likely that some of the passages in particular are hers, and that others are the product of a collaboration between husband and wife. We do not have a final manuscript that corresponds to the first edition by Grouchy, which suggests that she added some paragraphs herself. Several of the differences concern women and the place of the family in human progress. Perhaps these were ideas she and Condorcet had discussed and that she knew he wanted included. Perhaps these were points she had suggested to him in their discussions.

In March 1794, Condorcet ran away from his hiding place in order to avoid getting his hostess arrested. He died a few days later in a village prison, but was not identified until several months after his death, such that his wife remained ignorant of his whereabouts. When several months later his remains were identified, the Convention commissioned three thousand copies of his new book, Esquisse d’un Tableau des Progrès de l’Esprit Humain from Pierre Daunou. Sophie de Grouchy prepared the edition and it was published in 1795. This edition was reprinted and revised at least twice by Grouchy (alone and with collaborators in 1802 and 1822), and it was translated into English the year it was first published.

In 1847, the Académicien François Arago, noted that the 1795 edition contained passages which were absent from Condorcet’s final manuscript. He produced a new edition with extensive revisions, which, he said, was closer to the original manuscript which he’d obtained from Grouchy and Condorcet’s daughter, Eliza O’Connor, and which he thought more accurate because in Condorcet’s hand. Arago’s edition is now regarded as authoritative. Not only was Grouchy’s name deleted from the work – where it did belong, perhaps as co-author and at the very least editor – but with it the emphasis she had placed on the role of women and the family in human development.

The problem with invisible ink, is that in order to make it appear by dousing it with lemon juice, you need to know that it’s there. But the ways in which women’s contributions have been erased make it very difficult to know where to look. Had Arago not deleted it, Grouchy’s name might not have become famous immediately – we would still have needed to investigate in order to recover her anonymous writings for Le Républicain, and even her Letters on Sympathy, but her name on Condorcet’s Sketch would have at least alerted us that there was a woman philosopher whose works might need recovering.

Sandrine Berges ( obtained her Ph.D. in  Leeds in 2000 and is Associate Professor in Philosophy at Bilkent University in Ankara. 

She works on the history of moral and political philosophy, with an emphasis on women’s writings. She is currently writing about three women of the French Revolution: Olympe de Gouges, Manon Roland and Sophie de Grouchy. She blogs about it here.

She is the co-founder of the Turkish-European Network for  the Study of Women Philosophers and of SWIP-TR.

Summer Reading: Part III


Leonardo Da Vinci, taccuino forster III, 1490 ca.

Here is the third installment of some of the books that the Blog’s editors have lined up for summer. From art history to critical theory, from fiction to poetry, we’ve got you covered if you’re looking for something to pick up during the academic off season.


Aside from my research-related and departmental work, my summer list is a bit wide-ranging, owing to the fact that it’s also basically a stack of books that have been set aside for when I had the time. Either way, I’m very excited about all of them. I’d love to hear your thoughts if and when you get to one of the books below!

The Drama of Social Life, Jeffrey Alexander: I studied under Alexander while I was at Yale and his theoretical approach has had a profound impact on my thinking, so I’ve been excited to get around to reading his latest for a while now. In it, he combines elements from dramaturgy and social theory to explore the central role “cultural pragmatics” plays in the political possibilities of social life. Gary Fine, a professor at Northwestern, said the book is one that “demand(s) to be read and discussed”.

Finding Mecca in America, Mucahit Bilici: What does Islam look like in the United States? Bilici draws from Simmel and Heidegger and develops a novel approach examining the gradual process by which American Muslims have navigated the journey from social periphery to citizenship. I’ve been meaning to get to this book for too long and have heard nothing but wonderful things from a wide variety of people.

Islam Translated, Ronit Ricci: Another book that’s haunted my shelf for longer than I’d like, Islam Translated explores the translation of the Book of One Thousand Questions into various Southeast Asian languages as a means of investigating the connections between Muslims in different contexts. It is, by all accounts, beautifully written, novel, and insightful. And given my area of study, probably critical.

The Ticket that Exploded, William S. Burroughs: I’ve never actually ready Burroughs’ prose before, but this book in particular has quite the reputation. The first of three novels that he wrote using the cut-up technique, it’s evidently mind-bending, dark, and enthralling. Personally, I’ve found that my brain works best when it sits with genius in fields far from my own. And that is certainly an apt description of Burroughs.


My recommendations come from the vantage point of the southern hemisphere, where we’re heading into the winter break and thus academic conference season. Consequently my reading time will be snatched in broken fragments from ‘plane flights and train journeys. It is fitting then that my list begins with Zone, a 2015 collection of some of Guillaume Apollinaire’s poetry and a book that can be read all at once or dipped into for a page here or there. Each poem is printed first in French and followed by an English version translated by Ron Padgett. Padgett is himself an accomplished poet and his talents as a wordsmith shine through in these translations. The result is a beautiful collection that showcases the richness and potentiality of both languages.

Earlier in the year I picked up a copy of Nobel Prize Winner Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II. As the title suggests, the book brings together hundreds of interviews conducted by Alexievich with Russian women about their experiences during the War. The result is a compelling and immersive history of the Second World War and a testament to how that war shaped the lives of the Russian women who survived it. It certainly gave me a great deal to contemplate as I embark upon a new research project that entails working with oral histories. Alexievich is definitely a master of the genre. She is probably best known for her sensitive rendering of the human cost of the Chernobyl catastrophe, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, through the eyewitness accounts of hundreds of survivors. If you enjoyed that, I guarantee The Unwomanly Face of War will also appeal. If you haven’t read Voices, then you should add that to your summer reading list too!

And finally, I cannot wait to read Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”. The book is the story of Cudjo Lewis, born Oluale Kossola, one of the last slaves brought to America. Kossola was brought across the Atlantic to Alabama from Dahomey (present day Benin) on the Clotilda in 1860, half a century after the slave trade was officially abolished. Hurston, studying to be an anthropologist, conducted a series of interviews with him in the late 1920s. By then, Kossola was the last living survivor of the middle passage crossing. The conversations between Hurston and Kossola are at the heart of Barracoon which Hurston wrote in the early 1930s. She took great pains to relate the cadence and form of Kossola’s storytelling in the book, capturing the African Creole of his speech patterns. This choice is, in part, why Barracoon has just been published for the first time. Publishers declined to take on her manuscript unless she ‘anglicized’ Kossola’s speech. Hurston defiantly refused. As a result, the manuscript languished in the archives for decades, read only by select historians who came across it in a private collection at Howard University.





Reading (with) Wollstonecraft

By Fiore Sireci. See the full companion article, “‘Writers Who Have Rendered Women Objects of Pity’: Mary Wollstonecraft’s Literary Criticism in the Analytical Review and A Vindication of the Rights of Womanin this season’s Journal of the History of Ideas.

How did Mary Wollstonecraft, the “mother of modern feminism,” spend her days in the year leading up to the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)? Her reading audience had little clue about the private Wollstonecraft until she died just 5 ½ years later. At that point, her widower William Godwin pulled back the curtain on a life that Wollstonecraft had carefully kept from view while she built up an impressive public image. They were transfixed (and mostly scandalized) by the complexity, drama, and heartbreak of her story, but much of that drama and heartbreak happened after the publication of Rights of Woman. Nevertheless, Godwin’s Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798) set up a pattern that continued for nearly two centuries: a focus on her emotional journey rather than on her work life.[1] I’d like to ask the question anew and look at the Wollstonecraft of 1791, the Wollstonecraft who had a professional life as a well-established literary commentator, and see if this opens new perspectives on her most famous work.[2]

During her lifetime–before she was known as the reckless Wollstonecraft who had a child out of wedlock (1794), or the desperate Wollstonecraft who twice attempted suicide (1795), and even the political Wollstonecraft who wrote two Vindications–she was already well-respected as an anthologist, educator, translator, and as a very active reviewer of books, for which she was paid well. Due to the irreplaceable spade work of Ralph Wardle, and scholars such as Janet Todd, we now have a good idea of which of the many anonymous and semi-anonymous reviews in the liberal Analytical Review can be attributed to Wollstonecraft. By the time she wrote Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft had penned well over 200 of these, and by her death at age 38, over 350.


Wollstonecraft’s reviews are not merely a distant accompaniment to her ideas in Rights of Woman, or as some have suggested, a rehearsal of the “tart” language in her most famous book. Her professional practice helped shape Rights of Woman in both style and substance. Her primary argument, and innovation, is that gender is shaped by culture, but that argument is primarily activated by critiques of well-known texts, and those critiques are in turn the fruit of a long period of intellectual gestation as a literary commentator and theorist.[3] One of the most prevalent approaches was one that has frequently been used on Wollstonecraft herself, that is, to see the text as symptom, but she and her contemporaries did not do this blindly. They also undertook comparative analyses of passages within and between texts, looking for threads of sympathy, intellectual and otherwise. Wollstonecraft built on this practice and in Rights of Woman she presented evidence, in the form of “illustrations,” to demonstrate that text was a powerful factor in the social construction of gender.

Eighteenth-century literary critics also mastered the rhetorical art of casting themselves as characters with powerful feelings, and it was through these carefully crafted public selves that they hoped to sweep their readers along to agree with their points of view on anything from politics to how raise children. This was the heyday of emotionally embodied literary criticism. In non-fiction there was Addison’s easy coffee-club manner in the Spectator (early 1711-1714), Samuel Johnson’s cantankerous wisdom in his Rambler essays (1750-1752), and Clara Reeves’ wise literary woman in The Progress of Romance (1785). In fiction, we can consider Charlotte Lenox’ Female Quixote (1752) as well as the youthful Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (completed 1803). The reader-as-character was ubiquitous because reading itself was an issue of great concern and anxiety in an age when, as Jürgen Habermas has shown, the “literary public sphere” was where political change originated. Mary Wollstonecraft fully participated in this literary culture, presenting critical and profoundly thoughtful selves in both fictional and non-fictional genres (sorry for the somewhat anachronistic categories). In other words, the virtual Wollstonecraft was constructed over a number of years and in many different genres. She is: the brassy and empathic governess in Original Stories (1788, illustrated by William Blake), the judicious editor of readings for young women in The Female Reader (1789, contested attribution), and the righteous female republican in A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), but her most frequent appearance was as the sharp-witted, discerning, and often merciless book reviewer in Joseph Johnson’s monthly publication, the Analytical Review.

The demonstrative reader-writers of Wollstonecraft’s time sometimes resisted texts and other cultural forces, and sometimes dramatically gave in. In Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), the anti-revolutionary and increasingly conservative MP Edmund Burke recalls being moved to tears at seeing the young, graceful, royal figure of Marie Antoinette, so light, so ethereal her feet barely touched this corrupt “orb” of our earth. In her response, Wollstonecraft immediately recognized this fawning sentimental gesture as a familiar and potent literary move. But knowing that Burke was also an active reviewer (and founder of the Annual Register), as well as the youthful author of a treatise on the very topic of susceptibility to aesthetic stimuli, On the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Wollstonecraft’s analysis of Burke traces the deep philosophical roots of his position, and in doing so her political argument is activated through cultural and literary criticism.[4]

Wollstonecraft’s extensive focus on books in her second Vindication was an extension of her approach in her first Vindication. Again, chronology illuminates. Rights of Men was completed in late 1790 and the second edition was published in early 1791. In the last section, Wollstonecraft promises a continuation and expansion of her literary approach:

And now I find it almost impossible candidly to refute your sophisms, without quoting your own words, and putting the numerous contradictions I observed in opposition to each other.

Rights of Woman was begun within weeks of this statement, if not earlier, and the first in depth critique in the book, which Susan Wolfson has dubbed “the genesis of feminist literary criticism,” features extensive quoting of John Milton and juxtaposition of passages from Paradise Lost. She does the same with Rousseau and many other writers throughout the book. Could it be, though, that Wollstonecraft had been pondering her great Vindication even before 1791, her thoughts on books nursed over the course of her experiences as a governess in Ireland, a founder of a girls’ school in the Dissenters’ community of Newington Green, and her job reading reams and reams of print since 1789?

In any event, between February and November of 1791, when it seems Rights of Woman was completed, Wollstonecraft had written another four or five dozen reviews. Some of these reviews picked up and extended the concerns of her growing literary critical practice, especially when she takes a good hard look at Rousseau’s Confessions, where she’s harder on her fellow critics than on Rousseau himself: “[T]hough we must allow that he had many faults which called for the forbearance of his friends, still what have his defects of temper to do with his writings?” This was written in December of 1791 when Rights of Woman was being typeset, a crucial fact when we juxtapose this statement with Wollstonecraft’s dismantling of Rousseau and other influential male writers in her treatise, sometimes accompanied by breathtaking ad hominem.

Speculations on the emotional state of an author are found throughout Rights of Woman. However, Wollstonecraft also takes a step back and questions the interpretive theory itself, as in this statement from Chapter 5: “But peace to his manes! I war not with his ashes, but his opinions,” and this is followed by another extraordinary implication: “I war only with the sensibility that led him to degrade woman by making her the slave of love.” In other words, she characterizes Jean-Jacques as himself subject to cultural and psychological pressures. The great man as vulnerable weather vane of culture appears again here: “Rousseau’s observations, it is proper to remark, were made in a country where the art of pleasing was refined only to extract grossness of vice,” in Chapter 5. Milton is also subject to a psychological reading. In Chapter 2, Wollstonecraft’s juxtaposition of allegedly contradictory passages from Paradise Lost is meant to reveal the emotional instability that can beset even the most respected writers. Wollstonecraft explains that, “into similar inconsistencies are great men often led by their senses.” Wollstonecraft places the most influential writers in the role that young women had been placed in for over a century, as hapless and indiscriminate readers sponging up cultural influences.

wollstonecraft advert

Wollstonecraft signals that a series of “fresh illustrations” structure the text

Rights of Woman presents an anti-canon of texts which had conspired over generations and across different societies to construct the feminine “character,” making the book a forensic treasure trove of gender normative evidence, annotated by an expert editor (and she had perhaps edited two anthologies by this time). In short, if we see A Vindication of the Rights of Woman as a continuation of her practice as a literary, political, and cultural commentator, then a new book comes into view, a book in which each text under consideration links to others, across genres and literary generations, as Wollstonecraft excavates a self-generating ideology of gender, or as she puts it so well: “The Prevailing Opinion of a Sexual Character Discussed.” The title of Chapter 2 is so perfect that she saw no need to give Chapter 3 a new title, calling it, “The Same Subject Continued.” In fact, these two chapters contain, by my quick count, at least 53 allusions, references, and quotations of influential texts, but not “influential” in the elitist sense. The primary criterion for inclusion is not how “great” a work is but how much of an effect it has had upon notions of femininity. In the midst of dismantling the work of an allegedly lascivious and condescending writer of conduct manuals, Wollstonecraft drops this hammer:

As these volumes are so frequently put into the hands of young people, I have taken more notice of them than, strictly speaking, they deserve; but as they have contributed to vitiate the taste, and enervate the understanding of many of my fellow-creatures, I could not pass them silently over.

We can look at Chapters 2 through 5 as a unit, one in which Wollstonecraft methodically works through a huge range of genres, generations, and authors. Chapter 5 itself is essentially a mini-anthology of five reviews, each covering a representative book or genre, and is the last chapter in the book to feature a rich interplay of texts. Chapter 6 is the proper and organic endpoint to the literary critical portion of the book, as it supplies a philosophical and physiological argument for the effect of texts upon impressionable minds. Again the title of the chapter says it so well: “The Effect which an Early Association of Ideas Has upon the Character,” apparently drawing on Joseph Hartley’s proto-psychological theories of how the mind is held in thrall by random ideas that group together and roam the mind in “posses” (which in turn come from a midcentury debate over John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding). In Chapter 6 in particular and in Rights of Woman in general, this analysis expands into a proto-feminist theory: “Everything that they see or hear serves to fix impressions, call forth emotions, and associate ideas, that give a sexual character to the mind,” and to pin part of the blame on books, she specifies that, “the books professedly written for their instruction, which make the first impression on their minds, all inculcate the same opinions.”

Wollstonecraft expands the view of the vulnerable recipients of gendered education to include male figures such as the great writers themselves, Milton, Rousseau, and “most of the male writers who have followed his steps.” Notions of gender identity don’t just turn young women’s heads, but also act upon authors, even quite established and otherwise judicious ones. That is why she saves her most biting epithets in Rights of Woman for writers, not readers, which constitutes a break from most of the reviews up to 1791. In conclusion, Rights of Woman is a brilliantly orchestrated set of literary commentaries. Who but a practicing educator, critic, and journalist could construct such a comprehensive anthology of texts which build an image of women’s “character” and back it up with pointed analysis of the authors she engages with? Who but a hardworking woman who spent her days earning a living by writing about books?


[1] To get an overview of the state of the art, it is worth a look at the Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, volume 4, but for women’s literary criticism of the long eighteenth century there is the gem, Women Critics, 1660-1820 (1995).

[2] One of the best treatments of the literary nature of Wollstonecraft’s first Vindication is still the brilliant and useful book by Virginia Sapiro, A Vindication of Political Virtue: The Political Theory of Mary Wollstonecraft (1992).

[3] A very notable exception was Emma Clough’s A Study of Mary Wollstonecraft and the Rights of Woman from 1898 (the work of one of the first female doctoral students in the United States).

[4] I am very much indebted to Virginia Sapiro, Mitzi Myers, Caroline Franklin, Mary Waters, Susan Wolfson,Daniel O’Neill, many others who have brought Wollstonecraft’s work as a professional reviewer further into the light.


Fiore Sireci (PhD Edinburgh) is on the faculty of Hunter College (CUNY) and The New School for Public Engagement, where he teaches interdisciplinary courses in literature, philosophy, and social history. Professor Sireci is a former Fulbright scholar in literature pedagogy. He has recently presented at the American Academy in Rome, publishes regularly on Mary Wollstonecraft, and is completing his second book, After Italy, a memoir and local history.

Summer Reading: Part II



Oil on Canvas, Lombard School, c.1700.

Here is the second installment of some of the books that the Blog’s editors have lined up for summer. From art history to critical theory, from fiction to poetry, we’ve got you covered if you’re looking for something to pick up during the academic off season. Look out next weekend for the third & final installment!


It seems that every other book I pick up about the contemporary political scene, especially those like Melinda Cooper’s Family Values attempting to develop a conceptual framework for the intersection of neoliberalism and social conservatism, draws in a fundamental way on Wendy Brown’s States of Injury. The book is now more than twenty years old and I should have read it long ago, so a goal for the summer is to sit down with it and also Brown’s more recent work.  

Another scholarly monument I hope to move out of the “ought already to have read” category is Istvan Hont’s Jealousy of Trade. For different reasons, this is a summer of doing Enlightenment reading for me, and Hont fits into this. I am particularly interested again for contemporary reasons in getting to think a bit differently about nation-states and their historical functions and reasons.

I’ve started the summer returning to George Eliot. Middlemarch is perhaps the first (capital L) Literary novel I picked up on my own as a teenager and was really swept up by. Now I am part way through Adam Bede, and am reading this novel—featuring Methodists and skilled craftsmen—with much more E.P. Thompson in the back of my head than I had as a younger person. It is delightful, although the human sympathy with which Eliot approaches so many of her characters takes on a different hue when, after all, it is not given to all of the characters.



I finished (and passed!) my qualifying exams three weeks ago. On the shelf above my desk is a skyscraper of paperbacks looking down at me as a Cheshire Cat would beckoning me to give into temptation, and now I surrender.  My reading list for the summer, thus, draws from this tower of books as I try to explore the themes of memory, experience, violence and the criminal underworld for my own dissertation.

In Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory (2015) the narrator reveals how writing and recollection interact and produce non-linear snapshots as her own life as it is held in the balance of the Zimbabwean legal system. The narrator, playfully named Memory, is an albino woman in the Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare. She is convicted of the murder of Lloyd Hendricks, a wealthy white professor. As she waits for the results of her appeal Memory is asked to write her own story from the townships to the suburbs of Harare. Gappah’s book intersects with Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak Memory (1951) who also tried to capture, like his butterflies in a net, remembrances of a life not yet completed.

I return to D.M. Thomas’s White Hotel (1981) that I had read years ago for a history course. I recall the horror that my fellow students viscerally experienced, not due to the violence in the book, but the erotic sexual fantasies of the main character, Anna G. The book is divided into three parts beginning in 1919. Anna G. presents herself to Freud as suffering from hysteria. Ultimately his analysis of her judges Anna G. as an unreliable narrator of her own past. He is unable to see that she is actually envisioning her own future, the Holocaust. Thomas presents a blistering analysis of the 20th century as he weaves scientific case history and fantasy to locate the individual within the contingency of historical fate. These themes resonate in Juliane Okot Bitek’s 100 Days (2016). This book of poetry brings the reader through the towns and villages in Rwanda, as the world looked on helpless and in shock, as a televised genocide took place.

Journalist Martin Dillon explores the “Troubles” (1960s-1990s) in Northern Ireland in The Dirty War (1990).  The author describes the ideology and the methods of the British security forces to infiltrate, destabilize and destroy the Provo’s (Provisional Irish Republican Army). The reality of imprisonment, torture, blackmail are also imprinted on Abdelilah Hamdouchi novel echoing the underworld of Dillon’s in Whitefly. A crime novel about drug dealers, traffickers and smugglers in Morocco offers an insight into police culture in a post-colonial space. My desire to understand the everydayness of violence brings me to Anne Nivat’s treatment of the Russian war with Chechnya in Chienne de Guerre: A Woman Reporter Behind the Lines of the War in Chechnya (2009). In 1999 she travelled illegally into the war zone by disguising herself as a Chechen woman. For six months she moved amongst the protagonists and some antagonists to listen to their experiences. Her ethnographic-style of journalism records the confusion, loss and disruption for Chechens as they became foreigners within their own homeland.

Fouad Laroui The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers (2016) takes up the task of the realities of what it means to be foreign as he follows his main character Dassoukine from Morocco to Belgium.  Joseph Cassara’s debut novel  The House of Impossible Beauties (2018) narrates the drag ball scene in 1980s New York during the emergence of HIV/AIDS. Cassara’s novel is about queer life and the ways in which the protagonists deal with their own family history and the pressures to conform to heteronormative ideals of masculinity and femininity. Another debut novel I discovered of late is Tendai Huchu’s The Hairdresser of Harare (2010). The blurb describes it as a “delicious and devastating” black comedy of political manners in the Zimbabwe. The book follows Vimbai, the best hairdresser in Mrs. Khumalo’s salon. When the slick Dumisani shows up one day for work with his impressive skills with the scissors Vimbai becomes uncomfortably competitive. The tension between these two characters reflects the rapidly changing social and economic structures of Zimbabwe in the 21st century.

Reading these types of novels always brings me back to the historian’s craft, especially in dealing with how we map and interrogate contemporary climate change and history. Rob Nixon’s  Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2013) and Jasbir K. Puar’s The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability (2017) are path breaking books that aim to disrupt categories of disability, violence and liberal state.  As I am never-endingly drawn to all things “sciency” I wait with great anticipation for Rob McCleary’s Too Fat To Go To The Moon” (or, “Gay Sasquatch Saved My Life”) scheduled for publication in 2019. In lieu of this book, I will read his short story Nixon in Space. I will pair this with Minsoo Kang’s Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination (2011) in tracing how the automaton has captured the Western imagination. Kang uses this trope as a lens into the human/machine and nature/culture binaries. In mapping the origin of these ideas and how they penetrate into cultural, artistic and intellectual spheres Kang’s synthetic work will bring the reader on quite the intellectual adventure, from ancient Greece to mechanistic philosophy and nineteenth century fantastic literature.

Last, Nick Hopwood’s Haeckel’s Embryos: Images, Evolution, and Fraud (2015) and Kirk Wallace Johnson’s The Feather Thief. Beauty, Obsession and the Natural History  Heist of the Century (2018). Hopwood maps the story of the infamous drawings of embryos by the Darwinist Ernst Haeckel. The drawings show humans and other vertebrates as begin identical in embryo-form but eventually diverge toward their diverse adult forms. Upon its publication in 1868, Haeckel’s colleague alleged fraud and Hopwood examines how this charge has been repeated numerous times ever since. Johnson, however, tracks a more unusual “fetish” of sorts.  In 2009, twenty-year old American flautist Edwin Rist broke into the Tring Museum, a suburban outpost of the the British Museum of Natural History. Once inside, Rist removed hundreds of rare bird skins from their shelves into his suitcase, and sold them to interested buyers. Many of these desiccated birds were tagged 150 years earlier by the naturalist, and close colleague of Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace. Johnson immerses himself into this fascinating illegal trade to understand the characters that risk their lives for these feathered trophies.  



Considering the myriad nineteenth-century works of literature that might be refashioned for our day, I wasn’t eagerly awaiting a new rendition of Irish-American playwright Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon (1859). In its day, though, from its first performance at the famous Winter Garden Theatre in New York, the melodrama was a hit. Unsurprisingly, it conformed neatly to the confines of that genre, and more specifically the trope of the tragic mixed-race female protagonist–often a quadroon, of one-fourth black ancestry, or in this case one-eighth. Despite its considerable popularity during those years, it is not well-known. It certainly is more so now. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ ingenious and compelling reinterpretation of Boucicault’s original premiered at the Soho Rep in spring 2014. It has since made the rounds among US and UK theaters, including Berkeley Repertory Theater, where I saw it (and then had UC Berkeley students of mine watch) this past summer. There’s too much in the play to laud or that has been lauded. The play enthralls, and I think its strongest accomplishment is to both mock the melodrama it is based on while compellingly using that genre to meditate on racial relations in the US today. The audience is made uncomfortable, scripted as participants in a slave auction and, more subtly, prompted to laugh at a variety of minstrel antics and dialect echoing the very blackface minstrelsy that delighted audiences in the antebellum US. I would recommend reading and viewing side-by-side, beginning with Boucicault’s play and looking out for Jacobs-Jenkins An Octoroon: it plays in Chautauqua later this month, Fort Worth late summer, and right now in London at the National Theatre’s Dorfman Theatre (I’m sure there it’s running elsewhere too, or will be soon).