What We’re Reading: Week of 18th September

Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.


Emile Chabal, “Les anglo-saxons” (Aeon).

Colin Dayan, “That Old Feeling” (Avidly)

Jared Sexton, interview by Daniel Colucciello Barber, “On Black Negativity” (Society + Space)

David Sessions, “The Radical Hopes of the Russian Revolution” (New Republic)



Vijay Prashad, “Third World Quarterly row: Why some western intellectuals are trying to debrutalise colonialism” (Scroll.in)



Brigit Katz, “Lost Languages Discovered in One of the World’s Oldest Continuously Run Libraries” (Smithsonian)

Nathan J. Robinson, “A Quick Reminder of Why Colonialism Was Bad” (Current Affairs)

Emma Green, “When Mormons Aspired to be a ‘White and Delightsome’ People” (The Atlantic)



A couple of podcasts: “‘Free Speech Week’ Puts Berkeley Back in the Cross-Hairs” (On the Media)


Because Game of Thrones is over, for the time being, and you need to get your medieval fix some other way, or because you read all about plant-based healthcare in the last issue of Goop and you’re keen to try your own remedies, or because you just need to know how to use badgers (yes, badgers) to make medicine:

Alison Hudson, “An Illustrated Old English Herbal” (British Library Medieval Manuscripts Blog)

Claire Voon, “Peruse 1,000-Year-Old Medical Remedies” (Hyperallergic)

And then follow this link to see the herbal itself: Cotton MS Vitellius C III

Now that you’ve looked at the oldest (and only) surviving illustrated Old English herbal (according to Alison Hudson, a curator at the BL), maybe you’d like to look at a bestselling cookbook from the nineteenth century. Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery was first published in 1845 and remained in print through 1914. It is, in many ways, a descendent of the BL’s Old English herbal.

Barry Estabrook, “The Other Side of the Valley” (Gastronomica)

Erica Goode, “In Mexico, Weavers Embrace Natural Alternatives to Toxic Dyes” (NY Times)



Duncan Bell, “On Uses of Intellectual History: Past and Present in the critique of liberalism,” (The Disorder of Things)

Pankaj Mishra, “What Is Great About Ourselves,” (LRB)

James Padilioni, “Bringing Archives of Life and Death into the Classroom,” (Black Perspectives)

And on the Third World Quarterly debate:

Vijay Prashad, “Third World Quarterly row: Why some western intellectuals are trying to debrutalise colonialism,” (Scroll.in)

Nathan J. Robinson, “A Quick Reminder Of Why Colonialism Was Bad,” (Current Affairs)



​Daniel Witkin, “Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes and their Mexican-Jewish Western” (Forward)​

Dimitra Fimi, “Fantasy Worlds,” (TLS)

​Will Collins, “The Secret History of Dune” (LARB)​

​Liu Xiabo, “Lou Xiaobo’s Last Text” (NYRB)​

Tom Holland, “Paleoart” (New Statesman)​

On Tzvetan Todorov: A Personal Recollection

By guest contributor Richard J. Golsan

Tzvetan_Todorov-Strasbourg_2011_(1)Early one morning last February, I received a text from a friend in Paris telling me that Tzvetan Todorov had died. The text concluded with the word “Désolée,” which captures so well feelings of regret and sorrow, and also empathy. My friend knew that I had known Tzvetan for twenty-five years, that I admired him tremendously, and that from an intellectual mentor Tzvetan had become a close friend, whom I looked forward to seeing every time I went to Paris. Although I had known that Tzvetan suffered from Parkinson’s disease, and I had been shocked by his condition when I last visited him last September, I never really imagined that he would die, and so soon.


Devoirs et délices (photo credit: Seuil)

I first met Tzvetan when he came to Texas and stayed in my house for three days while he lectured and gave a seminar for the Interdisciplinary Group for Literary Historical Study at Texas A&M University. Unlike so many other visiting scholars of his stature who fly in, give their lecture, dine with faculty, stay at a nice hotel, and fly out the next morning, Tzvetan wanted to get to know the people he visited, and not just the academics. At my house, where he wished to stay even though we only knew each other through correspondence, he spent as much time talking to my wife and two sons as he did to me. Later, in his autobiography, Devoir et délices he would speak about how the birth of his first child changed his life as well as the trajectory of his intellectual interests, and it became clear to me then why he wished to spend time with my entire little family. For many years Tzvetan was married to the novelist Nancy Huston, with whom he had two children. In conversations he would refer to “my Nancy” and “your Nancy” when talk to turned to family and daily life at home. As so many of his works confirm, for Tzvetan, “life in common” with family and friends was the cornerstone of a rich and happy life as a public intellectual who was respected and admired around the world. In the first years I knew him I visited Tzvetan in his study in his apartment near the Bastille. His daughter Léa and especially his son Sacha were very frequently around, and his tenderness for them and attentiveness to their needs was always evident. Later when he had moved over to the Left Bank and we would take long walks in the Jardin des Plantes or chat in a café near his apartment, he would speak fondly and proudly of his children, now grown. His daughter Léa had become a documentary film maker, and at our memorial conference for him at Reid Hall in Paris this past July, she showed parts of a documentary she was making on Tzvetan during his last visit to his native Bulgaria. Unfortunately he died before the film could be completed.

In our many conversations we ran the gamut of family, politics, books we had read and admired, travels, and many other subjects. He was generous with me in every way—he offered advice on my life and career, told me of important events or debates in Paris, often before they happened. For example, involved early on as an advisor in the Livre noir du Communisme project—which was very close to his heart, given his youth in Communist Bulgaria—Tzvetan told me months before it appeared about the controversy it would generate, and what his own views were.

Tzvetan frequently expressed admiration for friends and intellectuals he admired, and was always circumspect about those whose ideas or views he disliked or found dangerous (in Devoirs et delices, he is open about his dislike of Jacques Lacan and André Glucksmann). Always seeking to live the role of the “responsible intellectual” rather than the “engaged intellectual” of which he was suspicious, he was cautious about the positions he took in the public arena. He wanted to make sure that they measured up to his high standards of being truly thoughtful and reasonable. He was, he told me, discouraged by the often shrill intellectual polemics in the French media. After he published Le nouveau désordre mondial, which obliged him to become involved in these polemics, he said he was done with plunging directly into heated controversies of the moment. He would later, of course, change his mind in the face of new situations and what he perceived as new dangers.

One of Tzvetan’s many qualities was his ability to sum things up with just the right phrase or observation, which he pronounced with a kind of sympathetic detachment. Once when I was overly dramatic in my estimation of the meaning and impact of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s first-round victory in the presidential elections in 2002, Tzvetan stated simply: “Joe, the world is not getting to be a better place.” The phrase, bracing in its simplicity, punctured my apocalyptic pronouncements on the spot. Near the end of his life, he told me that he did not despair of disturbing or even devastating global events and developments, because he did not believe in grand or overarching historical narratives that supposedly gave meaning to these developments while placing them in an imaginary and fictitious “grand scheme” of things. He believed that these crises or disasters had to be dealt with one at a time and on their own merits.

Tzvetan’s ability to capture things in their essence and their profundity was also apparent in more personal things he said to me. In summer 2012, he invited to me to lunch, a break with our habit of walks in the park or café stops. After a long and pleasant lunch in an Indian restaurant near Jussieu, he confided in me that he was worried that he had Alzeimer’s disease. As we left, for the first time he hugged me and said: “You have to promise to come see me next time you are in Paris, even if I don’t remember who you are.”


Javier Cercas (photo credit: Albin Olsson)

Looking back on our encounters in the last years of Tzvetan’s life, it was clear to me that his life was becoming increasingly difficult, and painful. His marriage of many years ended abruptly, and what he feared was Alzheimer’s disease turned out to Parkinson’s disease. From the wiry, fit man I had known he became thinner and moved with increasing difficulty. But there were things that he very much enjoyed. He had received an award in Spain, and as a result spent a few days with the tennis champion Rafael Nadal, who had also received an award and whom he found delightful. He began watching Nadal’s matches on TV when he could. He also told me of his meeting with the Spanish novelist Javier Cercas, author of Soldiers of Salamis, many of whose ideas he shared and whose company he enjoyed. His admiration for figures like his friend the ethnologist, Resistance fighter, and Nazi camp survivor Germaine Tillion, never waned, and he wrote a lovely essay about her in May 2015, when her remains were placed in the Panthéon, alongside other luminaries of France’s Republican past. Tzvetan also still found pleasure and comfort in his work, writing and completing his final book, Le triomphe de l’artiste, shortly before he lost the ability to type.

I last saw Tzvetan in September 2016, when we spent two evenings together recording an interview that covered his entire life and work. There were so many things I did not know about him, despite years of friendship, and this made the visit all the more moving. When he had come back to Paris the month before, after spending the summer with friends in the country while completing his last book, his condition had worsened dramatically. He could no longer leave his apartment, and had difficulty walking about. While the interview went on, friends called repeatedly to ask after him. His daughter Léa hovered discreetly about, and this appeared to please him a great deal.

At the end of the interview we said goodbye at the door. As I left the building I was frightened for Tzvetan, and yet it did not occur to me that I would not see him again. Now that Tzvetan is gone, however, in looking at his books on my shelves, and thinking back to Léa Todorov’s brief film of him in Bulgaria, I remember the man and his ideas. Despite the sadness of his demise, he lived the life that he wished for, and lived it better than most. His legacy, and the memory of his friendship remain, and that is some comfort.

Richard J. Golsan is Distinguished Professor of French and University Distinguished Professor at Texas A&M University. His most recent monograph is The Vichy Past in France Today: Corruptions of Memory (Lexington/Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). He also recently edited a collection of essays with Sarah M. Misemer, The Trial that Never Ends: Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” in Retrospect (University of Toronto, 2017). Last summer, he went under the FHN spotlight. The interviews with Tzvetan Todorov mentioned above are forthcoming in South Central Review.

The state, and revolution: A site-specific view of centenaries (Introduction)

By guest contributor Dr. Dina Gusejnova

Editors’ Note: We are pleased to present a series of multi-media reflections on centenaries of the Russian Revolution by Dina Gusejnova, which will run for three weeks. The editors would welcome proposals for future audiovisual pieces.


2 GG queue Revolution

Entrance to the Revolution exhibition at the British Library (photograph by Georgios Giannakopoulos)

Since August 2014, centenaries have been hard to avoid. And there is no end in sight until at least 2019. London easily beats other European cities as the capital of European centenary-mania. A few years after the monumental poppies of World War I have left us, London has been truly taken over by the year 1917. Just as one ‘Revolution’ closed at the Royal Academy, another one opened at the British Library, and this is to name just two of the biggest public institutions. Revolutionary posters pursue you through the dark tunnels of the tube. Reproduced and sold on fridge magnets, notebooks, cushions and silk shawls, 1917 has become a family of brands.



Time itself has become a commodity—but not everywhere. You might think, with John Reed, that “no matter what one thinks of Bolshevism, it is undeniable that the Russian Revolution is one of the great events of human history, and the rise of the Bolsheviki a phenomenon of world-wide importance.” Not so in Russia, however, which shows no evidence of a five-year centenary plan, even though anticipated celebrations of the centenary and other anniversaries of the revolution had been an integral part of Bolshevik propaganda since the 1920s. Gingerly is not an adverb one would associate with any Russian government, yet this is the only way to describe the official approach to the centenary of the Revolution. How easy it is for the Royal Academy to tell the story of the revolution in and through Russian art from its futurist cradle to the GULAG, inviting the consumer to float out towards Piccadilly, supposedly breathing a sigh of relief!

In Russia, no major public institution has been in a rush to commemorate—despite the fact that a historian is now the country’s Minister of Culture, one who had participated in anticipatory discussions of the centenary only five years ago. To be on the safe side, Moscow’s New Tretyakov Gallery has put on a major art show devoted to the Thaw era, the age of post-Stalinist reconstruction and socialist consumer design. Access to the building is through the nearby park of discarded monuments, a tourist attraction dating back to the 1990s, replete with discarded Soviet leaders and Chekists, notably Stalin and Dzerzhinsky. But this is certainly not part of the concept behind the exhibition: Lenin remains unburied, and on the streets and in the Kremlin, the Chekists are alive.

4 Visitor at Revolution exhibit

Visitor looking at the exhibit “The February Revolution through children’s eyes,” April 2017 (Photo by Dina Gusejnova)

As for the Moscow State Historical Museum, located at 1 Red Square, the only revolution-themed hall it has so far opened is a special exhibition about the February Revolution, as seen by the children of one of imperial Russia’s last gymnasia, with most of the other programming done through discussion evenings and film screenings.

Its sister museum, the Museum of Contemporary History (formerly the Museum of the Revolution), did update its exhibition with a modern design, but the narrative leads nowhere: a few flags and caricatures here and there, some quotes from Lenin, more still from his conservative and Orthodox critics and—perhaps most jarringly—from Winston Churchill:

Version 2

Exhibition “1917-2017” at the Moscow Museum of Contemporary History, April 2017 (Photo by Dina Gusejnova)

To no state in the world has fate been crueler than to Russia. Her ship began to sink with the port already in sight. She has already experienced a storm, when all collapsed. All the sacrifices had already been made, all the work had been completed. […] Perseverance was called for; this is all that stood between Russia and the fruits of a common victory (trans. Dina Gusejnova).

Commentators have already discussed the reasons for the awkwardness about the revolution in Russia, and the way it reflects Russia’s current political situation. I have put it critically, but it is actually understandable: the British public appears in the role of a confident purveyor of another society’s crisis, whereas for the Russians, the crisis has never really ended. Marking a revolution can be nearly as dangerous a notion as making one. And how should a state mark an event which was supposed to lead to its withering away?

6 The state and revolution 1918

Title page to the first edition of Lenin’s The State and Revolution (Petrograd, 1918), published under the pseudonym V. Ilyin

By contrast to state-sponsored institutions, some of the most thoughtful reactions to the centenary have included translations of poetry and prose, reflecting a wide range of views in the revolutionary era, in Britain; and privately funded digital public platforms inviting visitors to identify their own position on the political spectrum of 1917, in Russia. In a poem composed in September 1914, the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam had written: “Imperial Europe! Ever since Bonaparte / was in the bullseye of Prince Metternich’s quill / For the first time in a century, we will / Witness your wondrous map taken apart!” (trans. Dina Gusejnova). Looking back towards 1814, Mandelstam did not see much of the twentieth century. Exactly two hundred years later, the map of Europe started to change once again, with Russia’s annexation (or re-annexation, as some might say) of Crimea. Tragically, instead of an exhibition to the memory of the First World War, in 2014 Russia had opened a new actual western front, and the conflict is still with us.

In 1922, Mandelstam had, once again, presciently exclaimed: “Beastly aeon, who will dare / Look you in the eye / Glue your back with their own blood/ Two centuries, bone for bone” (trans. Dina Gusejnova). And this was only in 1922! In that year, the fashionable English Club in Moscow, once frequented by Leo Tolstoy and other anglophile dandies, had just been requisitioned and turned into a Museum of the Revolution. It attracted foreign enthusiasts and revolutionary bien pensants such as George Bernard Shaw and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. By 1938, Mandelstam had perished in a camp, a fate which the translator Robert Chandler contextualizes in his evocative introductions to two hundred years of Russian poetry.

Among the most emblematic documents of later Soviet “horizons of expectations,” a term which Reinhart Koselleck made popular to describe past ideas of the future, is a children’s slideshow produced in 1960, which has recently gone viral online. In it, we can see how the state-sponsored media of the post-Stalin era had become increasingly optimistic about the prospects for the future. In 2017, they showed, the Soviet capital would embark on its preparations to celebrate the centenary, just as the world’s “last imperialists” self-imploded on a remote island, falling victims to their own weapon of mass destruction.

7b end of imperialism

“‘They have just reported,’ a meteorologist said, ‘that the last imperialists, who had been hiding on a remote island, have been testing the meson bomb [a type of nuclear weapon that Soviet intelligence believed was being developed by the Americans]. During the test, an explosion of an unprecedented scale occurred, destroying the whole island and causing turbulences in the entire atmosphere.’”

7c 2017 diafilm

“The meteorological station for remote weather control quietly floated above the city. The rejoicing capital was preparing for the 100th anniversary of Great October. These festivities coincided with the victory of Soviet science over nature.”

7d televidefon

“In the evening, Evgeny Sergeevich turned on his televideophone and called the steamer Kakhetia. His wife smiled from the screen, and Nina stood next to her and shouted: ‘Daddy, we’ve been having some nice, warm rain here!’”

As we know, things turned out differently: the “televideophone” belongs to the realm of the “imperialists”—and so does Russia itself; but the Georgian region of Kakhetia, once part of the Soviet Union, does not belong to the Russian Federation.

All too often, when we think about anniversaries, we naturally think about time. And yet thinking about space opens new prospects on our relationship to the past. After all, our political “horizons of expectations” and “spaces of experience” are rooted in a spatial imagination.

The more we see centenaries in geographical perspective, the more we recognize the diversity of views on this issue. The idea of a common commemorative mentality is a fiction: we remain divided in our attitudes to centenaries by place, generation, and so many other circumstances. The private, Proustian mémoires involontaires, the exposure to certain sounds, sights, sensations, or ideas, can overpower any official attempts to mold a common attitude to the event.

I have begun speaking about this to colleagues who had themselves travelled to different locations to engage with thoughts on revolutions and centenaries. I chose to concentrate my conversations around two contrasting spaces, the museum and the public square. Site-specific thinking about centenaries should not just be about cities or states, but also about spaces within cities and even houses. How do our thoughts change when we are placed in a museum, in a public space, in a private living room? How do we reconfigure our ideas of the past and its links to our present?

Dina Gusejnova is Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. She is the author of European Elites and Ideas of Empire, 1917-57 (Cambridge University Press, 2016) and the editor of Cosmopolitanism in Conflict: Imperial Encounters from the Seven Years’ War to the Cold War (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming later in 2017).

Contested Masculinities in the Australian 1950s

by guest contributor Chelsea Barnett

In The Shiralee, a 1957 Australian film, Jim ‘Mac’ Macauley is locked in a fierce and bitter battle with his estranged wife, Marge, over custody of their daughter, Buster. For months, Buster has accompanied her swagman father as he roams around the country, looking for short- or long-term contract work. Mac wishes to retain care of Buster, while Marge wants to take her back to Sydney; each are motivated primarily by spite and hostility toward the other. In one particularly tense verbal spat between the estranged pair, Marge says something to Mac that especially stings: “You think the life you lead’s fit for a kid? You make me sick. It’s a dog’s life, even the kid herself would tell you.” Mac startles; Marge has clearly struck a nerve. Both are well aware that the swagman’s life, lived on the open road, is a far cry from the suburban frontier of the Australian 1950s. But Mac is a swagman, uncomfortable living in the confines of Australia’s cities and suburbs. Unable to continue raising his daughter on the road, not wanting to live with her in the suburbs, and not wanting to relinquish custody to Marge, Mac is caught between the expectations of conventional, postwar middle-class fatherhood, and the expectations of the itinerant, rural bushman.

While Mac’s struggle between these competing masculine types drives the narrative progression of The Shiralee, it also points to the broader tension that was circulating in the cultural world of the Australian 1950s, particularly in relation to understandings of masculinity. The difficulty Mac faces in his attempt to reconcile these competing expectations of fatherhood is precisely because these masculinities both functioned with legitimacy in the aftermath of World War Two and the beginning of the Cold War. While powerful, enduring popular memories mean that this period continues to be understood as the peak for the proliferation of the suburban dream or, alternatively, a time of oppressive gender roles and politics, clearly there was more underway than this dichotomous narrative suggests. Others have identified the social and political changes and transformations that punctuated the era; here, I turn to the cultural world.[1] I argue that the cultural landscape of the Australian 1950s was not simply an agent of social change, but rather a space of dynamism and negotiation, particularly when we consider how masculinity—or, indeed, masculinities—functioned in this historical moment. That Robert Menzies—champion of the “forgotten” middle class and ostensible embodiment of postwar conservatism—held the prime ministerial office for seventeen years (1949-1966) means that the Australian man of the 1950s, much like his American counterpart, is popularly imagined as the grey-flannel suit-wearing suburban breadwinner. But, as The Shiralee suggests, the cultural world in this period reveals a more complicated set of ideas about masculinity. If we look to Australian films made and released from 1949 to the early 1960s, it’s clear that there was more than one way to be a man in this period.

The powerful appeal with which Mac’s itinerant, bush-based lifestyle functioned speaks to the place of radical nationalism in the postwar years. Radical nationalism was a leftist intellectual movement that emerged in the 1940s but was most potent in the 1950s. The movement was inspired by literary figures of the 1890s who constructed an identifiably “Australian” ethos in the decade before Federation; this notion of a uniquely Australian identity operated with particular significance in the 1950s given the “dark hour of suburbia” and the danger that it would be “lost in the warm mists of suburban prosperity.”[2] In addition to The Shiralee, films like The Sundowners (1960) and Three in One (1957) represented and legitimated a radical nationalist masculinity, circulating ideas around mateship—the intimate bonds between men—that were especially important to the movement. Russel Ward’s 1958 contribution to the movement, The Australian Legend, declared that the “typical Australian” is “intimately connected with the bush” and will “stick to his mates through thick and thin, even if he thinks they may be in the wrong.”[3] It was his mates, then, rather than to his family, for whom the radical nationalist man held the most affection.

This understanding of masculinity functioned at odds with the ideas of middle-class manhood as championed and demonstrated by Robert Menzies, Australia’s longest-serving prime minister. Menzies in 1942 made a radio broadcast that would come to shape his prime ministership once elected in 1949; in it, he declared that the home is “where my wife and children are” and that “the instinct to give them a chance in life is a noble instinct, not to make them lifters but leaners.” In this statement, Menzies affirmed the domestic space as feminine, and the “noble” obligation of financial care fell to men. To adhere to the tenets of middle-class masculinity, men were expected to embrace the role of the breadwinning husband and father, providing stability in a Cold War climate where the home and the family unit operated as sites of Cold War defence (and anxieties).[4] Work and financial stability also held particular importance in this era, represented in films like Smiley (1956) and King of the Coral Sea (1954). These films also suggested that middle-class masculinity was accessible to those men who lived outside the suburban enclaves of postwar Australia; given that the middle class were defined more by their “values and sentiments” than by their social position, middle-class gendered ideals were shown to transcend spatial boundaries and could be enacted successfully in rural Australia too.[5]

It is between these two models of masculinity that Mac is caught. While other films (mentioned above) affirmed one model of masculinity over the other, The Shiralee’s open-ended final scene, in which it’s not sure where Mac and Buster will live, leaves a number of unanswered questions that are perhaps unanswerable. Is it possible for Mac to assume the primary care for his daughter, as he wishes to, without sacrificing the itinerant life he also wants to live? That the film does not answer this question—that it cannot answer this question—reveals something of the tension that imbued the Australian cultural landscape of the 1950s.

Chelsea Barnett completed her PhD at Macquarie University in 2016, for which she researched masculinity and Australian films of the fifties. She has been published in Lilith: A Feminist History JournalMedia International Australia, and Journal of Australian Studies, in which her paper was awarded the 2015 John Barrett Award for Australian Studies (Postgraduate Category).

[1] See: Stephen Alomes, Mark Dober, and Donna Hellier, “The Social Context of Postwar Conservatism,” in Australia’s First Cold War 1945-1953 Vol 1: Society, Communism and Culture, ed. Ann Curthoys and John Merritt (North Sydney: George Allen & Unwin Australia Pty Ltd, 1984), 1-28; Nicholas Brown, Governing Prosperity: Social change and social analysis in Australia in the 1950s (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); and especially John Murphy, Imagining the Fifties: Private Sentiment and Political Culture in Menzies’ Australia (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press Ltd, 2000).

[2] John Docker, The Nervous Nineties: Australian Cultural Life in the 1890s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), xxi; Murphy, Imagining the Fifties, 72.

[3] Russel Ward, The Australian Legend (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1958), 1, 2.

[4] Michelle Arrow, Friday on Our Minds: Popular Culture in Australia since 1945 (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2009), 16; Murphy, Imagining the Fifties, 136.

[5] Murphy, Imagining the Fifties, 7.

Gold tried 500 times in the fire

by guest contributor Timothy Alborn, this post is a companion piece to his article, “The Greatest Metaphor Ever Mixed,” now out in the most recent issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas.

Historians inevitably face the challenge of selecting a subset of primary sources to stand for a much larger body of research. This challenge is magnified in the case of the history of ideas, where the need to provide closer readings tends to diminish that already small sample size. My article, “The Greatest Metaphor Ever Mixed,” distilled hundreds of sources from numerous genres down to a few dozen to explore the connection between Biblical metaphors that employed gold, British economic ideas, and what Linda Colley has termed “the forging of a nation” between 1750 and 1850. A section on the various uses of the metaphor of gold tried in the fire, for instance, quotes twenty-eight sources that employ that metaphor, or roughly five percent of the sources I consulted.
To find all these sources, I pursued two parallel tracks.  The first was part of a larger project on the cultural and economic history of gold in Britain from 1780 to 1850, which will soon be published by Oxford University Press. For this project, I spent the last eight years looking for references to gold wherever they showed up: in treatises, novels, sermons, speeches, and newspaper articles, among many other sources.  The bulk of my research utilized such online databases as Eighteenth Century Collections Online (210 hits for gold tried in the fire), British Periodicals (48), British Library Newspapers (72), and Google Books. After realizing, a few years into this research, that gold appeared frequently and with interesting variations in numerous religious contexts, I did more targeted searches in these databases (see my full list of search terms below for “gold tried in the fire”).
In a blog post accompanying a different article I published two years ago in the Journal of Victorian Culture, I made a first foray into providing access to the larger cultural world that historians must curtail in order to “see the forest for the trees.” Here, I follow the model I used in that post, through the creation of a web page that breaks down my research notes for the “crucible” section of my article into several different topics (including references to affliction, illness or death, persecution, temptation, and secular uses). In the majority of cases where Google Books enabled this, I have linked these entries to the passages in the books and periodicals where I found them, to enable readers to explore their “natural habitat” (I tried to find the same version where there were multiple editions, but didn’t always succeed); and I’ve identified each author by religious denomination where I was able to discover that information.  I’ve also included a link to two Excel files I used: one tabulates my notes in order to locate patterns across these denominations (this includes some sources I didn’t transcribe in my notes), and the other (which I constructed by going through the Bible chapter by chapter using the service BibleGateway.com) identifies all 440 Biblical passages that refer to gold.

Readers should feel free to use this collection however they see fit: as a resource for their own research; as an introduction to my own idiosyncratic research methodology (and in my experience every historian’s research methodology errs on the side of idiosyncrasy); or as an entertaining anthology, with plenty of amazing book titles such as Hymns, Cries, and Groans, lately extracted from a Mourner’s Memorandums.

Search terms:

forth as gold

come forth purified

forth like gold

gold in the fire

gold from the fire

out of the furnace

furnace of affliction

out of the fire

tried in the fire

purified in the fire

purified by fire

as refined gold
like pure gold

seven times purified

purified seven times

seven times in the fire

gold shines brightest

purer and brighter

passed through the fire

fiery trial

With a few exceptions, these sources were all published in the United Kingdom (or, rarely, one of its colonies) between 1750 and 1850–including sources that originally appeared in print prior to 1750 but were published at least once between 1750 and 1850.  I have reproduced the notes I took from each source, which are organized by topic and, within each topic, chronologically by original year of publication; where available, religious denomination is noted at the end of each entry.  In most cases you can click the title to get to the book or article via Google Books; the link should land you at the section quoted, and you can fan out from there to discover its context.

Timothy Alborn is Professor of History at Lehman College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author of Regulated Lives: Life Insurance and British Society, 1800-1914 (Toronto, 2009), and Conceiving Companies: Joint- Stock Politics in Victorian England (Routledge, 1998). He has published widely on the cultural history of business in Victorian Britain in such journals as Victorian Studies, Business History Review, Journal of Victorian Culture, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, and Journal of Modern History. His Journal of the History of Ideas article, “The Greatest Metaphor Ever Mixed,” draws from research that will appear in a book on the cultural and economic history of gold in Britain that is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Mystery Attracts Mystery: The Forgotten Partnership of H. P. Lovecraft and Harry Houdini

By Editor Spencer J. Weinreich

Pulp is one of the great unheralded archives of American cultural history. Ephemeral by its very nature, the pulp magazine or paperback brought millions of readers the derring-do of detectives and superheroes, the misadventures of doomed lovers, and the horrors of gruesome monsters. They were the birthplaces of Tarzan and Zorro, and published the work of such luminaries as Agatha Christie, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, and Tennessee Williams.


The cover of the May-June-July 1924 issue of Weird Tales

In 1924, readers of the fantasy and horror pulp Weird Tales found a more familiar figure alongside the usual crowd of ghouls, corpses, and scantily clad women. The cover story of the May–June–July issue was “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs,” by none other than Harry Houdini. The magician tells of his voyage to Egypt, where he is captured by nefarious locals and imprisoned beneath a pyramid, to be sacrificed to horrid monsters of untold age. With his trademark skills, Houdini frees himself and reaches the surface, insisting—despite his injuries—that it was nothing more than a dream.
Fans of horror fiction know this bizarre story under a different name and authorship: H. P. Lovecraft’s “Under the Pyramids.” Each in their own way icons of early twentieth-century America, Lovecraft and Houdini led strikingly different lives. The magician was an international celebrity, drawing rapturous crowds wherever he went. He performed for the Russian royal family. He amassed a personal fortune sufficient to purchase, among other things, a dress once worn by Queen Victoria (a gift for his mother) and a 1907 Voisin biplane (complete with mechanic). His funeral was attended by two thousand members of the public. By contrast, Lovecraft’s biographer S. T. Joshi holds that the writer “as he lay dying […] was envisioning the ultimate oblivion that would overtake his work.” All but one of his stories were unpublished or moldering away in back issues of pulp magazines. It was only posthumously that his writings found their audience, eventually attaining the cult status they enjoy today.



H. P. Lovecraft in 1934 (photograph by Lucius B. Truesdell)

The original idea for “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” came from Houdini, whom the proprietor of Weird Tales, J. C. Henneberger, had retained as a columnist to boost flagging sales. Henneberger and Edwin Baird, the magazine’s editor, tapped Lovecraft to ghostwrite what Houdini was claiming to be a true story. “Lovecraft quickly discovered that the account was entirely fictitious, so he persuaded Henneberger to let him have as much imaginative leeway as he could in writing up the story” (Joshi, A Dreamer and a Visionary, 191).

“Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” was by no means Houdini’s only fictional exploit. As early as 1906, he had been making films of his tricks, and between 1918 and 1923 starred in and/or produced several silent movies. Though these films do not present themselves as Houdini’s own experiences, there was little attempt to hide the fact that the magician was their raison d’être and main selling-point. Their protagonists—given telling names like Harvey Hanford or Harry Harper—spend most of their time onscreen being straitjacketed, chained, thrown into rivers, suspended from airplanes or cliffs, or otherwise discomfited so as to give audience the greatest possible opportunity to see Houdini do what he did best.


Houdini Showing How To Escape Handcuffs

Harry Houdini in 1918

Lovecraft understood that readers wanted Houdini the escape artist, and he obliged. During a nocturnal visit to the Pyramids, “Houdini” is attacked, bound, and into the deep recesses of an underground temple. Our hero is undaunted.

The first step was to get free of my bonds, gag, and blindfold; and this I knew would be no great task, since subtler experts than these Arabs had tried every known species of fetter upon me during my long and varied career as an exponent of escape, yet had never succeeded in defeating my methods.

At the same time, the story bears all the hallmarks of Lovecraftian “cosmic horror”: ghastly and ancient things lurking beneath ordinary life, grotesque monsters compounded from all manner of anatomies and mythologies, the inability of the human mind to comprehend the awful truth, and his unique—to put it kindly—prose style.

It was the ecstasy of nightmare and the summation of the fiendish. The suddenness of it was apocalyptic and daemoniac—one moment I was plunging agonisingly down that narrow well of million-toothed torture, yet the next moment I was soaring on bat-wings in the gulfs of hell; swinging free and swoopingly through illimitable miles of boundless, musty space; rising dizzily to measureless pinnacles of chilling ether, then diving gaspingly to sucking nadirs of ravenous, nauseous lower vacua. . . . Thank God for the mercy that shut out in oblivion those clawing Furies of consciousness which half unhinged my faculties, and tore Harpy-like at my spirit! That one respite, short as it was, gave me the strength and sanity to endure those still greater sublimations of cosmic panic that lurked and gibbered on the road ahead.

Lovecraft’s reputation is rightly tarnished by his racism. Though “Under the Pyramids” is by no means the worst offender within his corpus, Egypt offered ample scope for his prejudices: “the crowding, yelling, and offensive Bedouins,” “squalid Arab settlement,” “filthy Bedouins.” The orientalist mode is out in force, as “Houdini” and his wife arrive in Cairo only to be disappointed that “amidst the perfect service of its restaurant, elevators, and generally Anglo-American luxuries the mysterious East and immemorial past seemed very far away.” Once they journey deeper into the city, they find what they are looking for—“in the winding ways and exotic skyline of Cairo, the Bagdad of Haroun-al-Raschid seemed to live again.” Lovecraft summons every trope of the orientalized Middle East: bazaars and camels, secret tombs and perfidious natives, the call of the muezzin and the scent of spice and incense. Egypt, “Houdini” is told by one of his captors, “is very old; and full of inner mysteries and antique powers.”


Statue of Khafra, Egyptian Museum, Cairo (photograph by Juan R. Lazaro)

Within these fantasies, however, are a few kernels of genuine Egyptiana. The figureheads of “Houdini’s” Egypt, for instance, are the undead “King Khephren and his ghoul-queen Nitokris,” who reign over a legion of unnatural things. Denuded of Lovecraft’s nightmarish trappings, both are historical personages with unsavory reputations. “Khephren,” usually known as Khafra, was the builder of the second-largest pyramid at Giza and (probably) the Great Sphinx, but Herodotus and other ancient historians remember him as a cruel and heretical ruler who closed Egypt’s temples and plunged the land into misery (II.127–28). Nitocris is the subject of Egyptological debate: some scholars accept ancient accounts naming her as a pharaoh of the late Sixth Dynasty (2345–2181 B.C.E.), others deny her very existence. Describing his unease near even the smallest pyramid, “Houdini” explains, “was it not in this that they had buried Queen Nitokris alive in the Sixth Dynasty; subtle Queen Nitokris, who once invited all her enemies to a feast in a temple below the Nile, and drowned them by opening the water-gates?” An anecdote worthy of the horror writer, to be sure, but not his invention. Herodotus relates how Nitocris avenged herself on her brother’s killers:

She built a spacious underground chamber; then […] she gave a great feast, inviting to it those Egyptians whom she knew to have been most concerned in her brother’s murder; and while they feasted she let the river in upon them by a great and secret channel. This was all that the priests told of her, save that also when she had done this she cast herself into a chamber full of hot ashes, thereby to escape vengeance. (II.100, trans. A. D. Godley)

The association of Nitocris with the Pyramid of Menkaure, third and smallest of the Pyramids of Giza, comes from the priest-historian Manetho (early third century B.C.E.). He calls Nitocris “the noblest and loveliest of the women of her time, of fair complexion, the builder of the third pyramid” (The History of Egypt, 55).

Though Houdini is (justifiably) remembered more fondly than Lovecraft, his career was by no means free from discomfiting racial politics. John F. Kasson links Houdini to Tarzan, early bodybuilders like Eugen Sandow, and others, as focal points of anxiety about the white body. In this and in many other respects, the superstar magician and the obscure writer had more in common than might be suspected. Both cultivated a supernatural mystique—in which neither believed—personas that took on lives of their own. Both sought to satisfy an early twentieth-century hunger for excitement. Certainly, the two men got on well: Houdini asked Lovecraft to write a now-lost article about astrology and tried (unsuccessfully) to help the young writer secure employment with a newspaper. They were planning to collaborate, with Lovecraft’s friend and fellow pulp author C. M. Eddy, on an anti-spiritualist book, The Cancer of Superstition, when Houdini died on October 31, 1926. Only Lovecraft’s outline and thirty-odd pages of Eddy’s manuscript survive—together with “Under the Pyramids” the only witness to the strange partnership of the magician and the horror writer.

Fathers Strike Back: The Revenge of Zoharic Trinitology

by guest contributor Mark Marion Gondelman

In 1713, a rebellious Kabbalist named Nechemiah Chayun published a book called ‘Oz le-Elohim. The tract immediately incited a scandal: In it, Chayun argued, in good Rabbinic Hebrew and on the basis of established Kabbalistic sources, that the main secret of the Zoharic conception of the Godhead was a trinity. Chayun was working within the conception of the Divinity of the Zohar, which sees God as comprising various emanations or sefirot that interact with the creation in different ways. According to Chayun, the emanations of Atiqa Qadisha, Malqa Qadisha, and Shekhinah animate the other sefirotic entities and comprise “three that are one” (‘Oz le-Elohim, p. 60). The compatibility of this idea with the Orthodox Christian notion of the trinity was not lost on Chayun’s contemporaries. What contemporaries and scholars have not noted, however, is that Chayun’s interpretation of the Zohar was rooted in a teaching by a more well-known kabbalist, Abraham Miguel Cardozo, who has been the focus of many scholarly studies over the last decade. Interestingly, while this teaching functions in Cardozo’s work as part of his polemic against Christianity, it somehow came back around in Chayun’s teaching as a means of making Christian and kabbalistic conceptions of God compatible.

Chayun was a member of the Sabbatian movement, a movement of Jews in the seventeenth-to-eighteenth century that  held the Turkish-Jewish mystic Shabtai Tzvi to be the messiah. Tzvi was a tortured soul who, in 1665, had sought out the mystic Nathan of Gaza to seek a remedy for his inner turmoil. Contrary to Tzvi’s expectations, Nathan claimed that his insight into the root of Tzvi’s soul revealed that Tzvi was the messiah and was destined to travel to the court the Sultan Mehmed IV the Hunter and turn him into his slave by the power of his songs and words. Tzvi amassed a tremendous following and Jews as far as Eastern Europe sold their properties to finance their imminent return to Israel. However, when Tzvi was taken before  Mehmed IV the Hunter in the summer of 1666 and was offered a choice between the death and Islam he chose the latter. Despite Tzvi’s Tzvi’s conversion, a large minority of Jews, led by Nathan of Gaza and others continued to see him as the messiah.

Chayun’s mentor was another renegade Kabbalist who devoted himself to Shabtai Tzvi,  Abraham Miguel Cardozo. Cardozo was born a Marrano Catholic family in Spain and converted to Judaism as an adult once he left the Iberian Peninsula. However, both Cardozo’s critics in his lifetime (including his own brother) and scholars today assert that Cardozo was never able to fully leave behind his Christian theological background.

Unlike the Dönmeh Sabbatians, who converted with Tzvi to Islam, Cardozo never left Judaism. Immediately after Tzvi’s conversion he warned both his friends and enemies that they must stay within the Jewish fold and to cease following Tzvi (though they still considered his teachings authoritative). His subsequent writings continue to use a conceptual framework based on Tzvi’s teachings and often criticize Christianity. I believe that Chayun’s theology is grounded in a previously untranslated and unnoticed passage by Cardozo that shows the latter’s dependency on– and betrays his efforts to grapple with– Christian Trinitology.

In his massive work Raza de-Razin, “Secret of the Secrets,” which I will quote here as it appears in manuscript JTS 2102 (from the Dropsie collection, Ms. Deinard 315), the old lone wolf Cardozo, just several years before his death, continues longstanding feuds with two sworn enemies: Shmuel Primo, the former secretary of Shabtai Tzvi, and his student Haim Angel. He accuses these two of having developed strange doctrines that are incompatible with Raza de-Mehemanuta, Shabtai Tzvi’s theological compendium. He therefore chrages them with heresy. (In fact, Cardozo, composed the work himself — Jewish mysticism scholar Yehuda Liebes demonstrates that Raza de-Mehemanuta is a forgery). Cardozo acknowledges, however that his own theology differs from Tzvi’s on a crucial point: He writes that he believes that the First Cause did not create the God of Israel and the Shehinah together, but that they both follow from another entity. The reason Cardozo gives for this conclusion is the dictum, “from the simple follows the simple.” Therefore, he argues, a twofold essence that comprises the God of Israel together with the Shehinah could not possibly follow from The First Cause:

And before all [other] things, I will write down accepted principles: The first is that from simple follows simple and there is no sage of the sages of the truth who will not agree with that and so you will find in the Pardes [Rimonim] of R. Moshe Cordovero and the Ar”i (blessed be his memory!) and Avraham ben David of Posquieres in his commentary on Sefer Yetzirah gave us a [principle] that form the Infinity (Ein Sof) necessarily follows an infinitely simple Intellect that bears no difference to the First Cause (Sibah Rishonah), except this is cause and this is effect [ze ‘ilah we-ze ‘alul].

The principle min ha-pashut yotzeh pashut is not a very commonly applied principle but it is invoked by several other Jewish scholars in their writings, among them Shabtai Sheftel Horowitz, the author of the book called Shefa‘ Tal and Maimonides. Cardozo’s wording shows that he relied on Horowitz’s work and his omission of Maimonides’ example shows that he was probably unaware of the similar dictum in the latter’s Guide to the Perplexed. Indeed, Maimonides uses a different wording to express the idea and voices doubt about this principle. Both Maimonides and Horowitz use this idea to explain how God is connected to the intermediaries of the creation — sefirot in Horowitz’s vision and intellects in Maimonides’. Cardozo, on the other hand, uses this principle to elucidate the problem of internal theogony, i.e. how the twofold bipolar and bigender. God of Israel is created the nature of his inner workings. Cardozo is far from the only Jewish thinker to ruminate on the workings of God but no other conventional Jewish thinkers propose that He is created.

Cardozo then goes farther, arguing that God must emanate from two distinct essences based on another idea, namely that “from two simple things follows a complex thing:”

And there is another principle that from two simple things, (i.e. from the first simple and from the second [thing] that exists from the first) if they produce an existing [thing], it will not be a simple, but  complex (Hebrew: meshutaf) and this way from the Primordial light that is from the second simplex sparkle together two lights and they are Bright Light and The Brightest Light (or tzah we-or metzuhtzah) like geonim and R. Shimon Bar Yohai told: that the Cause of Causes that extends from the simple Cause Above All Causes and it is not a simple intellect, but a complex one. Despite that “from the simple follows simple” and the Cause Above All Causes is simple like Upper Infinity (Ein Sof ha-`Elyon) that is the root of all roots, because it does not exist only from the Cause Above All Causes, but from the unity with the Infinity.

To Cardozo then, the First Cause, the God of Philosophers who has no interest in our world, creates the second cause. The twofold entity of God of Israel/ Shechinah emanates from this second cause.

Cardozo’s analysis here reflects a similar analysis in Augustine’s De Civitas Dei, which is the only text I’ve found that deals with this problem. In describing the creation of the Trinity, Augustine writes:

“Created,” I say, — that is, made not begotten. For that which is begotten of the simple Good is simple as itself and the same as itself. These two we call the Father and the Son; and both together with the Holy Spirit are one God; and to this Sprit the epithet Holy is in Scripture as it were, appropriated.

Augustine and Cardozo’s theologies in these two texts are quite different: Cardozo would not accept the idea that God is actually the simple Good itself (in other words that the God of Philosophers is trifold). Indeed, as historian David Halperin notes in his biography of Cardozo, Cardozo charged in his works that Christianity misunderstood the true trinity that exists in Judaism. There is, however, an important point of proximity in these two texts in that both treat the problem of the emergence of God’s personae and both employ the same philosophical principle to explain technical aspects of this emergence.

Cardozo’s opposition to Christianity was part of his own painful process of overcoming the trauma of his Marranism and his teachings were an attempt to create a Jewish theology. Chayun’s own theological research makes them visible. Later, Chayun’s ideas evolved into something which was much more grim: they were used by Yakov Frank during the famous dispute of 1759 in Kamieniec where he and his adherents demonstrated that Zohar’s true Judaism, as opposed to “false Talmudic” is about Trinity, and therefore, Jews must embrace Christianity.

Mark Gondelman was born in Riga and has lived in Moscow and Jerusalem. He is now based in New York where he is a doctoral fellow at NYU in Hebraic and Judaic Studies focusing on early modern Jewish mysticism. Mark is currently working to understand Abraham Miguel Cardozo’s legacy within the broader context of early modern thought, philosophy and Jewish and Christian mystical traditions.




What We’re Reading: Week of 10th July

Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.



Caroline Alexander, “The Dread Gorgon” (Lapham’s Quarterly)

Anosh Chakelian, “One man and his whale” (New Statesman)

Bryan Stevenson, “A Presumption of Guilt” (NYRB)

James Fenton, “God, A Poem” (TLS)

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins, “Realism’s Illiberal Roots” (Foreign Affairs)

John Waldman, “Thoreau’s Distressing Canoe Trip” (New York Times)

(Podcast) Brittney C. Cooper, “Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women” (New Books Network)



Andrew Mitchell Davenport, “The Weather of the Place” (Lapham’s Quarterly)

Annette Joseph-Gabriel, “The Legacy of Martinican Women in French Politics” (Black Perspectives).

Jedediah Purdy, “A Billionaires’ Republic” (The Nation)

Federico Tarragoni, “Populaire ou populiste? À propos de: Éric Fassin, Populisme” (Vie des idées)



In memory of Liu Xiaobo:

Ian Johnson, “The Songs of Birds” (NYRB)

Liu Xiaobo, translated by Jeffrey Yang “Fifteen Years of Darkness” (Poetry.org)


Companions to Megan Baumhammer’s review of the Drawing Center’s exhibition, “Exploratory Works”:

Eugenia Zuroski, “Nautilus Cups and Unstill Life” (Journal18)

Paul Binskin, “Medieval Invention and its Potencies” (British Art Studies)

Perry Link, “The Passion of Liu Xiaobo” (NYRB)

Katherina Grace Thomas, “Nina Simone in Liberia” (Guernica)

Andrew Kay, “Writing After Academe” (The Chronicle of Higher Education)

Jaquira Díaz, “Who Is The Real Kali Uchis?” (The Fader)



Lyn Abrams, “Oral history and liberating women’s voices,” (Vida)

Keisha Blain, “Ida B. Wells offered the solution to police violence more than 100 years ago,” (Washington Post)

Joanna di Mattia, “In The Handmaid’s Tale, the future is now,” (overland)

Nikil Saval, “Globalisation: the rise and fall of an idea that swept the world,” (Guardian Long Reads)

Graham Vyse, “Liberals Can’t Ignore the Right’s Hatred for Academia,” (New Republic)


What We’re Reading: Week of 3rd July

Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.


David Greenberg, “America’s 100 other Declarations of Independence”  (Politico)

Fred Dews, “A Primer on Gerrymandering and Political Polarization” (Brookings)

Matt Dellinger, “Michael Crawford’s Mixed-Up USA” (New Yorker)

WNYC (Podcast) “America’s Fourth: Beyond Pie and BBQs” (The United States of Anxiety)


Zoë Beery, “A Weekend of Nazi Dress-Up Fun” (Fusion)

L.D. Burnett, “Fugitive Materials” (USIH)

Moira Donegan, “Some Sort of Grace” (Paris Review)

Daniel Trilling, “Should we build a wall around North Wales?” (LRB)


Lavanya Ramanathan, “In a divided America, James Baldwin’s fiery critiques reverberate anew” (Washington Post)

David Mimics, “What Makes a Jew a Jew” (LARB)

Yo Zushi, “The Tale of a Stuffed Echidna” (New Statesman)


Jose Arnaud-Bello, “Think of the Lemur” (Triple Canopy)

Kate Wagner, “The Rise of the McMansion” (Curbed)

Kibum Kim, Natasha Degen, “The Kitsch Gazes Back: Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst Return” (LARB)

Hilton Als, “Irving Penn” (4 Columns)

Darren Campion, “The Morals of Vision: Susan Sontag’s ‘On Photography’ Revisited, Part 1” and “Part 2”


Amy Goodman and Arundhati Roy, Interview with Arundhati Roy (Democracy Now!)

Nadine El-Enany, “The Colonial Logic of Grenfell” (Verso Blog)

Wai Chee Dimock, “5000 Years of Climate Fiction” (Public Books)

Emily Wilson, “Found in translation: how women are making the classics their own” (The Guardian)


Adam Branch, “The ICC, Dominic Ongwen, and the Politics of Truth,” (Humanity)

Annette Joseph-Gabriel, “The Legacy of Martinican Women in French Politics,” (Black Perspectives)

Olivier Jutel, “The alt-right and the death of counterculture,” (overland)

Daniel Knorr, “A Conference on Chinese Cities in World History,” (Global Urban History)

Richard Marshall interviews William Lewis, “The Fall and Rise of Louis Althusser,” (3amMagazine)

Hugh Swinton Legare and the transatlantic letters of US diplomacy

 by Derek O’Leary

Image 1 Hugh Swinton LegareHugo Swinton Legare engraved by  T. Doney, c.1830-1850.

From the Brussels diary of Hugh Swinton Legare (1797-1843), while US chargé d’affaires there:

24th May [1832]: Nothing remarkable; stretched off on a sofa today in the salle-à-manger, while my valet-de-chambre reads to me the preface to Erminier’s Philosophy of Law; and a soothing air breathing all the sweets of my little garden, and whispering in my ear where he stole them. I determined to let my friends in America know how well I am learning to do without them, and to paint in the most glowing colors the charms of the elegant epicurean existence I am leading here. (Mary Legare, ed., Writings of Hugh Swinton Legare (Charleston, S.C.: Burges and James, 1846)

Legare regularly griped that his diplomat’s salary couldn’t sustain life in Brussels, capital of Europe’s newest state when he arrived in 1832. He had left a somewhat comfortable existence as South Carolina’s attorney general and editor of his Southern Review (1828-32), a short-lived but unabashedly literary journal based in his native Charleston, which showcased his expertise in the Classics. Later that year, he fumed privately about his $500 yearly discretionary fund, “the niggardly, and, what is worse, (I suppose,) narrow-minded and foolish policy of thus attempting to circumscribe contingency, and reduce their diplomatic representative to the condition of a broker’s out-door clerk!” (Diary, 22 August 1832). Legare kept this diary during the first of his three-year stint in Brussels, before returning to political life in the US, where before his early death he would assume a crucial role as US Attorney General in President Tyler’s unsettled administration. (Then, not as now, diplomatic postings were a reliable stepping stone to higher office; as Legare arrived in Brussels, future president Martin Van Buren was departing his ministership in London, and James Buchanan beginning his in Saint Petersburg.) He catalogs mornings of bookish leisure and evenings of opulent ennui among the titled, lettered, and moneyed elite of the capital.


Image 2 Anti-NullificationAnti-Nullification Lithograph by Endicott and Swett (1833) in New York Public Library Digital Collections. Before he departed for Brussels, Legare had ardently opposed the movement in South Carolina to “nullify” federal tariff legislation deemed disadvantageous for the state. His vocal opposition gained him favor with the Jackson administration, helped secure the posting in Brussels, and granted him a respite from that rancorous political crisis.

Legare’s grumble about paltry State Department support is a refrain that echoes from US consular and diplomatic posts throughout the Atlantic in the country’s first half-century. Consuls— unsalaried and numbering nearly 150 during Legare’s tenure—had long been expected to get by through their own, sometimes suspect, commercial endeavors (this would change only in 1856). As consulates burgeoned from the 1830s, they became outposts of the federal spoils system, eagerly sought by many, bestowing a scintilla of authority, but granting only a tenuous lifestyle. Diplomatic posts remained relatively underpaid, legacy of the early republic’s suspicion of the value of “diplomatists” and their relevance for US geopolitical interests.

EngravingEngraving from Lieutenant Colonel Batty’s Select Views of the Principal Cities of Europe (1832), overlooking the avenues across from the Royal Palace, a social corridor for Legare.

Yet given Legare’s salary of $4500, the light duties imposed by his office, and his well-heeled company, we might be unimpressed by his complaint. As he mines the city’s cultural resources, learns German, and flirts with European aristocrats, his diary is indeed a catalog of disaffection: he finds constant fault with his domestic servants, whom he accuses of dereliction and theft; he grows tired of the physical and social climate; he complains about import duties on his wine and hosts’ poor choices of Chinaware and weak Belgian oratory, and he positively bristles at the slightest imputation against the United States and ongoing Nullification crisis in South Carolina. He skirts Frances Trollope—“the Trollope”— like a blight during her visit to Brussels, following the publication of her excoriating Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832). Perusing his diary and personal correspondence, one does suspect a pervasive depression–recurrent “blue devils,” he names them. In a broader sense, though, this is all a recognizable performance of expatriation. At a moment of teeming national confidence, European travel became available to far more Americans, and with it a fairly narrow traveler’s script. Along these lines, Legare consumes the language, literature, and prestige of Europe at the same time that he asserts his distinctiveness from it; he suffers his solitude abroad while vaunting the experience to his American correspondents. As a highly learned South Carolinian doubly diminished vis-à-vis New England literary culture and Europe, the new, fragile Belgian state provided an especially welcome foil for his lifelong exercise in literary regionalism and nationalism.

Image 3 Wappers_belgian_revolutionÉpisode des journées de septembre 1830, Gustave Wappers (1834). Legare was the first US diplomat to Belgium, once the dust settled from its rupture with the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Legare ushered forward the first commercial treaty between the US and Belgium.

But rather than just another elite wanderer or beneficiary of the ballooning federal spoils system, Legare allows us an insight into a different type of diplomatic and consular history, which can both add more depth to that field of study and suggest a broader, more complex context for understanding American literature during this period.

Legare’s account of an evening’s exchange with Lieut. Col. Jeffreys, a West Indian planter, is suggestive of the multiple roles performed by diplomats and consuls. It was months before Britain’s 1833 abolition of slavery in the islands, and dreading a post-emancipation future in the Caribbean, Jeffreys planned to immigrate to the US rather than Europe. Seeking “renseignemens,” he came to Legare, who records:

…he has no hope of Europe, and, as a West-Indian, very little feeling of amor patriae for England…besides his West-India cidevant property, he can scrape together £23 or £24,000, of which a good deal is in American stocks now. I lend him a number of the Southern Review, containing an article on Flint’s Valley of Mississippi…Advise him, by all means to go; that it is the only country which has an avenir, and the world might well be divided thus,—Europe for bachelors and their suite; America for family men and theirs. (Writings, 17-18)

Here we encounter the intersection of the geopolitical and literary, a recurrent phenomenon in many small moments of diplomatic and consular life. Two large themes deserve attention. The first is Legare’s promotion of American expansionism and stark dichotomy between the fates of the Old and New World, whatever his anxieties about the ongoing nullification crisis. Matthew Karp has recently depicted a new, compelling context to read this spare comment in This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Harvard UP, 2016): despite popular narratives of southern opposition to federal power, in the antebellum decades Southerners wielded its foreign policy apparatus to bolster slave-based economies in the Western Hemisphere. Legare’s tenure preceded the focus of that story, and though a former slaveholder, he was hardly a missionary for its expansion. But in this rhetoric and his anxious efforts to make slow-churning Belgian administration ratify an advantageous bi-lateral trade deal, he certainly promoted an ambitious version of his country’s future dependent on slave labor.

More to my point, however, Legare furnishes a copy of his literary journal the Southern Review, which included an article on the Mississippi, where Jeffries could presumably reinvest his capital and continue his slave-based agriculture. It is a small gesture that links the US’ geopolitical aspirations, as it cleared the Southeast of its indigenous populations, with Legare’s literary labor, as he presented his Southern intellectual production to European critique. Legare’s time in Europe is interesting in itself because the exchange between Europe and Southern writers in this period has received far less attention than transatlantic relations with New Englanders. But Legare also represents the broader constellation of US diplomats and consuls who acted as cultural intermediaries with Europe, well before public diplomacy became an institutionalized practice. Like Legare, they frequently distributed US periodicals and literature to Europeans, circulated European writings among themselves, and forwarded them back to US audiences. Meanwhile, they acted as literary agents, expediting books and archival documents to writers in the US. For instance, as minister and consul to Madrid, respectively, Alexander Hill Everett and Obadiah Rich dispatched materials to Boston historian William Hickling Prescott, which would inform his colossal works on Spanish empire (including The History of the Reign Ferdinand and Isabella in 1837 and History of the Conquest of Mexico in 1843). Meanwhile, consuls and diplomats helped to publish US books for European audiences, such as long-serving consul to London Thomas Aspinwall, who facilitated the publication of such works as Washington Irving’s biography of Christopher Columbus in 1828. Their reflections on life abroad were diffused in the US press and were crucial in elaborating US perceptions of an increasingly interconnected world, including James Fenimore Cooper’s series of European sketches, published in the 1830s following his (mostly absentee) consulship in Lyon.

Legare played his small part in this story, in which the inchoate foreign policy infrastructure of the state also served the literary projects of an expanding nation shaking off an ingrained sense of cultural inferiority vis-à-vis Europe.