It’s here….


The desert island book club has arrived! All the reviews are on this page…scroll down and enjoy! You can also link to reviews via the individual links tabs under “Recent Posts” in the margin on the right. Have fun! It’s a truly delightful and diverse smorgasbord!


At the Dark End of the Street, Reviewed by Matt Garry


At the Dark End of the Street is a book about the African-American civil rights movement in the United States from the 1940s into the 1970s. This period saw the breakdown of institutional racism, codified by a series of laws that banned discriminatory practices that had become associated with the Jim Crow system. One of the movement’s leaders, Martin Luther King Jr., is nothing short of an icon. However, Danielle McGuire’s book is not about such well-known figures.

The author sees a largely untold side of the story of civil rights. She believes the role of women and the more sexualized aspects of racism in the United States have been largely forgotten. In the eyes of whites, black men were frequently seen as rapacious beasts. Meanwhile, black women were often targets of sexual assault by white males. McGuire gives a normally ignored account of the role of black women in the civil rights movement. This places her well within the trend of including women in history. That the role of women in such a recent and ubiquitous movement has been so disregarded is a testament to the necessity of books like McGuire’s. She also convincingly argues that one of the major fronts for black women in the battle over civil rights was in the realm of sexual violence.

McGuire’s book is essentially a succession of case studies connected across time. She examines several women who were either advocating for civil rights, resisting Jim Crow, victims of racial violence, or some combination of all three. This is conducive to a narrative way of explaining history, and the author does not shy away from employing narration. For example, McGuire describes an incident where Ella Ree Jones, a black female college student – sitting in the back half of the bus as required – refused to give up her seat to a white man. The bus driver flew into a rage, as was common. He pulled over and got two police officers. They ripped Jones off the bus. The policemen took her to city hall, severely beat her, and threw her in a jail cell. A judge convicted Jones the very next day, when she was still wearing her bloody and torn clothes. He would not entertain any accusations of abuse. McGuire uses these sorts of stories, often rather than statistics, to establish trends in the Jim Crow South. The author uses such stories to point out that Jones was in some ways lucky – it certainly wasn’t unheard of for a black woman to be raped by her arresting officers.

McGuire has clear and direct intentions in telling these kinds of stories. The first is to show what the Jim Crow system was like for women. Perhaps the most infamous acts of violence during this period were perpetrated on black men. There are countless stories and photos of lynchings, yet these always involve black men. Women of color faced different threats, often times more sexual in nature.  She also points out that many female acts of defiance took place long before Rosa Parks, herself a civil rights activist, declined to stand up for a white person on a bus. This is the case with Jones.

The fact that women were carrying out acts of resistance remarkably similar to Parks before she became a national figure is a key feature of McGuire’s book. Not only does it show that women refused to simply abide the vicious racism imposed on them, but also reveals an interesting fact. Civil rights activists would often only rally around the “right” sort of person. McGuire gives the accounts of many brave women who stood up to racism but were ultimately pushed to the sidelines by activists because they were too poor or were unwed mothers, etc. Although the movement could have a spontaneous feel to it – for example Rosa Parks is one day just no longer able to move to the back of the bus for the white man – there were a lot of behind-the-scenes calculations going on.

So why is it important to write about women in the civil rights movement? It is crucial not just because women deserve to have a voice in history, but because women were immensely important to this particular episode in history. As mentioned before, there was actually a fair amount of calculation and organization to the civil rights movement. Black women played a key part in this respect. McGuire points out that the Montgomery Bus Boycott, championed by figures such as MLK, largely succeeded because of the women who participated. Women used the bus more often than men to get to their places of work.

Essentially, black women were crucial to many aspects of the civil rights movement and actually had goals, such as the cessation of sexual violence, that were not entirely shared by their male counterparts. McGuire does an excellent job of detailing the many ways in which black women contributed to civil rights and were indispensible to the overall movement. That the author tells the personal stories of women who resisted racism and segregation makes her arguments compelling. She provides interviews and photographs of such women, some of whom are still alive, to give a more concrete emphasis on their existence and importance, even though many of them have been left out of the historiography of the civil rights movement.

There are also some weaknesses to At the Dark End of the Street, however. It is fair to say that one key reason women were often relegated to the background in the civil rights movement is that American culture generally marginalized women in that period. However, McGuire perhaps does not criticize the role of the movement’s leadership in downplaying women. It seems she shies away from saying something negative about such a renowned movement. Nevertheless, the question remains. Could activists have done more to credit the women who were integral to their success? Implicitly, McGuire says yes. In many ways, that is the raison d’être of her book, to demonstrate just how important black women were in this respect. However does not directly address the issue. When trying to explain why women did not figure as publicly into the civil rights movement as men, she never really implicates the movement itself. However, it seems highly unlikely that activists, especially male activists, were in no way responsible for black women being kept in the background in spite of the critical role they played. McGuire’s book loses some explanatory power for her failure to address such issues head on.

The author falls into another historiographical trap. The subject of her writing is the civil rights of black people, especially African-American women. McGuire gets a bit wrapped up on shaping her arguments along the lines of agency. In the context of freedom from sexual violence, the author talks about how one of the principal motives of black women was to reclaim their humanity and their bodies from their white oppressors. However, words like “reclaim” carry certain implications. Such terms suggest that white men did, in fact, own black women’s bodies and humanity. Instead of saying that these women had their humanity all along and that such things were simply being denied to them, McGuire at times writes from a master-slave historiographical perspective. This does not due justice to brave women that stood up to racism and oppression. To claim that African-American women did not have agency and needed take it back plays into frameworks set by arguments surrounding the question of whether or not people had any humanity at all.

However, this should not dissuade anyone from reading McGuire’s book. The criticisms just mentioned pale in comparison to what At the Dark End of the Street has to offer. There are incredible women who organized as effectively, thought as clearly, and fought as fiercely for their rights as any man during the civil rights movement. McGuire proves that the movement likely would not have succeeded without the help of black women. More importantly, she demonstrates clearly that the civil rights movement has been overly reduced and simplified. It was not just about Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering harrowing speeches. The movement also entailed women who risked as much, if not more than men in the hopes of securing the rights enshrined in American idealism.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Reviewed by Costa Valettas


In 1417, Poggio Braccolini, ex-papal secretary, seasoned book-hunter and humanist par excellence, discovered a forgotten copy of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura tucked away on the shelf of a German monastery. This epic poem articulates in beautiful Latin the Epicurean philosophy, an ancient Greek intellectual tradition that holds that the world is composed of tiny, indivisible, indestructible atoms in constant motion. The trajectory of these atoms is not linear, but instead very slightly swerved, causing them to combine and collide with each other and to form the complex and ever-changing structures that constitute the material world.

Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve is so named because it argues that Poggio’s discovery was itself a swerve, not this time in the realm of the material, but in the realm of the metaphysical. The discovery of De Rerum Natura, according to Greenblatt, helped to usher in the Renaissance and its intellectual turn to empiricism, thus making Poggio a “midwife to modernity.” A work of masterful storytelling, The Swerve also showcases the tensions between various forms of knowledge production in the course of the development of European intellectual history, while reminding us that much of what we know, or think we know, about the past originates from the intersection of chance and human agency. Aside from these theoretical considerations, The Swerve immerses us in world of Poggio, his contemporaries, and his Roman predecessors, while the immensely entertaining narrative allows us to share the thrill that Poggio himself must have felt as he first laid eyes on that dusty manuscript.

It might come as some surprise that a papal secretary could be so instrumental in the diffusion of a school of thought whose philosophical implications, such as the “pleasure principle,” which holds that one’s goal in life should be to maximize pleasure, and the notion that the soul is material and dies with the body, were considered anathema by the Catholic Church. The contradiction becomes less perplexing when Greenblatt explains that the pre-Counter-Reformation church that was more tolerant of dissidence than its later incarnations, and when we learn that Poggio’s devotion to God was exceeded only by his devotion to classical philology.

The book does, however, have a tendency to oversimplify its analysis. For example, there has in recent years been a great deal of debate about the centuries before the Renaissance. The conventional narrative maintains that there was a “Dark Age,” during which the literary, cultural and scientific inheritance of Antiquity was forgotten and very nearly lost, only to be snatched from the jaws of oblivion by Renaissance humanists and returned to the light of the world by their philological labors. Greenblatt appears to harbor some sympathy for this more romantic view of the Renaissance, though it is now much more frequently argued that it was a much less significant break from the Middle Ages than had previously been thought (if indeed it is possible to delineate these two periods at all). The Swerve seems to attribute excessive influence to the effect of De Rerum Natura alone on the evolution European thought. Though the poem was certainly a monumental find, Greenblatt himself tells us that it was “certainly not responsible for an entire … transformation – no single work was” (12).  Instead, he states that he has “tried in this book to tell a little known but exemplary Renaissance story” (12). Yet he goes on to say immediately thereafter that his book is “the story of how the world swerved in a new direction,” “the key moment” being when Poggio “reached out one day, took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. That was all; but it was enough” (12).

It is difficult to believe that Greenblatt, professor emeritus of history at Harvard, could genuinely subscribe to such a simplistic narrative. It seems more likely that in trying to craft an appealing story for the reader, the author has taken certain liberties with the historical record. There is no doubt that the clever title has come at the cost of some historical precision, but as long as the careful reader interprets Grenblatt’s book in light of his initial warning, rather than his subsequent deviation from it, the central message remains much more faithful to the evidence in question and much more balanced.

The Swerve also serves, if somewhat inadvertently, as a study of the phenomenon of knowledge production. In its simplest form, the concept of knowledge production implies that instead of “rediscovering” the past, historians “construct” it in the present. According to this view, historical knowledge has always been constructed in this way, and has, and likely always will, contain some sort of bias. Historical knowledge depends on the evidence analyzed, the point of view from which the historian approaches their work, and a host of other factors inherent in the process of historical research. In effect, the concept involves breaking with the notion that there can exist an objectively true account of the past. Moreover, Greenblatt’s account of the process by which humanist knowledge developed (through the intentional search for texts, some of which were preserved by the toil of monastic scribes, and others of which were lost in what was essentially process or random selection) reinforces the importance of chance in shaping the parameters for the creation of historical knowledge. Had Poggio and his contemporaries stumbled upon other, now lost manuscripts, the evolution of European intellectual culture might have followed a markedly different path.

In his own narrative, Greenblatt implicitly describes the conflict between a number of processes of knowledge production. Most notable among these is his account of the clash between Catholic “official knowledge,” and humanist knowledge, the latter of which has its roots in classical philosophy. As the humanist challenge becomes increasingly pressing, the Church finds itself on the defensive, creating more knowledge to counter the uncomfortable assertions of humanism. For example, Greenblatt treats in significant detail the process by which the Church entrenches in the minds of its adherents the knowledge that pleasure is sinful, in order to diminish the appeal of Epicurean philosophy and to defuse the threat it poses to the Church’s spiritual monopoly.

The reader might also observe that Greenblatt himself produces a particular narrative (or “knowledge”) of intellectual history for the reader by emphasizing the importance of De Rerum Natura at the expense of many other factors. Moreover, the fact that Greenblatt casts what is essentially a European narrative in a universal light suggests to the reader that the intellectual history of Europe is the intellectual history of the world, a statement whose absurdity needs no refutation. Finally, the author sets up a dialectical opposition between Classical philosophy, as interpreted through the humanist prism, and Catholic dogma. However, the work of authors like Carlo Ginzburg suggests that there were likely other perspectives involved in shaping the intellectual character of Europe during this period. In sum, Greenblatt himself becomes an example in his own study of knowledge production.

The book is by no means a flawless work. For one, the narrative itself, for all its merits, is very misleadingly framed. Moreover, Greenblatt at times provides the reader with some information that is not strictly necessary to support his thesis, and while the interested reader might appreciate the additional context, other readers might find the extra information cumbersome. To this author’s mind, at least, these little anecdotes help the reader envision the cast of historical personages less as abstractions, and more as flesh-and-blood human beings. Indeed, this is one of The Swerve’s winning qualities: it renders tangible the world of the past in a way that few other works can. Moreover, it is visually appealing – while the casual reader will appreciate the color gloss photographs for their vividness and detail, the scholar will be relieved that there are any pictures at all.


Though the reader should bear in mind that The Swerve’s focus is skewed by a catchy subtitle, a misleading metaphor, and an ill-advised addendum to the introduction, the book is nevertheless highly recommended. When read with the above qualifications in mind, The Swerve book proves an astute study of an “exemplary” case in the history of European thought. It is eminently readable, witty sometimes, and informative almost always. What’s more, it is suffused throughout with the author’s sense of wonder at the complexity of the human experience, echoing, no doubt, the sentiments of Lucretius himself. It is rare feat indeed to create an experience that is both intellectually rewarding and aesthetically pleasing, but the careful reader will find that Greenblatt has done just that.

Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, Reviewed by Tara Davis



In Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, Mark Kurlansky (1997) spins a refreshingly intimate narrative on the relationship between humans and the environment. He attempts to understand the present by way of the past: what historian March Bloch’s describes as, “the master quality of the historian”.[1] In this light, Kurlansky’s interpretation of the critical events leading to the decline of cod in the 1990s contributes to a necessary dialogue on current sustainability of the marine environment.[2]

In Part One, “A Fish Tale”, Kurlansky addresses how man, “an openmouthed species greedier than cod”, caused the near-extinction of the “common” fish made to “endure”. [3] His first approach is to establish cod as instrumental in laying the foundation of the Trans-Atlantic world. The Vikings air-dried the fish to survive voyages made to America between 985 and 1011, the medieval Basques established themselves as whalers by trading and salt-curing cod, and the British fought the first cod war in 1532. By 1550, sixty percent of all fish eaten in Europe was cod and it remained a staple food for 250 years.

Kurlansky reveals how cod fishing territories were the heart of British and French negotiations following the Seven Years’ War. France “held its slave colonies but lost its fisheries” and would subsequently depend on New England cod to feed Caribbean plantation slaves.[4] When Britain attempted to regulate the French molasses trade and the American cod trade in 1733, Kurlansky argues it marked the “first inadvertent step towards dismantling the British Empire”. (99). By the late 1700s, the cod fisheries in New England established a commercial environment of individual economic freedom independent from the British crown. The American Revolution emerged not from a call for political freedom. Rather, the colonists demanded the right to make money via the right to sell cod.

Ultimately, the more experienced, better trained, and “certainly better dressed” British Army lost because the Continental army was better fed and better paid.[5] Following Kurlansky’s narrative thread the reader initially assumes the Continental Army survived on cod, yet this is not the case. Due to the militarization of fishing waters there was “not much cod for anyone”.[6]

In response, Kurlansky explains how cod laid the economic foundation for the production of food for the Continental Army. Here was the fish that had built Boston’s economy. Its financial trail extended far beyond the day’s catch. On a whole, Kurlansky aptly introduces the reader to the “fish that changed the world”, but his representation of cod as the fish that won the revolutionary war is reductionist. While it does lend a new perspective on the conflict, it neglects other reasons for British defeat such as the vast territory the army had to cover in the colonies, so distant from Great Britain. In failing to address the counterarguments of established historians, it is not clear from where Kurlansky’s is drawing his argument.

In Part two, “Limits”, Kurlansky interprets the technological and sociological transition from cod fisherman to industrial worker: from the use of hand lines to trawl lines. Kurlansky contributes to this history by interweaving the human rationality behind every new change in technology. At the turn of the 19th century, the human perception of the abundance of cod dictated alterations within fishing practices. In the Darwinian spirit of the Victorian age, Kurlansky argues, T.H. Huxley served on three British fishing commissions, where he argued that all the herring and cod could never be “fished out”.[7] The number of cod and the prolific number of eggs in an average cod was enough to preclude “all the efforts of man to exterminate it”.[8] Here, Kurlansky could present better examples and could be more explicit in making connections between the Darwinian age its impact on the management of cod. This meeting of micro-history and macro-history does not lend for an argument as persuasive as Kurlansky’s other insights.

Kurlansky also comments on the self-perpetuating relationship between cod populations and technological innovation.  So long as newer fishing techniques yielded bigger catches it did not seem that the stocks were being depleted. Even when local cod populations were in obvious decline, steam ship trawlers expanded into the ocean and returned with bounty. The abundance of fish catches were not related to the population size, so much as they exemplified the efficiency of steam ship trawlers to access untouched, healthy populations in remote waters. By the 1890s, Kurlansky notes, fish stocks were already showing signs of depletion in the North Sea. Instead of conservation, “fleets traveled farther to richer grounds off of Iceland”.[9] While this tactic supplied the international market for a time, it altered marine ecosystem dynamics indefinitely.  In Newfoundland, Canada’s historic fishing province, it left inshore fisherman with dwindling cod populations. In what appeared to local fisherman as a sudden collapse of cod, the fish that had forever been managed as an infinite resource, was in fact, “so rare that it could no longer be considered commercially viable.”[10]

Kurlansky explains how technological innovation was not only to blame; it was simply the tool humans crafted to supply demands for cod. Diesels, trawler nets, bottom draggers, sonar surveillance, and factory ships– all took a toll on the resilience of cod. After the industrial age, what drove the extraction of cod at unprecedented levels was a consumer market predicated on Clarence Birdseye’s invention of frozen foods. Though Kurlansky’s focus on the modern distribution methods is focused, it neglects other reasons for increased cod extraction.  These include the role the advancement of medicine played in drastically increasing the size of population, the post-WWII economic boom, and the overall increase in wealth and prosperity throughout the modern world. All attributed to an increased demand for cod.

In Part Three, “The Last Hunters”, Kurlansky’s stronger argument is found in how he ultimately ascribes the decline of cod to human misperception. These technological transfers are not simply natural, inevitable transitions, rather they were innovations justified within a specific socio-cultural context of guiding policies and practices. In his comparison of Canada and Norway, Kurlansky intimates how past human errors can only aid current natural resource management decision-making. In Norway, the politicians were able to severely limit the catch and change the industry when the fish were still commercially viable. As a result, populations were able to rebound. In Canada, the necessary regulations arrived too late and the fisherman were left to wait.[11] Regardless if the human decisions surrounding cod in Canada were for better or for worse, and it is clear Kurlansky supports the latter, what is hopeful is this element of human agency.

Living in a time of large-scale profit-driven food markets, changing climate, and massive species extinction, Kurlansky’s history lesson is worth applying to contemporary decision making, though it is far from a policy brief.  Cod recipes, dating from the twelfth century to the twentieth century, chronologically break up the chapters. At first, these recipes come across as anecdotal and trite. In Part One, it is not clear how several boiled cod recipes are relevant. The further Kurlansky builds his argument, however, the recipes become shards of evidence of an unimaginable time when cod was, indeed, abundant. They also serve as a constant reminder of the longevity of this staple food in daily life. In the beginning sections of this book, Kurlansky intimates this point, but it is not until the last page of the book that Kurlansky drives his main point and the recipes come to life:

There is a big difference between living in society that hunts whales and living  in one that views them. Nature is being reduced to precious demonstrations for entertainment and education, something far less natural than hunting. Are we headed for a world where nothing is left of nature but parks? We know it is hard to kill off fish than mammals. But after 1,000 years of hunting the Atlantic cod, we know that it can be done.[12]

The recipes reveal a time when man was intertwined, as oppose to a part from, the natural processes. Cod represented livelihood, sustenance, and ritual.  Throughout the book, we see how cod is transformed from a dish cooked by fishing communities to a pricey specialty prepared by elite cooks. The progression of the recipes cited throughout the book exemplifies the shift from man’s personal relationship with nature to a large-scale dependency on technology. What is strikingly distinct about the last thirty pages of recipes in the book is how the reader realizes they are all written for a ghost fish, and it is not clear if these recipes will be again in the future.

[1] Bloch, Marc. 1953. The historian’s craft. New York: Knopf.

[2] Kurlansky, Mark. 1997. Cod: a biography of the fish that changed the world. New York: Walker and Co, 43.

[3] Kurlansky, 45.

[4] Kurlansky, 88.

[5] Kurlansky, 98.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Kurlansky, 121.

[8] Kurlansky, 108.

[9] Kurlansky, 132.

[10] Kurlansky, 186.

[11] Kurlansky, 193.

[12] Kurlansky, 233.

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, Reviewed by Francesca Bucchi


The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England (2008) is a bestseller written by Ian Mortimer, an English writer and historian with a BA and PhD in history from the University of Exeter.  The book is both unprecedented and fascinating because it offers the reader a new approach to history in an attempt to bring the subject away from the elitist circle of historians and to a larger audience. As the title suggests, the work is designed as a guide for a time traveller and it describes various aspects of the life in medieval England as the reader himself were visiting the country during the fourteenth century and experiencing what it meant to live there at the time.

The text is divided into various chapters, each of which dealing with a specific aspect of the medieval reality, such as the Landscape or What to Wear. Interestingly, Mortimer subdivides the chapters themselves into smaller sections in order to describe each and every aspect according to medieval social classes, which he introduces in chapter two. Although many would consider this as a method Mortimer uses to simplify and systematize his work, this is in fact a very courageous approach to analyse the specific historical period since it accentuates the different ways the author used to study the classes. By comparing the parts dedicated to the nobility and the clergy and those dedicated to the peasants, one would notice that the author tends to be more specific with the former, mentioning important examples, while more vague with the latter.  For instance, when dealing with the medieval lodgings of the nobility, the author is able to present a great deal of supporting evidence for his claim of the fourteenth century as a century of castle rebuilding (154). On the other hand, when he deals with the lower classes’ houses, Mortimer only recurs to Chaucer’s tales as major evidence (163,165).  The classist approach thus involuntarily emphasizes either the availability or lack of sources the author had to deal with when writing his work.

In addition to classes, sex is another subcategory the author uses to deal with the different aspects of medieval life in England. Mortimer specifically includes a part dedicated to women in the chapter on the medieval classes (chapter two). In this, the author seems very conscious of the patriarchal nature of medieval society, but he nevertheless claims that women indeed have advantages, for instance, “no man could take his wife to court for […] husband-beating” (56). Although this is a true statement, it is hard to believe in its wide applicability to the majority of medieval women. Moreover, after this short but intense part dedicated to the apparently “not so fair sex”, Mortimer uses sex as an analytical framework in a very biased way. He mentions women only when dealing with specific cases where sex obviously matters, like medieval clothing, but he seems to forget to mention, for instance, what it meant for women to travel in fourteenth century England (chapter six) or why they would just not “stay at an inn by themselves” (146). As a result of this, the entire book seems to be framed in a very male perspective and thus for a “male” time traveller to medieval England.

Besides the classist approach, another characteristic of Mortimer’s narrative is the sensory aspect of the book. This is both a novelty and a strength of the work that derives from the wish of the author to describe the specific historical period as the reader was actually living it. Throughout the book, it won’t be unusual to see references to the five senses such as the smell of a brook (6), the quietness of a road (246), or the chatting in a manorial court (126). For instance, when talking about Where to Stay (chapter seven), Mortimer spends quite few pages describing the peculiar and very common world of the inn; however, he warns the time traveller that despite what the tradition has conveyed to the modern reader about the often “romantic aspects” of staying in an inn (145), the reality is indeed different. During the night, in fact, “the sound of travellers stumbling along the gallery or down the stair is not uncommon” (146). This emphasis on the senses is really effective in catching the attention and curiousness of the reader, but it is important to say that such literary manoeuvre has a deeper purpose.

The very peculiar narrative style full on sensory details chosen by the author to deal with the specific historical period perfectly adheres to the principles of what he himself introduces in the preface as “virtual history” (2). This new approach aims at “taking the reader directly to a moment in time, and presenting events as if they were still unfolding” (2), thus bringing history closer to the reader by allowing him or her to go beyond mere historical sources and actually understand the humanity permeating a specific historical period. As Mortimer claims: “As you start to think of the past happening […], a new way of conceiving history becomes possible” (1). Thus one sees how the sensory details are not simply literary surpluses, but they are concrete devices used by the author in order to plunge the “traveller” completely into the reality of medieval England. For instance, in the chapter dedicated to Health and Hygiene (chapter nine), the author underlines the importance of understanding the gravity of the Great Plague not only as an historical turning point, but as a human factor that affected the life of millions of people and to do that he describes what the landscape would have looked like to anyone visiting England during the Black Death:

“As you look around and see ravens flying through deserted streets, and half-wild dogs and pigs eating the corpses abandoned on the edge of a village, you will see something no historian will ever see” (203).

In the same way, Mortimer uses the present tense throughout his book, which may at first seems confusing when dealing with history. Actually, this is just another means to make the reader feel like he is experiencing what he is reading and not just filtering information passively.

In conclusion, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England is an excellent book for all the lovers of medieval history, but I would actually suggest anyone to read it. The way of approaching history proposed by Mortimer is simply revolutionary and reading the book may eradicate anyone’s previous misconception of history as a merely scholarly subject. The narrative in fact seems to bring history to life, thus demonstrating that sometimes one just needs new eyes to really appreciate something. As Mortimer ardently states at the end of his book: “history is no longer just an extended academic exercise – it can be anything you want it to be.” (290)


Mortimer, Ian. The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England: a Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century. London: The Bodley Head, 2008


The Sleepwalkers, Reviewed by Josh Doyle – Raso


The history of the genesis of the First World War has been addressed by countless historians due to its complex nature. Historians point to structural conditions, the attitudes of each state’s specific leaders, the prevailing ideologies of the time and the arms race, among other things, as the causes of the conflict. Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, though it works with an immense collection of sources and accounts, presents a simpler explanation; the leaders and foreign policy makers of pre-War Europe simply did not realize the consequences of their actions and so continued to perpetuate volatile and inconsistent policy and discourse. His focus on diplomatic and other governmental decision-makers has benefited First World War by providing a more in-depth analysis of the personas in the diplomatic scene of pre-war Europe. Clark’s work presents its easy to understand thesis through an unchallenging literary style and the research that Clark has done, his interpretations of that research, and the methodology he uses to alleviate his sources’ limitations, especially state-managed archives, are very effective.

Merits as a Work of Popular History

Clark uses a narrative style full of description and character building, making The Sleepwalkers’ central arguments accessible to a non-academic audience. Despite the book’s length, Clark does not use lengthy paragraphs and his sentences are concise. Though the length may intimidate some, the content and writing in the book should not be a concern to a lay audience.

Clark’s narrative style could easily lend itself to the writing of a novel. He rarely uses complicated or obscure words and does not employ academic concepts or theories that a lay reader would not understand; instead, he uses colloquial and exciting language to draw the reader into the story and drive the narrative. For example, when writing about Bulgarian concerns over Macedonia, Clark writes that Bulgaria was “anxious to secure Salonika before the Greeks got their hands on it.”[1] The colloquial phrase “getting one’s hands on something” is not typically found in a serious work of scholarship, but it works well in this instance. It is a phrase that every English native speaker understands and so allows Clark’s point to be readily understood. Additionally, the phrase can convey children grabbing for the last morsel of some treat, which is true to the mood that Clark tries to evoke here.

Clark’s narrative style is found not just in the everyday nature of his language, but also in his descriptions. His writing effectively evokes settings and portrays historical figures as real life characters. For example, Clark provides a detailed background of Sir Edward Grey, the longstanding British foreign secretary, which includes his family upbringing, education and an account of his pastimes. He refers to Grey’s own notes as well as British and foreign writings about Grey and compares many accounts to distill Grey’s personality.

Clark’s literary style in The Sleepwalkers allows him to retain and appeal to an audience who might be intimidated by the size and detail of the book. It produces a narrative history, keeping the reader interested and desirous to read more.

Clark’s arguments are also easy to understand. He argues that the diplomats and policy makers of pre-war Europe acted as “sleepwalkers” and unknowingly led themselves into a world war. Rather than appealing to academic theories or using historical jargon, he consults the memoirs of relevant figures and compares them with contemporary newspaper accounts and official governmental documents. Further, his comparisons and analyses are explained in layman’s terms. Though his conclusion, that all the actors are culpable and no individual actor should be blamed, may not satisfy a reader who seeks a simplistic “good guy/bad guy” narrative, his methodology is sound. It is not a challenging task to understand the progressions that Clark makes throughout his book, and the conclusions that he reaches based on his evidence are well-grounded and easily understood.

Merits of Methodology, Research, and Interpretation

            Clark explains simply and clearly the methodological problem of working with state archives. Clark explains that any First World War historian is confronted by an oversupply of archival evidence. He advises that much of this information is suspect due to the politicized intent of state archives. For example, German archival collections attempt to dispel the “war guilt” thesis; French collections attempt to counteract this; and Russian archives portray the buildup to the First World War as an autocratic and bourgeois process that countered the interests of the working class. He also explains that the memoirs of many statesmen and other key decision-makers have been sanitized to remove any possibilities of guilt, or are simply extremely vague regarding the events prior to the War. He notes that even the memories of many of these figures, when interviewed by an American historian in the 1920s, were hazy, spotty, and surprisingly immune to self-doubt.[2] He also remarks on the secretive nature of many of the period’s diplomatic exchanges.[3] Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Clark researched state archives, decision-makers’ memoirs and newspaper articles extensively and intensively. It is evident that the depth and breadth of Clark’s research has benefited his book as it allows him to overcome the limitations of relying only on state-managed archives.

Clark’s recognition of state-managed archives’ shortcomings is a good first step to addressing the problem. His methodology is founded upon this recognition. For discerning the truthfulness of state-managed archives and filling the gaps found in many of the relevant figures’ memoirs, Clark consults as many sources as possible.  This strategy is effective for it allows him to compare sources which contain similar claims with slightly different information. For example, Clark used this method with success when attempting to ascertain the truth of reports that Serbian military forces were carrying out atrocities in 1913 occupied Albania.

Though the Serbian government denied these atrocities, Clark looks to messages from Austrian, British and even Serbian diplomatic officials that countered its claim. He writes that the Austrian Consul-General in Skopje reported on these atrocities, and that these reports mostly accorded with those provided by British regional officials. He points to messages the Serbian envoy in Vienna sent to Belgrade which stated that the French ambassador was concerned by the atrocities and that the Serbian envoy advised the Belgrade government that these complaints might have “very bad consequences.”[4] He also consults a Viennese newspaper article in which a Serbian minister was quoted as saying Serbia might be “forced to take measures on her own account” to deal with Albania-Serbia border troubles, though caused by Serbian atrocities.[5]

In instances such as this, consulting solely the Serbian sources might give the false impression of a government whose actions are misunderstood. Alternatively, consulting solely the British or Austrian sources would have revealed only the possible existence of these atrocities. By consulting Serbian and other sources, both governmental and media-based, Clark provides a more complete view of the issue and confirms the atrocities and sheds light on the Serbian government’s reaction.

Clark’s methodology has also allowed him deep insight into the relationship between states’ foreign policy and the domestic and world presses. By consulting these sources in order to confirm the factual basis of many events, he also discovered the personal opinions of statesmen and other decision-makers regarding the effect of public and press opinions. This section of the book is especially interesting because it is analogous to the current situation in many countries, in which extreme opinions are much louder than those of moderates. It is noteworthy that even early 20th century diplomats recognized that the press, especially nationalist or extreme press, could not be trusted to reflect accurately actual public opinion.[6] It is in examinations such as these where Clark’s effective interpretation of evidence is most obvious for the logic of the conclusions he draws from his research is apparent.

Take, for example, Clark’s examination of Russian foreign minister Sazonov’s view of the press. Clark examines statements given by foreign minister Sazonov. He writes that it was well understood that Sazonov “affected an attitude of contempt towards journalists and their opinions” but goes on to write about how Sazonov cleverly used the Russian press to make Russia’s intentions palatable to foreign powers. He cites a confidential Russian circular to its ambassadors in which Sazonov urged them to direct foreign officials to read Russian press to understand the domestic challenges faced by the Russian government.[7] If Clark had merely taken Sazonov’s public words at face value and failed to consult official documents that contradict those words, Clark would have failed to provide an insight into the character and actions of this key official. Clark reaches the conclusion that Sazonov, like many other decision-makers for whom Clark provides examples, understood the limitations and frustration of published opinion, but still utilized it as a tool to express foreign policy or discern the possibilities of another state’s foreign policy. It is through his careful research and transparent methodology that Clark is able to reach this conclusion without controversy.

In conclusion, Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers is an accessible, if lengthy, account of the diplomatic tensions that led to the First World War. The methodology he employs is effective at redressing the issue of politicized state archives and sanitized official memoirs, while the language and styles employed in the book, as well as its relatively uncomplicated thesis, make his work accessible to a lay audience. Though the book is long and detailed, it would be a fascinating read for anyone, academic or not, with an interest in the First World War. It provides a simple and clear argument presented in an unintimidating fashion that is supported by excellent scholarship.


[1] Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers, (New York : HarperCollins, 2012) p. 253

[2] Clark, pp. xxiii-xxiv

[3] Clark, p. xxvi

[4] Clark, p. 113

[5] Clark, p. 286

[6] Clark, p. 229

[7] Clark, p. 265

The Lost Symbol, Reviewed by Praniet Chopra



The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown[1] narrates the story of Professor Robert Langdon, a Harvard symbologist, who is deceptively invited to Washington by a psychopathic murderer on a quest to find the ‘Lost Word’ and his honorary place among the demons in the afterlife, and is plunged into a manhunt to retrieve his friend, Peter Solomon, a high-ranking Mason. In spite of enduring various near-death experiences, Langdon is able to, by relying on his knowledge of ancient symbols and codes, decipher the enigmatic pyramid, find the villain, and prevent him from revealing all the secrets of the Masonic brotherhood’s rituals and members. Eventually, despite not being a member of the Masons, Langdon is exposed to the Lost Word—the Bible—buried deep within the Washington Capitol building by George Washington (a prominent Mason) and is reminded of the godlike powers of the individual.

In The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown attempts to present a very trustworthy and [overly] favourable interpretation of the Freemasons and, without bibliographic evidence, retells their historic myths in a present-day male-centered society.

This book includes a very eclectic range of history, spanning from the conspiracies revolving around the institution of Masonry to the ancient basis of the study of the mind’s power, known as Noetics. While it was certainly engaging to venture into the depths of an organisation that is perceived as extremely secretive and to understand the true potential our minds harness, Brown presents history in a very sensationalised manner. He emphasizes the secretiveness of Masonic rituals, and yet describes in detail the ceremony to enter into the highest order. Admittedly, Brown does not make a pledge of veracity in terms of the Masonic rituals and the Ancient Mysteries he describes. However, the fact that he incorporates them into his book with such perceived integrity is disconcerting because many readers might blindly accept his accounts as accurate. He also appears to be a bit too defensive of the secretive Masonic rituals and practices, and exhibits a clear bias in their favour. Relatedly, if the Masons truly are as secretive as he claims them to be, how reliable are his accounts of members’ identities and roles in history? In essence, to maintain the sensationalist character of his book and attract even more readers, Brown presents many mind-boggling conspiracy theories, whose legitimacy is not clearly established.

Being centered on the Masonic brotherhood, this novel obviously has a very gendered character to it. In fact, Brown, in depicting the heavily male-dominated history of the American founding fathers and the Masonic society, creates a similar society and atmosphere within which his own female characters, specifically Katherine Solomon and Inoue Sato, develop. However, these two characters are described inconsistently, with Brown simultaneously incorporating the characteristics of the ‘caretaker’ and ‘damsel in distress’ archetypes (especially in pertinence to Katherine) into those of a knowledgeable, well informed, useful, and authoritative individual.

Brown paints Katherine Solomon as a ‘female’ in a very conservatively traditional connotation of the word, with the exception her role as a scientist. She is described as an attractive and very sensitive character, often putting herself and others in danger in order to find and save her brother. Her constant worry for him is quite irrational at times, given the time-sensitive nature of concurrent crises. This irrationality is amplified when juxtaposed with the actions of Langdon and William Bellamy, who are focused on assessing the repercussions of deciphering the pyramid, even though doing so could save Peter’s life. Katherine’s emotionally driven behaviour pushes Langdon to decipher the pyramid, an event described as catastrophic, with all the blame being allotted to the Solomon sister. This seems to be an ‘Eve and the poisonous apple’-esque legend being moulded to fit into a historical fiction context. She is also portrayed as the overused stereotypical archetype for female characters, that of the “damsel in distress,” with both Langdon and Peter citing her safety as prime reasons for their actions and decisions.

However, instead of just leaving Katherine’s role as the sister of an important male character, Peter, Dan Brown attempts to weave her deeper into the storyline by presenting her niche area of research in Noetics. It also gives her a position of strength over the other characters in that her research is very closely linked to what the psychopath seeks and the Masons are trying to preserve: the Lost Word and the power of the human mind. It is interesting to note, however, that she divulges this research to the cleverly disguised antagonist, who burns it, while the Masonic brotherhood, who are protecting a similar secret, manage to preserve it throughout. There is a parallel here again with the Eve and the poisonous apple story where Katherine’s mistake nearly assures the doom of human knowledge, with the addition of the Masonic brotherhood acting as a saving grace. She reflects upon this instance as she lies, dying, and ponders upon how futile her life had been now that none of her research on Noetics would outlive her. Ironically, Langdon pursues a similar thought process when he is inches away from death, ruminating upon how useless he and his intellect would be after his death. Is this inconsistency in her portrayal, or attempt at setting her on an equal pedestal as the majoritarian male characters, an attempt at truly treating her as an equal to the male characters or simply depicting her as the ideal modern woman, who is deeply engrossed in her work but concurrently gives family more importance than anything else?

In contrast, the Director of the CIA Inoue Sato is depicted as a strong-willed and commanding woman, and provides an exception to the above-mentioned characteristics. Although she is not a major character and is described as harbouring various manly characteristics, her voice being one of them, she does hold a lot of power over many characters, including Langdon and Warren Bellamy, a high ranking Mason. Her ability to command even the most powerful characters in the novel certainly earns Brown some credibility for attempting to present a female character who is more than simply a loyal sidekick/love interest. Also, his attempt at diversifying his female characters, as well as his male ones (ranging from a fearful disbelieving professor to a blind all-knowing Mason priest) discourages the widespread use of stereotypes, even though Katherine is partly an exception to this.

When comparing Katherine and Sato, especially based on their interactions, there seems to be a power-influenced hierarchy that comes into play. It is characterised primarily by Sato ordering Katherine to obey her orders, as she is a top-ranking official in the CIA. Based on simply this analysis, as well as those of the male characters (Langdon-Bellamy, for example), it seems that once one transcends the gender divide by focusing on characters of the same gender, the major theme that determines interaction among these individuals is the allotment of power.

It seems a bit disturbing that despite her intellect and potential, Katherine and her communication and decisions are constantly influenced by a motherly and nurturing instinct in relation to loved ones, namely Robert Langdon and Peter Solomon. This dichotomy between the emotional Katherine and practical Langdon, Bellamy, Peter, or Calloway, is only countered by the significance of Katherine’s research and the contrast that callous Sato provides, acting as a sort of bridge between the female and male characters.

On the whole, this book is an inviting read because it presents a myriad of conspiracy theories that readers can evaluate based on their own interest. Due to its sensationalist nature, the book engages readers and maintains their attention throughout the various interpretations of different codes and symbols, due to the urge to discover what, truly, the Lost Word is. It also describes many interesting artistic and architectural phenomena, which can appeal to another sector of readership that might not have read a simple historical fiction. Furthermore, it justifiably only provides a basic introductory understanding of the Freemasons. The detail that Brown presents about the institution is not verifiable in the text due to the lack of a bibliography, but it can ignite in readers an interest in the topic, which they can pursue with external research.

However, because this book was a historical fiction, a genre not known for its historical accuracy, it contains many flaws as well. Firstly, as already mentioned, Brown does not cite his sources in this book, which means that Brown verifies nothing that he mentions in this book, allowing readers to openly question the information’s legitimacy. It is also extremely sensationalist; the conspiracy theories Brown brings up should not be taken factually by the readers, a group composed of a an array of people, including young students who might not know to challenge what Brown states so authoritatively.

Overall, while the book might present some interesting sensationalist conspiracy theories and conjectures about a diverse range of historical organisations and events, such as the Masons, George Washington, the Capitol building, etc., it is not worth the read. Dan Brown’s questionable stipulation of ‘facts,’ clearly gendered story-telling technique with an annoyingly unhelpful Katherine Solomon, and biased approach towards the institution of Masonry detract from the legitimacy of the book and render it unimpressive in its historical domain.

[1] Brown, Dan. The lost symbol: a novel. New York: Doubleday, 2009.

As this is the book being reviewed, this will be mentioned throughout the piece.

The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding, Reviewed by Joe Brydon


            Class in The Fatal Shore is one of Hughes’ central concepts and he argues for a more nuanced understanding of class dynamics than any offered by Marx or Engels. Hughes teases out all the complexity in class throughout the development of the penal system. Early on Hughes states that, “The language of class in the 1830s was mostly invented and used by trying to describe the social complications that surrounded it.[1]” As one of the first statements on class in the work, Hughes sets up the framework he will use to understand further contradictions in Marx and Engels’ theories on class. With the focus of The Fatal Shore  being a penal colony, Hughes’ initial challenge is to ascribe a class to those who, in Marx and Engels’ work, do not have one; namely the so called lumpenproletariate’. The lumpenproletariate is not kindly looked upon by Marx or Engels, “this scum, offal, refuse of all classes.[2]” Both refuse to recognize that these undesirables could develop any class consciousness. Worse still in the eyes of Orthodox Marxists, those criminals transported to Australia then became closely engaged in agricultural work, another group Marx does not allow to develop class consciousness. To be clear, Marx and Engels state, “ the identity of their interests forms no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them, they do not constitute a class.[3]” Hughes shows how from the beginning the lumpen proletarians sent to Australia were, at least to those higher on a class ladder, a class unto themselves, “The idea of a criminal class, as understood by the English in the 1830s, meant that a distinct social group “produced” crime, as hatters produced hats or miners coal. It was part mob, part tribe and part guild, and it led a subterranean existence below and between the lower social structures of England.[4]”This recognition of the lumpen proletariat as a class is, for Hughes, a self fulfilling prophecy, where the reactions of the upper classes fueled the need for banding among those caught in the ‘criminal’ or ‘lumpen’ class. Thus, even before leaving for Australia, those who would have been dismissed by Marx as classless could have developed some consciousness, whether forced upon them or not. Still, though, the question remains as to how, in a predominantly agricultural economy, any established class could be sustained or expanded?

This could be accounted for, in Hughes’ work, through the tremendous dislocation caused by the transport of convicts to Australia. To compare the classes of England and Australia, though under the same government at the time, is to compare two wildly different groups. As Hughes clearly states, “One speaks of “colonial gentry” as though there were gentlemen in early Australia; but there were not.[5]” If the classes in Australia were very dissimilar to those in England, it follows that they differed in their establishment and in how they related to each other. The convict workers were in explicit bondage compared to the ‘free’ rural peasantry of England and, as such, arguably acquired some type of class consciousness through their “shared experience of servitude.[6]“ It was not, according to Hughes, impossible for those whom Marxists decry as rural peasantry to develop an understanding of their class through servitude.  Indeed much of Marxist theory is based off of such a struggle through servitude; specifically, Hegel’s famous Master-Slave dialectic. Hughes uses many well sourced examples to show solidarity between convicts more developed than simple friendship[7].

This convincing reassessment of class consciousness and development, both before and after traveling to the antipode, is still not without its weaknesses. Hughes does not account for how the discussions around class and class consciousness only truly arise in England around 1830 while transports of prisoners to Australia had been underway for nearly four decades. Furthermore, if convicts could establish some sort of class awareness through their servitude and solitude why is it that earlier unrest in Australia had been drawn along political lines, such as rekindled Irish rebelliousness, or classical lumpenproletarian action, in the likes highwaymen and bush wranglers? Hughes’ account of class development in early Australia is fascinating and demonstrates that there were important examples of class differentiation in existence even before Marx and Engels began their hugely influential works. But the important observations Hughes makes about class in Australia after 1830 are not present in his account of Australia prior to that period. Hughes’ ruminations on class then are interesting, if half formed.

This, admittedly rather minor complaint, should not overshadow what is otherwise a powerful work of the highest order. As popular history goes it is hard to find any as richly detailed and engaging while remaining scholarly. Readers gain a window into the reasons for England’s establishment of a penal colony in Australia while also remaining intimately tied to those who lived and died under the often brutal Australian sun. The Fatal Shore is a truly remarkable work with an incredible scope, ensuring that most will find something to love.

[1] Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: The epic of Australia’s founding (New York, Random House: 1988), p.164

[2] Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (London: Electric Book Co., 2001)

[3] Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (London: Electric Book Co., 2001)

[4] Hughes, The Fatal Shore, p.164

[5] Hughes, The Fatal Shore, p.324

[6] Hughes, The Fatal Shore, p.353

[7] Hughes, The Fatal Shore, ps.353-354

Sex with the Queen, Reviewed by Benjamin Wong

       sex with the queen

“In royal courts bristling with testosterone—swashbuckling generals, polished courtiers, and virile cardinals—how did repressed regal ladies find happiness?” Well, according to New York Times bestseller Sex with the Queen, queenly happiness takes the form of a “sexy young favourite.” In a survey of royal women’s boudoirs spanning from 11th Century Castile to the Princess Diana saga of the 1990s, Herman provides an addictively readable follow up to her seminal work on royal mistresses, Sex with Kings. She navigates across centuries of women’s history with the sensitivity of a bull in a china shop, while her salacious narrative certainly accords the book a place in the pantheon of great 21st Century non-fiction erotica.

First off, it is interesting to observe how Herman legitimizes her qualifications to write on the topic. A self-proclaimed “royal mistress expert,” Eleanor Herman exclaims on the cover that she is named after Eleanor of Aquitaine, her grandmother twenty-eight times removed, and is related to most of the royal families of Europe. This announcement implicitly suggests that you, a chain smoking day nurse from Connecticut descended from the great proletariat Smith dynasty of Manchester could not come up with the same brilliant conclusion that because Catherine Howard cheated on Henry VIII, she was executed. She also includes a dashing photo of herself in a tiara just in case the reader doesn’t get it (next time I write about peasant revolt, I’ll include a portrait of myself with a potato and pitchfork). Her biggest competitor in popular histories of royal women, the Lady Antonia Frasier, is guilty of name-dropping too. The only difference is that Fraser used her status as a knighted Lady to gain access to obscure and private Bourbon collections, bringing great new sources for her monograph Marie Antoinette: a Journey. Unfortunately, when I look at Hermann’s bibliography, it is apparent that being the 48th generation granddaughter of Charlemagne will only get you free refills at McDonalds and a local library card. I completely understand her situation, as she’s obviously using this Renaissance Fair charade to present herself as a legitimate historical source to the reader, no different from the thrill up every undergraduate student’s leg when they see Professor, Harvard University after the author’s name.

To be honest, I (Benjamin Wong, the 5th generation grandson of Ulaan Baatar peasantry) thoroughly enjoyed the book as light hearted entertainment. However, when looking down from my ivory tower of historiography, there are a few qualms with Herman’s approach to history in general. It would be unfair and unrealistic of me to complain about the subjects of her investigation; writing about queens sells, and when combined with sexual liberation, the work is certainly a New York Best Seller (I’m no marketing guru, but Celibacy with the Proletariat just doesn’t have the same ring to it). This book follows the same concept as the Real Housewives reality series on Bravo: free, independent, and successful women exercising agency over their lives. But apparently nobody wants to see the Empress Elizabeth, the Queen of all Russias, doing paperwork and turning Russia into an integral player in the European state system. Instead, Herman focuses on a rotating list of young male lovers, bastard children, and the fact that she told some princess to “hold your tongue, bitch.” And here’s the problem with her “feminism”; she states that queens were able to exercise agency within their patriarchal societies, but ends up writing her women into the same literary tropes of uncontrolled sexuality and feminine incompetence presented by your local Renaissance patriarch. Herman dedicates almost two chapters to Catherine the Great, but writes her life through her male lovers. Instead of Catherine giving the kingdom of Poland to Stanislaus Poniatowski due to the fact that the Empress needed an obedient puppet ruler to cement legitimacy for the great partitions, the event turns into a 2 am telenovela; Catherine, madly in love with another general, blindly gave away a fifth of her empire as an unofficial divorce settlement so she could run off with her newest stallion. Her success in the centralization of Russia is attributed to the presence of Prince Gregory Potemkin in the royal chambers, who was the only man who could “control” her sexual appetite at night, magically giving her the ability to govern the next morning. She trots out the urban legend that Catherine died in an attempt to mount a horse from below: I have nothing to say besides the fact that she should have titled the chapter 50 Shades of Neigh. There’s nothing inherently wrong about a woman having sex with whom she pleases, but Herman heads into dangerous territory when she states that all Catherine ever wanted was “to be raped and controlled” (with no citation!). There should be no excuse for these instances of simple ignorance and misrepresentation of events, and it is simply disrespectful to both her subjects and the gender historians who have worked tirelessly to present women in history as more than sexual sideshows and lascivious trivia.

This is my problem with certain pop histories, and certain responsibilities needed for someone seeking to educate the mass public on history. Mostly, people consider the things studied in the university as simply “intellectual stuff”, and therefore writing a pop history exempts you from engaging with this “stuff”. But what Hermann is blithely unaware of is the fact that sexism, populism, Marxism and plain old prurience have all worked together in the academic establishment for centuries to either deny Catherine the Great’s historical importance or simply write her off as the star of TLC’s My Strange Addiction. It was Isabel de Madariaga’s biography Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great (1981) that turned the Empress Catherine into a legitimate subject of serious historical study. In the last twenty years, a boom of historical work has come out, and Catherine has shown up on dissertations analyzing her importance in political, IR, economic, feminist, and court studies. Her newfound popularity then filtered down to BBC podcasts and a History Channel documentary before trickling on down to Herman’s clearance bin history Sex with the Queen. It’s therefore disappointing when it is clear that Herman has not leafed through any post-colonial or feminist literature on her subjects within the last 40 years. It is then sort of comical how some “pop historians” such as Herman can exempt themselves from “intellectual stuff” when in fact, she’s subscribing to the same misogynistic, Orientalist, and historiographical themes that were propagated by Oxford historians in the early 20th Century. So yes, call me elitist but I do think any author seeking to claim “non-fiction” status should seek to read a journal or two before beginning to write; from my experience with the figures in the book, Herman’s accounts of Elizabeth Charlotte of the Palatinate, Marie Antoinette, and the Russian Empresses could only be a product of willful ignorance. How well does this work fit into intellectual historiography? In her words, as well as Catherine the Great in a nunnery.

The reason why I’m so hard on Herman is because it has been proven by countless authors that it is possible to reconcile good history and good sales through the hottest new trend: good writing. It is possible to write about early modern Russia without describing its people as “barbaric”, “backwards”, and “oriental”. Likewise, it is possible to make academic work accessible to the public by replacing esotericism with personality. The Lady Antonia Fraser represents the great balance between information and entertainment; utilizing a figure such as Marie Antoinette (whom Cambridge professors thumb their nose at), Fraser sells a fantasy through her writing of court life while treating issues such as childbirth, the unofficial role of women, and the role of mass politics in a large-scale Jacobin smear campaign that forever linked her name with “let them eat cake”. Herman is certainly an excellent writer, and her chapter on the Princess Elizabeth Charlotte of the Palatinate and her cross-dressing husband is absolutely hilarious. However, instead of simply describing Elizabeth Charlotte as a silent, miserable victim of an abusive husband in France and ending it there, why not show her exercising her agency within an unhappy situation through her control of Louis XIV’s social world in Versailles? Although Elizabeth Charlotte may not have achieved happiness through a handsome young lad, like many other women, she did the best she could with a hard knock life, and become the most powerful woman in the French court. The queens and princesses of Europe were neither silent, suffering beings nor the sexually liberated feminists of today, and it is within this middle ground between the individual and her society that each woman’s history can be fleshed out to provide a multidimensional understanding of women’s history.

Verdict: Don’t let Joan Scott catch you reading this. Sex with the Queen is an enjoyable narrative of royal trivia paired best with a glass of wine. Drink whenever Herman writes “sexually frustrated” and “stud”— the paramedics will be reading with you by page 50. For more substantive (yet still accessible and enjoyable) accounts of royal women, try Lady Antonia Fraser (Marie Antoinette, Love and Louis XIV), Robert K. Massie (Catherine the Great) and Stacy Schiff (Cleopatra: a Life).

Works Cited

Fraser, A. Marie Antoinette: The Journey. Anchor Books, 2001.

Herman, E. Sex with the Queen. HarperCollins, 2009.

Madariaga, Isabel de. Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great [in English].  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Reviewed by Alexandra Triantafillopoulos


“It’s true…whenever we read books about science, it’s always HeLa this  and HeLa that. Some people know those are initials of a person, but they don’t know who that person is. That’s important history.” Christoph Lengauer Hopkins researcher  p.266 

This nonfiction book is a story about Henrietta Lacks and HeLa, the first human immortal cell line grown in culture  named after the first two initials of our true to life heroine’s name.  The scientific legacy of these cells  have contributed to various  medical breakthroughs such as the development of the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization, cloning and gene mapping just to name a few. HeLa cells are used around the globe in scientific laboratories and have travelled as far into space by Russia’s second Soviet satellite and  NASA’s first   manned mission alike. The irony is that Henrietta was never made aware that her cells were being used in research , her family members  never benefitted in healthcare costs incurred from HeLa cell research  and Henrietta never lived to see what has now become a multimillion dollar  industry.  Skloot’s book has  an enormous run on the New York best selling list and has been opted for a movie adaptation  by Oprah.

Ten years in the making, author Rebecca Skloot helps to fill the gaps in history of an era where the “C” word was not discussed , let alone to the economically disadvantaged and to minority groups such as  patients  of  African American descent. To argue her case, Skloot brings up the Tuskegee syphilis study (sponsored by the U.S. Public Service to not provide life saving penicillin to African American men with syphilis), Mississippi hysterectomies performed on economically disadvantaged African American women to stop reproduction and as a means of practice for physicians, and lack of funding for sickle cell anemia ( a condition predominantly found in African American populations). The merit in raising these issues in her book serves to demonstrate the legacy of segregation with the resultant working    conditions and racial  inequalities of the African American community.

This is depicted quite clearly where the story begins  in 1951 when Henrietta Lacks, an African American women native from Virginia, walks into  Johns Hopkins Hospital and   is  examined in a colored-only exam room separated by full view  glass walls.  From the time of her initial visit to her treatment, attending physician  Dr. Gey  grows cells taken from her cervix  which continue to survive to this day. Unfortunately months later after her biopsy, Henrietta   who was a poor southern tobacco farmer that  worked the same land as her slave ancestors dies at the age of  31 leaving five children behind. The entire medical experience   described by Skloot brings Henrietta at the intersection of race, gender and class issues. For instance,  the doctor who initially  examines Henrietta is surprised that she has an understanding of changes in her own body which reveals a resistance on the doctor’s part of Henrietta’s own verbal agency (p.17). The inconsistencies of her medical chart also reflect similar views and it is clear how poverty and class also affected her treatment with no continuity of her care. At the time, Hopkins was the only proximal hospital that would accept  African Americans. Hence the social context of this period no doubt shaped expectations which influenced outcome of health care.

This book has been described in various genres such  as a biographical history, medical /investigative journalism , narrative nonfiction and/or a  scientific history. Skloot provides not only a scientific narrative but also one that is historical and language specific ( with respect to using dialect) . What provides merit in this book is that Skloot  draws on primary sources for her interviews to provide narrative accounts for Henrietta’s childhood and life. She eventually develops a relationship with the Lacks family especially surviving daughter Deborah who also struggles with what really happened to her mother. After all, Henrietta Lacks was only identified publicly in 1971 as the original  source of HeLa cells. Therefore this book also raises ethical issues of patient rights, access to medical care,  informed consent and protection of privacy. On the same note the conversations that Skloot conducted with Lacks family members and their initial mistrust  when approached by Skloot   also reveals a clash in cultures. Against the backdrop of African American experimentation in the Tuskegee  study and the complete chance encounter from a  neighbor’s relative ( working at the NIH ) who informed the Lacks family  of HeLa, distrust was inevitable.

For some readers the switch  from the historical past to the present mixed in with  science and culture might be viewed as a flaw , which might be intentional of Skloot.  If we are left with no complete answers it is because the author beckons us for more questions. Others might also consider that Skloot projects her own ideas and thoughts which might be deemed as non-historical, however out of her genuine respect for the Lacks  family, Skloot attempts to give the reader a complete historical context of the period she is discussing for her subject matter. Skloot also  takes  the reader one  step further by providing some sensory histories.  Various visits to  original colored ward at Hopkins, the medical record office and hometown sites transports the reader back to a time where race, class and gender were issues of much strife. If we speed fast forward,  Skloot ends her book by arguing that  the Henrietta Lacks story is a reminder to all of us that inconsistencies in the name of scientific progress continues to exist.  By making the story of HeLa reader friendly on the topic of science , Skloot  invites the reader to understand that this  is not a story that is confined to Henrietta alone, but to the rest of us as well.

In her book, Skloot reflects if going after the historical truth about  HeLa actually created  more harm than good. Overall, Skloot manages to balance testimonial information from both parties involved with regards to information provided by  the scientific community and Lacks family. She also avoids stereotypical characterizations of all participants in her book and would rather present the subject matter with an objective lens. Skloot also recognizes that re-writing  Henrietta’s history also exposed details of personal family histories that were not easily forgotten such as impoverishment, illiteracy and abuse. By presenting the reader the story of HeLa, Skloot is also framing a dichotomy between the injustices the Lacks family has endured versus the success of an immortal cell line that  until recently  had no name.  What Skloot has also demonstrated in her book is that both the present and the past are  connected with the history of the Lacks family. To paraphrase Deborah sentiment on her mother, watch out you ain’t seen nothing yet! As Sonny (Henrietta’s son) also explains “I don’t want to cause problems for science . . . I’m proud of my mother and what she done for science. I just hope Hopkins and some of the other folks who benefited off her cells will do something to honor her and make right with the family.”


Agora, Film Review by Gaby Soto Grustilina

agora poster

Agora features the story of Hypatia, a pagan philosopher murdered in 5th century Alexandria by a sect of fanatical Christian monks called the Parabalani. Her early life is not very well known, though it is clear that her father was Theon, the last librarian of the Great Library of Alexandria.[1]  Though she came from an academic background, a female philosopher was extremely rare. Nevertheless, she is hailed as a great philosopher, mathematician and even astronomer by most of her contemporaries.[2] Her ultimate death is not due to these virtues, but to her association with the prefect Orestes and the religious atmosphere of Alexandria at the time.

The city was divided into three religions: Judaism, Christianity and Paganism. Christians held the most power, which they were eager to use: “the formerly persecuted were all too ready to become the persecutors.”[3] In the movie, they are shown as the antagonists, with violent leaders like Saint Ammonius and Saint Cyril. While certain details in Agora are assumptions, they are also present in academic books. For example, Cyril has no concrete connection to Hypatia’s murder, but it is assumed to be the case.[4] All in all, the amount of research done was extensive, with both the facts and assumptions mirroring what modern historians state in their work. As a historical movie, the director manages to show all the above facts in a clear and precise manner. However, certain elements are manipulated to broadcast messages of his choosing to the audience.

The accuracy of the events portrayed allows certain elements to stand out, because they come from modern ideas. The religion of each character defines how they look, which in turn reflect problems with modern society at the time it was filmed. The pagans are dressed in clean white or gold clothes, sporting British accents in a well-lit setting.  They are intelligent, forming the majority of Hypatia’s class and the whole of the library. On the other hand, the Christians are dirty, wearing rags that include a turban or a hijab. They are not intellectuals, which the director makes clear in a scene where they insist the Earth is flat. Paired up with their beards and Arabic accents, the resemblance to what the West pictures as a modern day Islamic terrorist is obvious. When told that the film risked the anger of Christian viewers, Amenabar states that (to translate from the Spanish): “it should offend the terrorists of the ETA more, and anyone else that is willing to kill for an idea, more than your average Christian.”[5] Though the movie was set in the fifth century, the way in which the characters are portrayed reflects the fears of 2008. The fictional character of Davus is used to make this clear to the audience.

Hypatia’s slave, Davus, is a completely fictional character that the director inserts into the story. If the movie is seen from an academic historian’s mind, fabricating one of the main characters immediately lowers the movie’s credibility. However the role he plays is not meant to be accurate, but is used instead to give the viewer a clear indication of the major themes of the movie. Davus is a highly intelligent slave that is visually just like any other pagan, though his background will not let him study under Hypatia. However, as a Parabelani this innocent youth is replaced with a weathered man, his curious mind becoming one of murderous rage. This change is a symbol for how Amenabar sees fanaticism: it is not innate, yet once it latches on to the mind it is hard to separate character from fanatic. The Parabelani are a mob, they have no true individuality. They will follow orders so long as they believe it to be the will of god. In the movie, this ranges from trying to save a burning church to massacring the Jews in the agora (marketplace). Davus later realizes what he has become and attempts to save Hypatia, though he is too late. The film ends with him walking away from her corpse while his fellows begin to stone her, showing that he has left the mob mentality that is fanaticism. While he is not a fifth century character, the ideas that he portrays place him firmly in the 21st century.

Another tool that Amenabar uses to input his ideas onto the film is the usage of camera placement. Although the idea that this technique can be used to demonstrate themes is surprising, the director manages to do so brilliantly. He believes that the violent time period of Alexandria at the time “is a reflection of us today” and that the sounds (shouting, insults, suffering, etc.) have remained the same over the centuries.[6] At one point, the camera focuses on an anthill, and then pans out to the characters. At the same time, whenever a riot was shown the director chose to depict it from three different points of view: regular, bird’s eye view, and then space. The bird’s eye view made the humans look like ants: a mass of black dots (Christians) moving around and killing the two other types. When Alexandria is seen from space, only the sounds of the fighting and suffering can be heard. The message is clear: humanity’s battles are insignificant in the wider scope of the world, so they are a waste of time.

In terms of historiography, Amenabar tries to incorporate two histories into one. From the viewpoint of an academic, he is successful. The events portrayed in the movie are as accurate as the sources, while the characters (with the exception of Davus) have an air of authenticity. As far as popular history goes, it is a movie that portrays that era of history well. In terms of the modern themes present, the movie also portrays the people of the 21st century. If a future historian looked at this film and understood the context in which it was made, it would be used to showcase the beliefs, fears and interests of the time in which Agora was made. Although the director inputs his own beliefs (as mentioned above) into the movie, the stereotypes he uses to show them are not solely his own. They are a part of the world in which the West is seen as pristine and intelligent, whereas the East is backwards and dirty. The question of why this would be the case would also interest future historians.

All in all, Agora offers many layers which can be analysed. The dialogue remains in 5th century Alexandria, while the portrayal of the characters gives the film a link to modernity. Whether an it is an ancient historian, a modern historian or simply a viewer, Agora offers insight and entertainment in one exciting package.


Amenabar, Alejandro. Agora. Film. Performed by Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella and Oscar Isaac. Focus Features, 2009.

Deakin, Michael A.B. Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr. Amherst: Prometheus   Books, 2007.

“Interview of Amenabar.” Published 4 January, 2013. Accessed March 19, 2014.

“TIFF Alejandro Amenabar AGORA Movie Interview.flv.” Youtube. Published June 4,2010. Accessed March 19, 2014.

[1] Michael A.B Deakin, Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr (Amherst: Prometheus   Books, 2007), 50.

[2] Michael A.B Deakin, Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr (Amherst: Prometheus   Books, 2007), 57.

[3] Michael A.B Deakin, Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr (Amherst: Prometheus   Books, 2007), 21.

[4] Michael A.B Deakin, Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr (Amherst: Prometheus   Books, 2007), 75.

[5] Interview of Amenabar with, 4 January, 2013. Accessed March 19, 2014

[6] “TIFF Alejandro Amenabar AGORA Movie Interview.flv,” Youtube, June 4, 2010, accessed March 19, 2014,


Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, Reviewed by Anna Hutchinson


In November 1914 Thomas Edward Lawrence was chosen to join a new military intelligence unit in Cairo at the headquarters of the British war effort in the Near East. Over the course of the next four years the young history major from Oxford would find himself in a position to make decisions that would influence the outcome of the Great War on the Middle Eastern front. While Lawrence has occupied a central role in history, there were several other lesser-known actors who had a hand in shaping the history of the war and the modern Middle East. Among these men were Aaron Aaronsohn, a Zionist agriculturist working for the Ottoman Empire and subsequently operating a British spy ring in Palestine; Curt Prüfer, a German military intelligence officer; and William Yale, a fallen American aristocrat employed by Standard Oil to work for American oil and political interests during the war. All of these men were largely untrained in military matters yet were able to simultaneously promote their own interests and create conditions on the ground that would produce the outcomes of World War I and the socio-political context of the post-war Middle East.

Thomas Edward Lawrence’s life and achievements are fraught with competing narratives and historical accounts. Was Lawrence a defender of the Jewish people or was he anti-Semitic? Did he work to promote Britain’s interests during the war or did he betray his country? These competing narratives are exacerbated by Lawrence’s own contradictory accounts in his memoirs, diaries, and notes. Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia uses primary source documents and secondary literature in order to chronicle the life and achievements of T.E. Lawrence, while weaving his narrative with those of the other influential actors on the ground. Rather than focus on Lawrence’s motivations, convictions and ideology, Anderson focuses on discovering how a shy archaeologist with no military background was able to become the “battlefield commander of a foreign revolutionary army”[1] By aiming to discover the how rather than the why Anderson attempts to create an honest chronology of the events that transpired during WWI on the Middle Eastern front from a Western perspective.

While writing a history centered on the Middle East war theatre from a Euro-centric and imperialist perspective can be seen as controversial, this may have been Anderson’s intention given the political context of the region at the time of the book’s publication. Written shortly after the Arab Spring, the book comments on the implication of Western foreign policy in the Middle East and its lasting effects by focusing on agreements such as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence, and the British-initiated Arab Revolt. Among the key actors involved in Anderson’s narrative are the Ottoman military leader, Djemal Pasha and Faisal ibn Hussein, the Emir of Arabia and son of Sheikh Hussein. While first hand accounts were inaccessible to Anderson due to language constraints, second hand accounts from these men shed some light on the involvement of local military leaders in the region.

Writing through a western lens leads to questions and controversy about the production of imperial knowledge. To what extent can the history of the modern Middle East be separated from the decisions of Western colonial powers over the course of the early twentieth century? Anderson does not engage with this discussion in his work yet he clarifies the way that Lawrence and other key actors perceived British and American imperialism, which was often with disgust. The most troubling aspect of his imperialist focus is the lack of agency given to the key Arab and Turkish actors on the ground. Faisal ibn Hussein, in particular, is presented as wholly reliant on Lawrence’s direction and advice during the Arab Revolt, while the merits of his leadership are only extolled through writings by Lawrence himself. This is further troubling when the book’s acclaim as a work of popular fiction is taken into account. Western audiences reading this book as a primer to Middle Eastern politics and history could very well deduce that Arab and Turkish actors were merely shadow puppets compelled to carry out the interests of the imperial powers in the region.

Another important consideration when reading Lawrence in Arabia is the question of sources. While Anderson devotes some ten pages to his bibliography, detailing books, articles, and archives, he does not discuss the ways that his list of sources and information might be lacking. As previously mentioned there are no first hand accounts from local military and political leaders, yet there are several accounts from personal papers written by influential British, American, German, and Zionist actors. Engaging with archival information is problematic when using it in order to create an honest narrative. The Aaronsohn House – NILI Museum and Archives holds the official collective of Aaron Aaronsohn’s personal papers from his work with the Ottoman Empire and his involvement in a British spy ring. The museum’s website claims to be one of the first established in Israel in 1956. While, the overview on the website goes into great detail about Aaronsohn’s work for the British spy ring, there is no explicit mention of his employment with the Ottoman Empire, which fought on the side of Germany during the war. Anderson also uses national archives from the US and the UK, which may omit or privilege certain types of information based on how each country wants to be seen in history. Archival projects can produce silences just as they can create dominant narratives. While Anderson’s work draws from a wide range of sources, there are unaddressed issues in the way he uses them.

Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia provides a compelling and valuable narrative about the influence of Western powers in the Middle East during and following World War I. By following the lives of four influential actors on the ground, the book provides readers with a look at how certain events transpired, while refusing to simplify history. Written from a Western perspective, the book creates a narrative that depicts British, French, German, American, and Zionist intentions and goals in the region yet silences the perspective of local Arab and Turkish actors. While the book admits to a Western focus, the exclusion of local narrative becomes problematic when the book is read as an overview to Middle East history. Intended as a comment on Western meddling, the depiction of Arab and Turkish leaders blinding following the will of their Western counterparts becomes an example of imperial knowledge production.  The book’s use of sources is broad yet does not account for what it is missing, particularly in terms of the politics behind archival information collection. Despite it’s flaws Lawrence in Arabia provides an interesting and honest look at the way history unfolded in the Middle East during the Great War.

Works Cited

Anderson, Scott. Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East. New York: Random House, 2013

N.I.L.I Museum. “Nili Museum – Beit Aaronsohn”. Accessed March 18, 2014.


[1] Scott Anderson, Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East. (New York: Random House, 2013): 3

The Inconvenient Indian, Reviewed by Ryan Mitton


Thomas King’s book, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native Peoples in North America, is a recent popular work that seeks to provide an account of the history of native peoples in North America, chronicling their historical oppression and status today.  King’s narrative of Native history attempts to combine past and present in a witty, ironic, and even rueful manner to reveal the injustice faced by native peoples to a wider audience. This mass appeal qualifies the work as a piece of popular history. More importantly, what is immediately evident about the book is that its tone is conversational – a technique not commonly found in the historical practice. Due to the nature of analysis provided, and the significance of several techniques either employed or purposefully omitted by King, this book qualifies as a unique application of the indigenous historical method in a textual form. In this review, I argue that to a greater degree, King successfully provides a merging of oral history and text in a manner that seeks to convey indigenous history to a popular, western audience.

One of the first things made evident by King is that he has purposefully avoided the use of footnotes. This is not normally a stylistic choice to make note of, as many authors of popular history do not adhere to the use of footnotes. However, King goes so far as to directly tell the reader that he is not fond of them.[1] The writing style is thus not dependent on support from footnotes, but the consistency of the argument is contained within the body of the narrative. Because of this, stylistically King manages to create a flowing, almost conversational style of writing with which he uses to communicate his account of indigenous peoples in North America. This casual style serves to personalize the account that King gives. Historian Peter Nabokov further implicates the importance of the personalization of myths, legends, and stories as a characteristic consistent with indigenous oral history. Nabokov regards this historicity as “inclusive and nonscientific,” as personalization has been used as a cause for questioning the validity of indigenous oral history.[2]  However, personalization is better regarded not as a potential variation on facts but as a contribution of new information into the all-encompassing, collective history of a people. Commentaries on social conditions are thus enabled through the “flexibility” of dialogue.[3]

The personalization of King’s narrative also serves another purpose. Combined with a purposive omission of footnotes, an “oral-style” narrative would thus attempt to immerse the audience in the point of view of King’s narrative. The veracity of indigenous histories are not intended to be analytically doubted and subsequently proved insofar as sources are concerned. Per the viewpoint of Leonard Bruguier:

As a person in a university, I have to practice the method they taught me: be skeptical and use detective work to confirm what I’m told versus what I read in books and papers. In a white world myth is on a fictional plane, and oral history is acceptable as long as you check it out. In the Indian world, it’s all true. You accept it for what it is.[4]

Simply put, King’s narrative is meant to be accepted as fact. The credibility with which his account is to be taken is tied to him as both an author and storyteller. King does acknowledge the likely skepticism of his audience and provides sources for some of his claims. However, this is done in a manner that is largely tongue-in-cheek.[5] The idea, much like Bruguier’s notion of oral history, it to understand the significance of the events that unfold, not just their causality or chronological order. Ultimately, these goes to show how the King’s style of narrative is conducive to indigenous historicity by implicating elements found in oral history.

However, does King fully achieve the same degree of communication in authoring a textual document? One of the key elements of oral histories can be described by the saying “the medium is the message.” In examining facts of oral history not through the skeptical and objective criteria emphasized by western tradition, but as a history that is inductive and truthful, historians might be able to better gain insight into the importance and relevance of indigenous oral histories. For example, as Nabokov asks:

Why, for instance, does the “migration legend” appear so pre-dominant in the southeastern and adjacent Plains regions? Why did “war epics” play such a central role in Colorado River tribal traditions? How did the covert genre of “shaman’s” feats and “duel” narrative, found among the Abenaki and other cultures farther north, survive the colonial years when other forms clearly went under?[6]

The cultural context provided by these myths and legends lend to the concept of “social fact,” established by Emile Durkheim and further implicated by Nabokov.[7] Because of personalization of indigenous history, because of its ‘living’ nature through the way it is updated and changed to reflect contemporary events, indigenous oral history provides historical value, even by conventional western standards.

What instead challenges the congruency of King’s narrative to indigenous historicity is the fact that the narrative is written down. In becoming text, it cannot be denied that some of the flexibility or all-encompassing nature of an oral history is lost. Indeed, there is the very risk that narratives may be misappropriated. King points to instances where “[p]hrases such as “Mother Earth,” “in harmony with nature,” and “seven generations” have been kidnapped by White North America and stripped of their power.[8] For King, what enables these phrases to be manipulate is the dichotomy between “dead” and “live” Indians. To settler culture, “[d]ead Indians are dignified, noble, silent, suitably garbed. And dead. Live Indians are invisible, unruly, disappointing. And breathing.”[9] The static nature of the image of the dead Indian means that its image might be appropriated for use, just as the classic image of the ‘Indian Warrior’ has been in Hollywood. King describes one very incident where the image of a prominent Native American, Running Antelope, was featured on the five-dollar US bill. Noting the lack of accuracy in the image, King asserts that “[Running Antelope’s Headdress] looked exactly like the one Anthony Quinn wore when he played Crazy Horse in the film They Died With Their Boots On.[10] Ultimately, where the medium is the message, the fact that King’s narrative is constrained by its textual nature means that it cannot fully be consistent with indigenous historicity.

What does King achieve, then? Nabokov is careful to note, that indigenous peoples have tested “the contrasts between orality and literacy as a way of meditating upon and mediating between their separate worlds.”[11] King explores this very divide, and successfully so. Although there are risks to constraining stylistic elements of an oral culture to text, what King actually achieves is a subversion of the constraints of the analytical, deductive mode of western historical methods. King instead engages in an “account” of native peoples in North America – not a history. The elements of his narrative that are consistent with oral methods of history serve to engage a wider, likely colonial, audience in the indigenous viewpoint. A story that helps people understand, ever so slightly, the import of indigenous accounts of North American history on society and current social issues. King does not lose the full message in a different medium, as he manages to maintain control over his narrative by not passing it up to the western standards of historical scrutiny through factual verification and footnotes.[12]

Ultimately, through tactics such as communicating a purposive omission of footnotes, engaging in a conversational style, and addressing key issues such as ownership of narrative and injustices perpetrated against Native Americans in North America, Thomas King successfully merges elements consistent with the telling of oral history with a textual medium. Moreover, this book, as a popular history, further subverts western standards of skepticism and evidence while instead engaging its audience in a telling of the accounts of indigenous peoples that is meant to be taken as truth and accepted.

Works Cited:

King, Thomas. The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America. Anchor Canada. 2013.

Nabokov, Peter. A Forest of Time: American Indian Ways of History. New York: Cambridge Press. 2002.

[1] Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America. (Anchor Canada, 2013) 4.

[2] Peter Nabokov, A Forest of Time: American Indian Ways of History. (New York: Cambridge Press, 2002) 90.

[3] Ibid. 113.

[4] Leonard Bruguier in Nabokov, A Forest of Time. 90 (footnotes).

[5] King. 9.

[6] Nabokov. 63-64.

[7] Ibid. 63.

[8] King. 67.

[9] Ibid. 66.

[10] Ibid. 38.

[11] Nabokov. 194.

[12] It must be noted that my analysis of King does the very opposite in analytically dissecting his work and substantiating it with footnotes. Some risk must be recognized regarding the misappropriation of his narrative.

Guns, Germs and Steel, Reviewed by Kimberley Evans



Thesis Statement

In this review, I will argue that although Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel”[1] attempts to answer many important questions that the study of history aims towards – namely causality – ultimately, Diamond’s work is lacking in rigour, presents a far too simplistic explanation to some very difficult debates, and takes too much of a scientific approach to questions concerning world history. His piece ties in strongly with many of the works and themes we have been discussing in class, which I will attempt to address in the course of the review.

Description and Analysis of Book

“Guns, Germs, and Steel” begins with a research question, termed “Yali’s Question”[2]. This goes as follows: “”Why is that you white people developed much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”[3]. As a research question, this is incredibly broad, and links back strongly to the debate raised when reading Prasenjit Duara[4] and William J. Sewell[5]: how far back can you take historical causality? According to Diamond, the answer is 11,000BC. This in itself raises some methodological problems, and in turn led me back to an article and book excerpt about historical research and the use of archives. A pertinent point raised by Roy Rosenzweig[6] and John Randolph[7] was that of the problem of incomplete knowledge, and the limitations this posed when trying to investigate the past. Just like the “to be burned” note on top of the Bakunin papers[8] mentioned in these readings, and the deleted Bert is Evil page[9], a lot of information has been lost since 11,000BC. In “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, Diamond has created a scientific model for human history with an unquantifiable amount of incomplete knowledge. This in itself is enough grounds to refute his model, both from a scientific perspective, or otherwise. I will go on raise some of the debates surrounding the “scientific approach” to history further on.

The main premise of “Guns, Germs, and Steel” is that the differences in the experiences of human history can be explained by climate and geography. “History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.”[10] . The book follows this thesis through to the end, with various examples for all world continents. Although Diamond does leave some space for “human inventiveness”, as he argues that “all human societies contain inventive people”, he then goes on to state that “it’s just that some environments provide more starting materials, and more favorable conditions for utilizing inventions, than do other environments.”[11]

This leads me to a second critique. Throughout the book, Diamond fails to answer why people chose to use their technology and resources in the way that they did. He answers the question of why Europeans had “Guns, Germs, and Steel” that gave them an advantage during the conquest of the Americas, but he does not answer the historian’s main question of why they used them as they did. As Peter Nabokov states, historical narratives are “for sharper questions about why things happened the way they did”[12], and, in “Gums, Germs, and Steel”, this “sharper” insight is lacking.

Furthermore, this links back to Marx’s saying “all the more must the phrases and notions of parties in historic struggles be distinguished from their real interests, their notions and their reality.”[13] In plain terms, Marx was warning historians to not take everything at face value, as well as arguing that one of the aims of studying history is to dig deeper, in order to reach a deeper understanding of humans and the causes of their actions. Ginzburg[14] also demonstrated this “digging deeper” approach to history amply in the “Cheese and the Worms”, with his book-long attempt to understand exactly why Menocchio reached the cosmogony that he did through a variety of different research methods. Although Diamond does explain early formative differences in pre-historic times[15], he uses a small variety of sources, and he does not leave enough space for the role of human agency as world history unfolds. For example, when discussing the Spanish conquest of South America, causation is explained as follows: the “reason for the civil war was that an epidemic of smallpox…had killed the Inca emperor”, and “if it had not been for the epidemic, the Spaniards would have faced a united empire”.[16] This explanation is lacking in factual evidence to support the claims, and does not attempt to dig any deeper in terms of causation. Attributing just one cause, without even considering or mentioning other contingent factors, presents an unsustainable and un-rigorous claim. Marc Bloch mentions that historians should not be a judge, but rather someone who “describes”[17]: Diamond fails on both fronts. Although I disagree with Bloch’s statement to a certain extent, I do believe that a historian should first attempt to glean as much factual evidence as possible, before making sweeping universal statements in his attempt to reach the “ultimate explanation”[18]. This is not present in “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, which makes for a dissatisfying historical read.

Books’ Merits

On a more positive note, the book has several merits. First and foremost, Diamond addresses where his knowledge is lacking, as well as his academic background. He follows the approach suggested by Marc Bloch in his “Historian’s Craft”, where the historian is open about their training and limitations[19] in the introduction of their work: Diamond’s “undergraduate…training was mainly in languages, history, and writing”, and he later went on to study in sciences and spent 33 years contributing to the field of evolutionary biology.[20] This is helpful for the reader, as they are more able to comprehend both the scientific focus of the book, as well making them aware of the bias of the writer.

Another merit of the book is Diamond’s consistent posing of questions. This is closely modeled on Ginzburg’s style[21], which guides the reader throughout his thought and research process. This can be seen in “Gun, Germs, and Steel” at the beginning of each new paragraph of the book. Not only does this link back to the aforementioned ideology of  Bloch and his Annales school – which called for historians to be more open about their methodology and biases – but it is also extremely useful in terms of understanding any hypotheses and conjectures made.


In conclusion, “Guns, Germs, and Steel” is an interesting attempt at the experiment of taking historical causality back to its very origins. It adds a lot to the debate about whether it is possible for causality to be taken back to the beginning of human life on earth. That being said, due to both the nature of the research question being incredibly broad and impossible to address in a single volume, as well as Diamond’s scientific approach to history, there are a number of flaws in this book. It must be noted that the book is well written and accessible, and raises a number of interesting points about the influence of geography and science on historical events. This “histoire croisée”[22] method of an interdisciplinary approach to history can often lead to the introduction of new paradigms. Although “Guns, Germs, and Steel” does not necessarily introduce new historical knowledge, nor contribute significantly to the historical debate over events such as the Spanish Conquest, it does encourage historians to include the impact of geography and climate, alongside the role of human agency.

[1] Diamond, Jared M. 1997. Guns, germs, and steel: the fates of human societies. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

[2] Ibid. – p.13

[3] Ibid – p.14

[4] Duara, Prasenjit. 1998. “Why Is History Antitheoretical?” Modern China. 24 (2): 105.

[5] Sewell, William H. 1996. “Historical events as transformations of structures: Inventing revolution at the Bastille”. Theory and Society. 25 (6): 841-881.

[6] Rosenzweig, Roy. 2003. “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era”. The American Historical Review. 108 (3): 735-762.

[7] Burton, Antoinette M. 2005. Archive stories: facts, fictions, and the writing of history. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. – p.209-231

[8] Ibid – p.

[9] Rosenzweig, Roy. Op. Cit. – p.

[10] Diamond, Jared M. Op. Cit.- p.57

[11] Ibid. p.1114

[12] Nabokov, Peter. 2002. A forest of time: American Indian ways of history. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press. – p.2

[13] Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 2001. The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. London: Electric Book Co. – p.80

[14] Ginzburg, Carlo. 1980. The cheese and the worms: the cosmos of a sixteenth-century miller. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

[15] [15] Diamond, Jared M. Op. Cit. – p.41

[16] Diamond, Jared M. Op. Cit. – p.77

[17] Bloch, Marc. 1953. The historian’s craft. New York: Knopf. – p.140

[18] Diamond, Jared M. Op. Cit. – p.79

[19] [19] Diamond, Jared M. Op. Cit. – p.27

[20] Ibid. – p.27

[21] Ginzburg, Carlo. Op. Cit.



Glory, Film Review by Alex Langer


The film Glory covers the creation and actions of the Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment of the United States Army, the first regiment of black soldiers in the American military, during the Civil War. The film is an accessible look at the history of the regiment, and is effective in its portrayal of the horrors of the Civil War. However, it is not historically accurate and engages uncritically with its source material. By looking at the work through the lens of race, the film falls victim to pre-existing and harmful racialized narratives of the relationship between black and white individuals and cultures.

Glory is an excellent portrayal of the Civil War itself, with some reviewers claiming that it is one of the most honest depictions of the gruesome nature of the conflict.[1] A particularly powerful scene occurs at the beginning of the film, where Robert G. Shaw, later the founding colonel of the Massachusetts 54th, witnesses a man undergoing amputation without anesthetic. This happens after the bloody battle of Antietam, from which little is accomplished. In this respect, the film is historically accurate. Yet, Glory suffers from a lack of historical accuracy in other key aspects. For example, the film depicts the regiment as being comprised primarily of escaped slaves, who join the war to free their brethren after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Historically though, the regiment’s soldiers were mostly free black men from Massachusetts who sought to prove their worth as citizens of the Union. In the film, the character of Thomas, an educated black man who works for Fredrick Douglass before joining the regiment, represents these men. However, there are no other explicitly free men, while there are three major ex-slave characters. This inaccuracy, which erases the role of free blacks in the north and the struggles they faced, is only the most egregious example in the film, which is dotted with other minor errors. These basic factual errors make the film much less effective as a tool of historical learning.[2]

While the film’s errors of fact are problematic, more so is its engagement with sources. The film relies primarily on the letters of Colonel Robert G. Shaw, with letter-writing acting as a plot device. The film’s story is thus told through the perspective of an upper-class white man. While there is nothing inherently wrong with using these letters as a source, the fact that the narrative relies on them as the sole personalizing source is a problem.  The film should have, if possible, integrated some primary-source material from an enlisted (black) man’s perspective. Even if this wasn’t possible, a more critical depiction of Shaw’s narrative should be forthcoming. As the film is already a piece of historical fiction, perhaps a black narrator and protagonist could have been used to provide a more honest historical narrative, if one less directly grounded in primary sources. As well, the film paints race relations in the North as fairly rosy, with substantial prejudice but without virulent hatred. While a few white characters, such as the quartermaster who refuses to grant the regiment boots, speak rudely about black people, it is not particularly intense. This ignores a history of profound racism in the free state, with many black soldiers fighting in the war to prove their worth to society. The casual use of racial epithets by white characters when discussing the regiment, for example, would have made the film far more realistic and engaged more directly with the North’s racist past, as opposed to restricting the portrayal of racism to the South or individuals from border states like Missouri and Kentucky, such as the commander of a separate regiment of freed slaves.[3]

Related to the question of perspective is the most important flaw in the film: its use of racial stereotypes and a racialized narrative of white cultural supremacy in its portrayal of its characters. First, the film’s protagonist, Colonel Shaw, is portrayed as a father figure who enacts fierce discipline to make his soldiers “behave.” This is feted in the film, so long as Shaw also appears sympathetic to his soldiers, such as when, after being forced to flog a heavily scarred ex-slave for absconding to find shoes, Shaw angrily demands that his regiment be supplied with army-issue boots. Rather than question what appears to be gross negligence on Shaw’s part in not knowing that his regiment was suffering heavily from a lack of proper footwear, he is celebrated. This eliminates the exercise of agency by black characters, showing that change is only possible if and when enacted by a white savior.

Shaw’s portrayal as a beneficent and caring authority figure is problematic, although explained by his role as the regiment’s commanding officer; more troubling the depiction of the film’s black characters. The broader narrative reinforced by the interactions and portrayal of these characters is that the “whiter” the character is, the better.  The four central black characters are Tripp, Rawlins, Jupiter and Thomas; the first three characters are all ex-slaves.  Thomas, an educated free man with “white” mannerisms and culture, is portrayed positively, while Tripp, who is cynical about the Union’s promises and is hostile to white people and white society, acts in some ways as the film’s direct antagonist. Tripp is portrayed especially negatively when his cynicism affects others, such as when he attempts to interfere with Thomas’ efforts to teach Jupiter –a highly sympathetic, illiterate former slave with a speech impediment- how to read, or mocks white Union soldiers retreating from battle.

This is narrative is harmful in two ways. First, Tripp’s cynicism is in many ways justified. The North was no paradise for free blacks, with racism rampant. For example, the issue of unequal pay for black soldiers was not resolved until July 1864, nearly causing munity in the 54th Massachusetts that February.[4] The other harm is that through these portrayals, the audience is told that the more a character embraces the trappings of white culture and becomes, in the words of Tripp, a “house Negro,” the “better” they are. Thus, the men of the regiment are not fighting merely to liberate themselves or their families; they are fighting for their personhood. By the movie’s standards though, this must be white personhood, even if contained within a racialized body. This again punishes black characters for exercising agency on their own terms, thus reinforcing white supremacy. This is especially harmful in a film meant to demonstrate the evils of the white supremacist Confederacy and the bravery of black men fighting for freedom.

Together, these flaws make Glory detract from education about the historical moment that the film is based on. The induction of black troops into the Union army was a major step forward for the rights and public image of black people in the United States. The film effectively “whitewashes” this piece of history. Rather than allow black soldiers and their struggles against both the monstrosity of slavery and racism on their own side to come to the forefront, the narrative is instead centered on a white man’s story. Rather than celebrate or allow black reclamation of personhood through their own means, the film punishes through negative portrayals characters that are cynical or act too “black,” instead favouring those characters that embrace “white” values and mannerisms.

The film also detracts from a broader history of race in the United States. By making the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts into escaped slaves and by engaging uncritically with the source material of Shaw’s letters, the film whitewashes race relations in the North. At the same time, the film also encourages a narrative of black helplessness, with salvation and personhood only coming through willing participation in white society and white-dominated institutions such as the military. This depiction of racial history, despite attempting to celebrate the liberation of black people, inadvertently reinforces and perpetuates a system under which they are denied agency.

[1] James Berardinelli. “Glory.” Reelviews Movie Reviews. January 21 2014. Web.

[2] Alexander Bielakowski, ed. Ethnic and Racial Minorities in the U.S. Military: An Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2013. s.v. “54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.”, 202-3; Kevin Levin. Civil War Memory, “The 54th Massachusetts Regiment in Myth, Memory, and History.” Last modified October 23, 2009. Accessed March 8, 2014.

[3] Luis Emilio, History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-1865, (Boston: The Boston Book Company, 1894), 8-9.

[4] Levin, October 23, 2009


Freedom in Exile, Reviewed by Arjun Choudry


In Freedom in Exile, the Dalai Lama dispels much of the negative propaganda disseminated against him in an attempt “to counter Chinese claims and misinformation spread about Tibet’s history, culture and religion.” His intentions appear noble. Freedom in Exile was originally released in 1990, when Communist governments throughout Eastern and Central Europe were collapsing. Subsequently, literary and historical critics celebrated the book as an ode to freedom at a transitional point in history when communism was being antagonized as the root of all modern oppression. As a 14-year-old teenager who was appointed the leader of China’s largest ethno-religious minority prior to the usurpation of Tibet by the Chinese Community Party (CCP) in 1949, the Dalai Lama has been trying to “tell the truth about Tibet’s history,” since the inception of his career.  Regardless of whether the Dalai Lama seeks to portray his personal and political struggles in the name of populism or sincerity, Freedom in Exile establishes him as a misunderstood hero who has wrongly been labeled China’s leading public enemy.

Historical narratives of the Sino-Tibetan conflict reflect the censored and coercive approach used by the Chinese Communist Party in their policies towards Tibetan independence. These methods contain elements of imperialist historical methodology and are used by a body of leadership in order to assert a supposed truth of how historical events have occurred. In the case of Tibet’s political status, this has established a conflicting narrative that has misconstrued and overlooked integral dimensions of historical occurrences.  In the course of explaining his life story, the Dalai Lama alludes to covert activities of the CIA in assisting Tibetans seeking liberty, the lack of appreciation for religion in the Western world, and the inability of Westerners to relate to Tibetans’ grievances due to their lack of resources. Yet, at its core Freedom in Exile is an attempt to popularize the Tibetan struggle in the face of a foreign oppressor.

As the Dalai Lama elaborates on the course of his life and describes his self-imposed exile to India it becomes readily apparent that his historical narrative bears a degree of self-pity whilst attempting to maintain humility. The first person narrative tone depicts the Dalai Lama’s experience alongside fellow Tibetans and personalizes his plight, thereby reinforcing the element of personal history within Freedom in Exile. His writing demonstrates a profound experience as the Dalai Lama describes the impact of his exile on the development of Tibetan nationalism in Dharamshala, India and relays the plight of Tibetans to a worldwide audience. The first-person literary style of the Dalai Lama’s personal historical experience allows the reader to consider whether specific events involving the CCP and the Dalai Lama were inevitably prone to conflict and, in turn, enhances the reader’s conception of the nature of events in history.

A discussion of historical inevitability becomes particularly pertinent when the Dalai Lama describes his first time traveling to the People’s Republic of China, where he went to meet Mao Zedong.  The Dalai Lama’s personal convictions permitted him to approach the Chinese government in a non-confrontational matter while trying to assert Tibet’s autonomy. He attended the first session of the National People’s Congress as a delegate in order to discuss China’s constitution. The Dalai Lama recounts his first private meeting with Mao Zedong, in which Mao proposed stronger Sino-Tibetan cooperation and the disbandment of the Seventeen Point agreement. Here the Dalai Lama explicitly states that, apart from the Chinese government’s methods of implementation, he views Marxism as a theory that is based on equality and justice, which is capable of ridding the world of its ills. On one occasion he suggests that he even sought to synthesize Buddhist and Marxist doctrines as part of his broader policies for Tibet. The Dalai Lama’s seemingly peaceful interactions make the reader reconsider the origins of the Sino-Tibetan conflict. Furthermore, it allows one to reevaluate the role of an event in the structure of a historical narrative. The Dalai Lama never indicates a point at which Sino-Tibetan relations soured but rather describes a long-term process of non-cooperation. What if the Dalai Lama had been more co-operative? Was a conflict over Tibetan independence inevitable or could the CCP have been legitimately open to a discussion of Tibetan sovereignty? The number of unanswered questions that emerge from the Dalai Lama’s narrative does not only cast doubt on his historical narrative but forces the reader to reflect the role of events in history.

As an autobiography that is reliant upon the Dalai Lama’s memory as a direct source, Freedom in Exile struggles to provide an accurate account of a historical event in a manner that is considered credible to historical research.  The Dalai Lama’s more positive recollection of events in relation to the CCP highlights the main drawback of an autobiography. As the Dalai Lama describes how he interacted with Mao Zedong and Chou Enlai initially, he maintains that his interactions were largely harmonious and encouraged criticisms and open-thought, a perspective that is also perhaps undervalued given the totalitarian nature of the CCP prior to the Hundred Flowers Campaign. With a personal account that is in direct conflict with other historiographical sources, there is reason to dispute the historical accuracy of this book. On the other hand, autobiographies and memoirs are inherently prone to inaccuracy due to their reliance upon memory. Thus, they are indicative of a central flaw of popular history: what is particularly appealing may not be accurate.

Finally, the limitations of Freedom in Exile must be understood to be part of the problem of translated historical literature. The Dalai Lama indicates at the outset of Freedom in Exile that his lack of fluency in English may lead to the misconstruction of the essence of certain historical sequences and reasoning. With the vantage point of historical hindsight, it would appear very naïve for the Dalai Lama to have ever expected for Tibet to regain the isolated autonomy it enjoyed between 1912 to 1950. However, as the Dalai Lama describes his interactions with Mao, especially when he described Mao as a “most impressive man” with extraordinary speaking capabilities and how he was appointed a Vice-President of the Steering Committee of the People’s Republic of China, it becomes obvious that language is only a partial shortcoming.

The Dalai Lama’s writing illustrates the origins of the tumultuous relationship between the Dalai Lama and the CCP. He suggests that the clash of ideologies between both parties wasn’t necessarily historically inevitable, though it is easy to be weary of his claim.  Thankfully, this not only allows one to think outside the confines of nationalist, Communist Chinese propaganda but also to contemplate the more imaginative “what-if” situation of history and consider how history is understood, composed, and articulated.  On the other hand, the central drawback of popular histories becomes increasingly obvious upon understanding the Dalai Lama’s lack of understanding of English linguistic nuances. Perhaps in an attempt to demonstrate history the Dalai Lama does not intend to place a degree of emphasis on any one reason for his conflict with China, and as a result does not play up the significance and insignificance of events, but rather explains a sequence of events with his personal anecdotes.  In any case, Freedom in Exile, though a good read, cannot honestly be expected to serve as a credible source for historical research.


Tenzin Gyatso, Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama, New York: Harper Collins, 1990

Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege 1942-1943, Reviewed by Tom Bradshaw


Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege is a narrative account of the Battle of Stalingrad in the Second World War. This book would transform the reputation of Anthony Beevor, a former British Army officer, and would be later translated into 18 languages. Stalingrad’s impact on military history in Britain was arguably even greater, transforming a genre previously directed at retired colonels and armchair fantasist, into an accessible and popular field for the layman.[1] In this sense, Stalingrad reflected the importance of the battle it details. There are few military confrontations that evoke such images of death, destruction, and such ideologically charged debate than the Battle of Stalingrad.[2] It is widely considered to be the turning point of the Second World War. The city of Stalingrad, located on the Volga River, would mark the highpoint of the German conquests, and would lead to the complete destruction of the 6th army, the Wehrmacht’s largest force. The impact of the German defeat should be measured in more than simply men and material. It eroded the aura of invincibility around the German army, and marked a resurgence of confidence in the Red Army.

In his preface, Anthony Beevor states that his goal is to show “within the framework of a conventional historical narrative, the experience of troops on both sides”.[3] This approach reflects the author’s belief that one cannot understand the Battle of Stalingrad through a standard military examination. A strategic and tactical emphasis fails to convey the reality of the situation on the ground. A strategic approach would provide as flawed a perspective as Hitler’s attempts to understand the battle from his maps in the Wolfsschanze.[4] Instead, Beevor looks to examine the human aspect of the campaign, focusing on the experiences of the soldiers. Stalingrad is divided into five sections that follow a broadly chronological narrative. The first two sections provide a historical narrative up to the confrontation at the Volga. Beevor provides a general military background about the early campaigns on the Eastern Front, as well as examining the early careers of key figures in the Stalingrad struggle, particularly General Paulus of the German 6th Army.[5] The final three sections deal with the titanic struggle over Stalingrad, taking the reader to the surrender of the Sixth Army in the beginning of 1943. These three sections follow the broad narrative: the first examining the German attempt’s to seize the city, the second with the encirclement of the German 6th army, and the final detailing the eventual surrender of the German forces. Within this narrative, Beevor examines certain aspect of the battle in a thematic fashion. These provide some of the strongest sections of the book, and the mini-chapters on the Hiwis (Russians fighting for the Germans) and the civilians living within the city, are exceptional.[6]

Although Stalingrad was undoubtedly intended for a mass audience, the historical standard of the work is still very high. Beevor draws on a wide range of sources to provide the narrative of the battle. The fall of the Soviet Union, and the consequent limited opening of their archives, provided Beevor with access to previously unavailable sources. The Russian ministry of Defence central archive at Podolsk provided detailed reports sent daily from the Stalingrad Front.[7] These archives provide a detailed picture of the realities of the conflict away from the propaganda that surrounds the battle, especially in Russia. Commissars and the NKVD reported frequently on the state of morale, providing details about ‘extraordinary behaviour’ (the commissar’s euphemism for treasonous behaviour). These are particularly important since official Red Army archives have a tendency to avoid difficult subjects, such as low morale and desertion. A key facet of the book is its use of non-official sources, including war diaries, chaplains’ reports, letters and personal oral interviews. This social history approach to the battle provides the colour of the story, particularly in describing the everyday struggle of combatants and non-combatants within the confines of Stalingrad. Official documents can never fully explain the experience of the soldier, and Beevor draws on a huge range of personal accounts of the battle. It is this evidence, more than the ‘reliable’ official evidence, which provides the vivid picture of the battle.

The mandate of Stalingrad is not a detailed strategic and tactual examination of the conflict. This has the major advantage of sparing the reader from the tedium of constant lists of military numbers and a chronological examination of strategic and tactical military movements. This differentiates Stalingrad from other accounts of the battle, notably John Erickson’s The Road to Stalingrad.[8] However, this means that Stalingrad will not provide a detailed understanding of many of the important questions surrounding the battle. Beevor does not fully explore the motivation and strategic thinking behind the decision to fight a battle at the city of Stalingrad, which was had little tactical or strategic value. His reference to the megalomania of the two leaders, and their desire to control the city named after Stalin, is a simplification, and is not fully explored. Further, this book does not fully explain the underlying military reasons for the early German victories on the Eastern Front and their subsequent disastrous encirclement and defeat at Stalingrad. There is little examination of the re-organization of the Red Army and the Soviet Economy.  You could be forgiven for believing, like the Germans during the war, that the Red Army were producing troops and tanks out of thin air.

However, this is not the point of the book, a fact that Beevor clearly states in his preface. Instead of a strategic and tactical analysis, Stalingrad examines the experience of combatants and non-combatants from both sides of the struggle. Beevor magnificently explores motivation within the Red army and the Wehrmacht. The patriotism of the Wehrmacht in the early days of the Stalingrad campaign is bitterly contrasted to the ‘fortress mentality’ and desperation of the latter days of the Soviet encirclement. Letters sent home from the front reflect a division within the German forces between those who retained and those who had lost faith in the regime.  Equally, Beevor belies the patriotic explanation of the astonishing heroism and self-sacrifice of the Red Army, detailing the importance of fear and self-preservation within the Red Army. Beevor describes the important role of alcohol in the daily life of the Red Army, and how rations were stored up to provide the opportunity to escape, figuratively, from the horrors of the conflict. The daily reports from the NKVD reflect the real problems of morale, highlighted by continuous desertion, even after the encirclement of the German forces.

At its core, Stalingrad provides a harrowing and detailed picture of the everyday life of combatants in the ruined city. Many military histories solely focus on the grand military picture, effectively relegating the ordinary soldiers to pawns on a chessboard. In contrast, Beevor draws on a huge array of personal letters, war diaries, NKVD interrogation reports and personal interviews to skillfully paint a picture of daily life within the confines of the ruined city. Beevor examines hundred of individual stories, gleamed from numerous sources, to provide an understanding of the psychological impact of ‘Rattenkrieg’ (Rat War). Further, Stalingrad describes daily life, away from the military struggle, of soldiers within Stalingrad, especially their attempts to create a level of normalcy. The chapter ‘Christmas the German Way’ is sobering examination of the 6th army’s attempts to create a German Christmas within the encirclement. Beevor details German attempts to create advent crowns, fashioned from the tawny steppe grass, and little Christmas trees out of wood. Officers, in acts of astonishing humanity, give out the last of their cigarettes to their men as Christmas presents.[9] This social history approach, focusing on the soldiers rather than the grand military narrative, contributes not only to an enthralling narrative, but is also a necessary component of understanding any major battle. Military historians sometimes forget that the 4th panzer division was not simply a number of armed men and tanks.

In examining the Battle of Stalingrad, Beevor explores the experience of many groups ignored by traditional histories. The Hiwis are regularly ignored within Russian accounts of the battle, and Beevor relays a story of a meeting with a former colonel who simply refused to believe that any Russian would put on a German uniform.[10] Arguably more astonishing is Beevor’s examination of civilian survival within the war-torn city. Stalin’s refusal to allow for evacuation meant that tens of thousands of civilians were stranded between the two armies. It is simply astonishing that thousands of women and children could have survived in Stalingrad. Beevor demonstrates the extraordinary measures that women and children undertook in order to survive. Stalingrad is a perfect example of popular history. It provides a vivid narrative that is difficult to put down, detailing stories of extraordinary cruelty, heroism and self-sacrifice all at the same time. Beevor’s refusal to be tied down in military specifics and jargon makes the work very readable. At the same time, although there are no footnotes, Stalingrad does not sacrifice academic integrity to achieve this popular focus.

[2] Anthony Beevor, Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege 1942-1943, New York; Viking (1998), Preface xiii

[3] Beevor, Preface xi

[4] Beevor, Preface xi

[5] Beevor, 51-54

[6] Beevor, 184-186, 384-385

[7] Beevor, Preface xiii

[8] If you do enjoy detailed military analysis, I would recommend this book. If you don’t, I would avoid it like the plague.

[9] Beevor, 311-312

[10] Beevor, Preface xii.

The Iron Lady, Film Review by Yuan Yi Zhu


Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady, her 2011 biopic of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s Prime Minister between 1979 and 1992, has been much commented upon since its release. Much has been said about the artistic quality of the film, especially Meryl Streep’s masterful performance as Lady Thatcher. But though the film is a remarkable piece of entertainment, as a work of popular history its flaws are enormous. Indeed, one wonders if the film even merits that description: whatever history that may be found in the work has been systematically de-contextualized, twisted, and the overall narrative presents such a distortion of Thatcher’s career and of her times, especially whenever her gender is concerned, that it may be better described as an artistic fantasy – though the film’s creators have consistently maintained it is indeed a history-based work.

The film starts with in the mid-2000s, with a Lady Thatcher who is frail and senile, and who still thinks her husband is alive, though he passed away years ago. After having shown enough of her physical and mental decline, the film looks back at her life in a series of flashbacks, interrupted with additional scenes of her decline. We are first shown a young Margaret Roberts, the grocer’s daughter, making her way through the world, and stumbling here and there because of her lower-middle-class origins. At a dinner given for perspective candidates for a constituency, she is gently mocked by Tory grandees, and she suffers the humiliation of having to leave the room with the ladies at the end. She loses the election, but meets and marries Denis Thatcher along the way.

Then, she makes the way to the House of Commons, where her gender and class background put her at a great disadvantage. In Commons debates her shrill voice is mocked mercilessly by her Labour opponents, and in the Cabinet she is condescended at and ignored. Then she challenges Edward Heath for the Conservative leadership and wins first the leadership, then the Premiership. At this point, more than half of the film has already elapsed, and her eleven years at Downing Street are mostly presented through contemporary archival footage. Of the period between the 1982 Falklands War and her downfall in 1990 almost nothing is shown. She is duly pushed to resign by her colleagues in that year, and after having gotten rid of a personal daemon, the film ends on a melancholic note.

As might have transpired from the synopsis above, the film is rather light where history is concerned, a curious defect for a political biopic, where the protagonist’s career should be the natural focus of the storyline. In The Iron Lady, Thatcher’s career and the times she lived in are reduced to a series of context-free clichés which lack any depth. In contrast, the trailer, replete with scenes from her political life, clearly sought to sell the film as a serious historical film, rather than one about senility, to which it veers towards at times. Also, while it is understandable that a mass-market film should have some historical inaccuracies and simplifications for the sake of accessibility, in this film they are too important to be ignored. The miners’ strike, one of the defining moments of her career, is never mentioned; her fight against communism is only obliquely referred to, and the Irish issue merits twenty seconds of newsreel footage, accompanied by nothing more substantial than 80s pop music. It is hard to imagine how the average viewer should have learned anything from the film.

The de-contextualization of historical events is one of the film’s most serious problems. There is unanimous agreement among historians that Thatcher’s premiership was a period of great upheaval for Britain, whose effects are still hotly disputed today. In the film, Thatcher gives her ministers an economics lecture in 1981, wins a war in 1982, and from then on until 1990 there are riots and people getting rich, shown through contemporary footage. What happens then and how these events were related to Thatcher’s actions? The film does not say. In the same vein, the infamous garbage strikes of the 70s are shown, but the underlying causes (inflation and economic problems) is a mystery for the viewer. The narrative is essentially the follows: Britain was in bad shape, Thatcher came to power, and things sorted themselves out thanks to her. The nature of Britain’s predicaments, what she did to transform her country, and more importantly, what were the effects of her actions, are conspicuously absent from the film.

The director’s treatment of gender, a sine qua non of any historically-informed discussion about Thatcher, is almost disgraceful at times. Debates about the effects of her policies aside, few historians would deny she was a trailblazer for women in British politics, a fact which the film acknowledges. But it does so in a strange way, one which seems to be calculated to undermine the point whenever it is brought up. To wit, in the scene where Denis asks to marry her, she makes a forceful speech about her refusal to be “one of those women who stay silent and pretty on the arm of her husband.”  But the text is delivered in such an uncertain (even wimpy) voice that the important historical point – her refusal to follow the gender roles of her time – is wholly lost on the viewer. Instead, we are given the kind of saccharine sentimental scene that may have been pulled out from a 30s romantic film.

Another very problematic scene concerns the resignation of Sir Geoffrey Howe, her Chancellor of the Exchequer. In the film, Thatcher is shown at a Cabinet giving a bossy dressing-down to Howe, which leads to his resignation. Existing scholarship agrees that his resignation was because of a substantial policy dispute – whether Britain should adopt the Euro. But by dodging the serious policy point (something the film does throughout) and by attributing the resignation to her supposed (and gendered) character defects, the film puts personality above substance. Furthermore, the charge of bossiness was one of the sexist lines of attacks her opponents used with great regularity, and for it to be used in the film is to perpetuate the sexist stereotypes which dodged her whole career, a historical travesty of the first order.

Similarly, in the few scenes where she expounds her political philosophy, the fictional speeches that are fed into her mouth by the script are vapid, commonplace, and are wholly sentimental rather than intellectual. One thing Thatcher scholarship can agree upon (and there are preciously few of these) is that she was a rare politicians who thought ideas mattered. She regularly bought in leading intellectuals to help her formulate policy and to buttress her positions. Her speeches are replete with political philosophy, and contained numerous references to thinkers like Hayek and Oakshott. Though these facts can be found in every Thatcher biography, they are never hinted at in the film. At times, from her speeches in the film, one is reminded of the vulgar, simple middle-class housewife stereotype often used against her by her opponents, which the film reinforces.

The above must raise the question of why such an approach, which ignores existing scholarship in its entirety and resuscitates ugly stereotypes of the past, should have been adopted here, especially for a rare film about a female politician. Possibly this came from a commercial calculation that the film will do better if it dwells on the personal aspect rather on the more substantial issues, and that the audience will not appreciate being “hectored at by a woman” (as Gordon Reece, Thatcher’s image consultant, says in the film). In addition, while in scholarship, gender is used to enhance historians’ understanding of the past, in The Iron Lady gender is used to obscure it, for her gender, not her actions, are at the forefront, and in the worst way imaginable. In other words, the film portrays Thatcher as a woman who happened to be a politician, rather than a politician who was a woman. One cannot imagine a similar approach being used if the film had been about a male politician, and there is no reason to adopt it there, unless the film was specifically about her personal life, rather than her career and achievements, as the trailers seemed to indicate.

Apart from the acting, one is hard pressed to find anything positive about the film. Certainly it introduced Thatcher to generations which have no memories of her, and gave some popular exposure to post-war British history. But it ignores the large body of Thatcher scholarship, is based on no discernible historiographical school, disregards fundamental facts, portrays her using misogynistic caricatures of the past, avoids any substantive issue, and is mostly made up of time-worn clichés. And to those who would argue that successful films about political figures must involve the watering down of history, one can invoke films such as The Last King of Scotland which, though not perfect by any means, paint accurate portraits of their protagonists and of their agendas. But after watching The Iron Lady, it is impossible to tell what motivated her, what she did, or what her beliefs were. Nothing is added to our understanding of Thatcher; indeed, it may distort popular understanding of the Thatcher era for a generation. Now that she has passed away and her excellent official biography is being published, it is hoped that another enterprising director shall film her story in a way that is less offensive to the historical discipline.

Eating with the Enemy: How I Waged Peace With North Korea From My BBQ Shack in Hackensack, Reviewed by Kayla Ishkanian

Eating with the Enemy-cover

Academics often question the validity of popular histories since many of the author’s do not have PhD’s attached to their names or have an Ivy League alma mater. While those scholars who have dedicated their life’s work to their field have good reason to lift their noses to those comparatively unqualified authors who write inaccurate and highly successful novels, the field as a whole should not be discredited. Enter Robert Egan’s memoir “Eating with the Enemy,” a useful example of a popular history that depicts the history and politics of North Korea as told by a former cocaine addict and Vietnam War enthusiast aiming to shed some light on the Hermit Kingdom. Some scholars, such as Alessandro Portelli and Chris Smith all acknowledge the importance of popular histories and oral traditions, a method invoked by Egan as he takes the reader through the historiography of North Korea and its politics. This review ultimately argues that “Eating with the Enemy” adds to historians understanding of the history of North Korea and is a valuable primary source since it involves firsthand experience in the country and describes the narratives native North Koreans were taught about their country compared to what the rest of the world knows. After briefly summarizing the book this review analyzes Egan’s methodology in researching the book and gathering data, evaluates its merit as an effective oral history source and concludes with a positive recommendation for “Eating with the Enemy.”

“Eating with the Enemy”: An Overview

Robert Egan’s roots with international diplomacy do not start in a prestigious Ivy League school, but rather through his own personal curiosity spurred by the Vietnam War and the stories he heard about the working class men stuck “in bamboo cages.”[1] Years after the Vietnam War ended, Egan found himself pondering the fate of the POW’s all the while going through personal struggles and developing a cocaine addiction. During his moments of sobriety he attended meetings of interest groups that were still looking for missing soldiers in South-East Asia which lead Egan to visit Vietnamese diplomats from the United Nations in 1979. After working with a Vietnamese diplomat who later defected to the United States in 1992, Egan was contacted by the North Koreans who were interested as to why he was communicating with a fellow communist country. Around this time North Korean ambassador Han Song Ryol visited Egan in his native New Jersey to discuss the possibility of releasing American POW’s from the Korean War which stuck with Egan as the idea of “no man left behind”[2] weighed heavy on his mind. Unfortunately the FBI did not share his idealistic views.

After Kim Jong-Il became the leader of the DPRK in 1994 Egan made his first visit to North Korea, or as he calls it, his initiation to the Mafia. During the trip, Egan was continually tested and interrogated by his tour guides as they hoped to uncover why he was in their country and who he was working for[3]. They tested by taking him to important monuments[4] and interrogated him using a truth serum. Towards the end of the trip, Egan was officially accepted into the North Korean’s inner circle when he was presented with a Kim Il-Sung pin,[5] a sign he believed indicated that he had passed their tests. Unfortunately, the trip did not turn up any concrete evidence that any POW’s remained in North Korea.

Once Egan returned home, he began to put pressure on the FBI to take action and bring home the POWs in North Korea. The FBI was hesitant of this as there was no concrete evidence that there were any remaining POWs in the DPRK, only vague comments from Ryol and information that he gathered from reports[6]. The FBIs disinterest forced Egan to go to Pyongyang himself and find the men that Washington had forgotten about with no avail. For many years, POW talks began to wind down and Ryol was sent home for ‘re-education’ in 1998 since his tour in America was over. Egan and Ryol had no contact for four years and in 2002, Ryol returned to America. After the disappointments from the lack of information surrounding the POWs Egan’s “juice”[7] began to run out while Ryol prepared to go home. In 2006, after over ten years of working together, Ryol left America for good and he and Egan shared a touching goodbye which showed that two men from enemy nations can put their ideological differences aside and share a bond that is deeper than bureaucracy.

Egan’s Methodology: The Value of Personal Experience in History

Throughout his book, Egan describes the history of North Korea in detail and does not rely on footnotes from other academic scholars to aid him in telling his story. One of the high points for “Eating with the Enemy” is its use of combining both traditional historiographies and the North Korean’s understanding of their history. For example, while it is generally accepted in western academia that North Korea invaded the South, the DPRK preaches to its people that it was instead the victim of imperialist aggression and fought in an imperial war against the United States.[8] This is an effective method of historical research as it safeguards against the author’s bias by having the locals share the histories that they have been fed by their governments. While the North Korean people often have a skewed perception of events like the Korean War and the sinking of the USS Pueblo,[9] their accounts are still valid as they highlight how history can be manipulated by governments in foreign countries, especially those with dictators.

Furthermore, because Egan does not have an official ties to the U.S government or FBI, his descriptions of life in North Korea and his personal opinions on politics add validity to his memoir as he is not being backed by a large institution and forced to regurgitate FBI rhetoric. Compared to other memoirs written by government officials[10] Egan’s is filled with candor and unfiltered opinions about the situations and people he dealt with. This makes for a more enjoyable read compared to a stuffy, pretentious academic novel with a PhD attached to it. While critics may question the validity of a high school graduate with a former drug problem as an academic historian, Egan’s personal encounters and experiences in North Korea add to his credibility as he is able to evaluate the information he acquired abroad and compare it to the information he has been told as an American citizen.

“Eating with the Enemy” and the Importance of Oral Traditions

With the memoir primarily centered on Egan’s relationship with Han, “Eating with the Enemy” is able to tell the history of 20th century North Korea through Han’s anecdotes in addition to Egan’s personal experiences in the Hermit Kingdom. This speaks to the importance of oral traditions and histories when analyzing the usefulness of historical sources as they can tell historians “what [people] wanted to do [and] what they believed they were doing.”[11] As John Portelli argues part of the value in oral histories is that they allow us to gather information about people or groups that are illiterate and have holes in the written aspect of their histories[12] which applies to the North Korean case as little information about life and society about the country is heavily censored by the government. This adds to the value of accounts such as Egan’s memoir since he has interacted with North Korean diplomats as well as military personal, giving him a rare inside look at what is true and what is a constructed false reality. Furthermore, Chris Smith puts forth the idea that “if knowledge of the past is important for everyone, then all kinds of interpretations… will help a people know themselves”[13] which again can be applied to North Korea as the people are fed heavily fabricated information about their government and much of what the western world hears about the country is intensely negative. “Eating with the Enemy” picks up on the importance of the oral traditions associated with history as Egan’s narrative explains the history of 20th century North Korea from both the perspective of the North Koreans and the western world.

Concluding Thoughts

“Eating with the Enemy” deserves high praise for weaving a narrative about a blue collar American attempting to forge ties with an enemy nation while telling a relatively unbiased account of that country’s history. Egan effectively uses his personal experiences in the country as a way to describe the political and historical context of North Korea as his memoir embodies elements of oral traditions commonly employed in historical sources. Though Egan is no academic, his work should not be overlooked or snubbed due to his lack of academic clout.



Egan, Robert, and Kurt Pitzer. Eating with the Enemy: How I Waged Peace with North Korea from My BBQ Shack in Hackensack. New York: St. Martin’s, 2010.

Portelli, Alessandro. “The Peculiarities of Oral History,” History Workshop 12 (1981): 96 – 107.

Smith, Chris. “A Plea for a New Appreciation of Popular History: John Clark Ridpath, a Case Study.” Indiana Magazine of

[1] Egan, Robert, and Kurt Pitzer. Eating with the Enemy: How I Waged Peace with North Korea from My BBQ Shack in Hackensack. New York: St. Martin’s, 2010.  Pg. 11

[2] Ibid Pg.167.

[3] Ibid Pg.98-99.

[4]Ibid Pg.79.

[5] Ibid Pg.92.

[6] In 1996, I.O Lee publishes a report saying that seventeen years earlier, there were sightings of American POW’s in North Korea. Ibid Pg.148.

[7] Juice refers to the amount of knowledge or credibility one has within a powerful group. It is commonly used in the Mafia. Ibid Pg. 40.

[8] This rhetoric is common throughout the book and is used by multiple DPRK representatives that Egan associates with.

[9] The sinking becomes another subject of Egan’s duty in North Korea as he tries to extend his political weight to bring the American ship back to the U.S.

[10] One of the main criticisms of Robert McNamara’s memoir “In Retrospect” was that the information was too dense and dry and lacked the full political insight that McNamara had during the Vietnam War.

[11] Portelli, Alessandro. “The Peculiarities of Oral History,” History Workshop 12 (1981). Pg 100.

[12] Portelli, Alessandro. “The Peculiarities of Oral History.” Pg. 97.

[13] Smith, Chris. “A Plea for a New Appreciation of Popular History: John Clark Ridpath, a Case Study.” Indiana Magazine of History 77, no. 3 (1981). Pg. 207.

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Reviewed by Aaron Noronha


To call Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States a work of revisionist history is, in some respects, a massive understatement. Zinn’s 1980 bestseller not only attempts to portray American history from the viewpoint societies lower classes, but it also aims to radically challenge almost every popular conception of US history that people have been taught – that Columbus was not a hero but a killer, that the Founding Fathers cared not for personal liberties or freedoms, etc. While there are some methodological faults in his work that weaken his arguments, Zinn also provides excellent insight into the lives of societies oppressed – the poor, women, blacks and Natives. By analyzing how A People’s History of the United State portrays class, I hope to show that Zinn’s work overly generalizes the relationship between classes in America, but that it is valuable for bringing to light stories that are not often told.

Analyzing Zinn’s background and upbringing go a long way towards explaining the quasi-socialist, anti-government views that are evident in A People’s History. Born in 1922 in Brooklyn, New York City, to a Jewish immigrant family with limited education, Zinn truly understood what life was like for the “lower classes”. His father ran a struggling candy store during the Depression, and Zinn and his family moved often throughout the Brooklyn slums. The works of social critic Charles Dickens and socialist philosopher Karl Marx were some among the first pieces of literature that he read, and possibly influenced him to organize labour rallies. This causes him to develop sympathies for the working class, as well as develop an antagonism towards big business and government. To his credit, Zinn fully acknowledges and embraces these views, openly expresses his dislike of Western government, saying: “There is very little in the government that I admire, but there is much that I admire in the United States”.[1] He makes his reader in A People’s History well aware of these views saying: “this book will be skeptical of governments, and their attempts, through politics and culture, to ensnare ordinary people in a giant web of nationhood pretending to a common interest”.[2]

Zinn sympathies for the oppressed are evident from the very first page of his book, when he describes Christopher Columbus’s arrival to North America. He says the Arawaks of the Bahamas, and the Indians on the American mainland were renowned for their hospitality and sharing, values he said did not exist in Renaissance Europe because of the “religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization”.[3] He first chapter focuses on the oppression of the Indians at the hands of the Europeans, something he believes has been ignored for most of history.

The relationship he presents between the Indians and colonizers is similar to the relationship he later depicts between the American lower classes and the government elites. Through all the growth that occurred in the Thirteen colonies throughout the 18th century, he says it was the upper class who benefitted the most. He cites Boston as an example, noting that from 1687 to 1770, the top 1% owned had gone from owning 25% of the wealth to almost 50%.[4] Even during the Great Depression of the Thirties, Zinn says that the New Deal, was aimed primarily at stabilizing the economy for businesses, and that it gave only “enough help to the lower classes to keep them from turning a rebellion into a real revolution”.[5] By depicting the lower classes as being subjected to the will of the elite, Zinn attempts to show that American history, commonly seen as a beacon of light for liberty and democracy, is in reality, far from it.

One key value of A People’s History is in its countless oral sources that are beneficial in providing a perspective of life that goes beyond numbers and records. Zinn uses primary source quotes extensively throughout his work, including for key events including the Revolution and the Spanish-American War. When discussing American Independence, Zinn counters the idea that Americans saw their society as morally superior to Britain, by quoting a lower class woman, Elizabeth Sprigs who said: “What we unfortunate English people suffer here is beyond the probability of you in England to conceive”.[6] While one women’s testimony cannot possibly prove this argument, it is nonetheless valuable for showing that views, critical of American life, did exist

In another example, discussing the Spanish-American War, Zinn uses quotes to show that some Americans were skeptical of the war. One quote is from a Black solider in the Philippines who said: “Our racial sympathies would naturally be with the Filipinos. They are fighting manfully for what they conceive to be in their best interests. But we cannot for the sake of sentiment turn our back upon our own country.”[7] Firstly, by quoting a solider sympathetic to the people they were fighting, Zinn is trying to show that the common people did not want this war. Secondly, by quoting a solider is willing to fight for his country, despite ambivalence about the cause, he is also trying to demonstrate the prevalence of American elites “brainwashing” the common people to further their own causes.

For all of his work’s value, there are numerous methodological and historical inaccuracies that can be found throughout the book. One of Zinn’s major shortcomings is his tendency to generalize the characteristics of social groups like African-Americans, women, the working class, and especially the Natives. Zinn portrays the Native Americans in a very favourable light, continuously referencing their kindness, courteousness, their peaceful nature and their firm sense of right and wrong. He notes these qualities in the Iroquois tribe, and promptly ascribes these tendencies to all other nations. “Not only the Iroqouis but other Indian tribes behaved this way.”[8] This is a terrible simplification made to support his view that all colonizers abused the innocent natives. On the contrary, certain Native nations were extremely violent, and often allied with European states against other tribes. Zinn off course, ignores this.

Another criticism of Zinn’s work is in his portrayal of the working class as victims of oppression. Zinn does not recognize the reality that people of the lower classes could abuse each other as much as the elite did. During the Reconstruction era for example, Zinn blames the elites for violence against Southern blacks, noting that Northern elites made compromises on legal protection of blacks so that the South could be more easily reincorporated into the Union. He blames the elite for this violence, but rarely mentions the fact that it was largely the working class who orchestrated violence against Blacks. For example, the Klu Klux Klan, who Zinn sparingly mentions, were not composed of members of the elite, but of regular Southern Americans.[9] This fact is irrelevant to Zinn, who desires to blame the elites for all ills that befall the lower classes.

Zinn shows the same kind of contradictory language when it came to the Great Depression. When describing the Depression, Zinn again finds a way to spin this national crisis into a situation where the elite were abusing the lower classes. He says “there were millions of tons of food, but it was not profitable to transport it, to sell it. Warehouses were fill of clothing but people could not afford it.”[10] This quote tries to ascribe blame for the worsening situation of the Depression to the elite, saying there were food and homes for people but that since it was not profitable to the elite, people suffered. This is simply inaccurate, considering that many large businesses were failing as well and that many wealthy individuals also saw themselves struggling to find food and work. However, because these individuals do not fit within his worldview, he ignores them.

At the end of the day, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States paints a picture of America that is very different from what people have generally been taught. Not all of this depiction is necessarily inaccurate; there are moments Zinn depicts where American government, and the upper class did take advantage of the lower classes. American involvement in the Spanish American War is one example of this. Zinn’s use of oral sources as evidence for his arguments, while somewhat misleading, are also valuable for the attitudes and language that are expressed. Of course, I would argue that most of Zinn’s arguments are made without qualitative and quantitative evidence. Throughout his book, Zinn spouts anti-capitalist, anti-government, anti-business beliefs that make it appear as though those with money are evil, and that those who have been historically oppressed are without sin. He paints a simplistic picture of America, a picture that fails to account for the diversity of views and beliefs that did exist within American society.

[1] A People’s History post script 9 – 10

[2] Howard Zinn, A people’s history of the United States: 1942-present. (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005), 10

[3] Zinn 1

[4] Zinn 49

[5] Zinn 393

[6] Zinn 105

[7] Zinn 318 – 318

[8] Zinn 21

[9] Zinn 205

[10] Zinn 387

The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, Reviewed by Ali Begazo


How often do you use a dictionary? If you’re like me you may have just experienced a split-second long mental image of typing out the first few letters of Maybe you’re remembering that time in the second grade when you asked your teacher how to spell “social” and she told you to look it up in the class dictionary and all you could think was “How am I supposed to find it in the dictionary if I can’t spell it?” Chances are since then you’ve turned to one-click definitions that you can find for free online; not many of us waste time flipping through a physical dictionary if we happen to stumble across the word “disclander” reading Chaucer. But all of the definitions on the Internet have to come from somewhere, and chances are the definition you used to understand the obscure Middle English word “disclander” was first found in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Simon Winchester’s book The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary is an intense, dramatic history about the seventy-one year journey to compile the largest and most respected dictionary in the English language. The book is full of colourful and sympathetic characters, an endless amount of trivia, and has an easy, turn-paging style that genuinely makes you want to know how the OED ended up the way it did. Winchester is more concerned with how the dictionary came into being and how it developed over the years than he is with its actual triumphant publication in 1928. It is also a book that attempts to leave no personal history left out, no minute misstep without explanation, no stone left unturned. The intimacy between the author and the history (and, at times, the reader) makes us question what silences have been left out of the story.

Can there actually be more to know about the creation of the OED? Does anyone care? (Apparently Winchester does, and deeply so.) The first time I paused in my reading was when Winchester wrote that James Murray, the editor of the bulk of the dictionary in its formative years, as well as Winchester’s protagonist, “felt a certain sense of ignominy mingling with his peers” due to his lack of formal education. (82) Phrases like this, ones that casually insert the personal feelings of long-dead actors into the story, are frequent throughout the book. Winchester does not list any of Murray’s personal journals in his bibliography, but he does list a few biographies on the man. Is he describing this “ignominy” based on conclusions already drawn by somebody else, or does he extrapolate these ideas himself based on the secondary sources he has chosen to examine? His bibliography includes works that could have provided the bulk of the information but it’s difficult to believe that he could have found so much personal information on so many people through exclusively secondary sources. This must have come from his vague section Notes and Queries, or from his very creative imagination.

Despite the questions about his embellishments, there is no doubt that Winchester has carried out extensive, exhaustive research on the topic; no one who reads The Meaning of Everything can accuse its author of being careless with his research. Perhaps Winchester’s problem with silences lies in his attempt to remove them entirely from his history of the OED. He laments that he couldn’t include the names of each of the thousands of volunteers who submitted quotations, but does his best to put in as many as possible. Minor characters are treated as essential game-changers and bumps in the road to the dictionary’s publication are described with such gravitas it becomes almost comical. Reading the book you get the feeling that there can’t possibly be any more information about the birth of the OED.

It can be said, however, that the hypercorrections Winchester makes in order to frantically fill in the silences in his story make for better reading. We can question how accurate his details are, but we can’t say that they don’t make the book much more interesting. The Meaning of Everything has an incredible amount of facts- dates, events, and, most interesting of all, useless trivia, all of which serve to contextualize the importance of the OED as well as the difficult and long seventy-one years that it took to bring the project to fruition. Winchester excels in taking a seemingly endless amount of information, contextualizing it, and making it interesting. His style is easy to follow and at times borders on lyrical; the intimate pictures he paints of the lives of the editors make the creation of the OED much more interesting than I thought possible. You finish the book appreciating the difficulties in locating, defining, and finding quotes for every word ever used in the English language, ancient, modern, and absolutely everything in between.

I was a little shocked, however, when, once the star editor of the dictionary died after years and years of writing out definitions, Winchester chose to speed through the remaining thirteen years that it took to publish the first volume of the Oxford English Dictionary. The culmination of over half a century of work was glossed over in favour of an ode to the volunteers who worked on the dictionary in its infancy. To be fair, at this point I doubt most readers would have appreciated being introduced to a completely new range of characters, but it seems strange that Winchester would choose to abandon the incredibly thorough structure he chose to follow earlier in his work. It almost cheapens the end of the book by making it seem like Winchester simply lost some steam along the way. You are left wondering what was left out- what silences are there? The author’s inexplicable change of heart is disappointing after you’ve spent so much time investing yourself in the story of the dictionary.

Despite this issue, the book does an excellent job of making an otherwise obscure story into an exciting case study. As I mentioned before, there are a million little surprising facts that make the story worthwhile. For instance, J.R.R. Tolkien helped edit the dictionary; one prominent editor was written in as a character in the children’s book The Wind in the Willows; a bona fide Bonaparte submitted words. Winchester excels at keeping his reader engaged and fascinated. Despite the questions I have about the conclusions he draws, there is no doubt that he committed a substantial amount of time and an enormous amount of effort to researching the topic. Whatever silences there may be as a result of his fantastic inferences, there are no truly glaring discrepancies that call into doubt the author’s credibility.

The Meaning of Everything is an example of a work of popular history that succeeds in being both captivating and informative. Despite the massive amount of information that is thrown at you, you don’t finish the book feeling overwhelmed. The story of the OED is not one that many people know about, nor is it one that will ever be common knowledge. But it is definitely worthwhile to read The Meaning of Everything, if only to have the pleasure of experiencing vicariously the passion and excitement Simon Winchester has for the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting, Reviewed by Nusra Khan


In Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity Vijay Prashad offers a cursory history of Asian and African cultures, within the framework of polyculturalism, a term first coined by historian Robin Kelley in 1999, referring to the notion that most people in the Americas, and the world, are a product of a variety of different “cultures” – living cultures, not dead ones. These cultures live in and through us everyday, with almost no self-consciousness about hierarchy or meaning. In this respect, the term “polycultural” works a lot better than “multi-cultural”, since the latter often implies that cultures are fixed, discrete entities that exist side by side, a kind of zoological approach to culture[1].

In essence, Prashad’s project is to rethink race and culture – as operating in an American context – and the organization of society by problematizing the ‘standard’ histories of Africa and Asia. As in many cases, Prashad’s preface is the most informative part of the book: tracing the historical development of systems of racial and cultural organization, he argues for the use of polyculturalism in against white supremacy and multiculturalism, which he argues, is simply a blanket term that undermines unequal societal systems. Not only does it imply that cultures can be separated from another, as Kelley notes, but also relies on the (false) criteria of authenticity and purity. Similarly, Prashad avoids the term influence, since it “presupposes that the transit was one way. Polyculturalism does not make a strong statement about the direction of adoption, but it does indicate that those forms hitherto seen as pure are perhaps less so (89)”.

To legitimate this claim, Prashad traces the emergence of a novel European imposed racial ideology, against, what he portrays as, the natural tendency of human societies to blend together. Before the arrival of Vasco Da Gama and the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean world, cultural groups did not view each other in racial terms. They certainly classified and distinguished amongst each other – particularly in the realm of the slave trade in Chinese and Arab cultures, where religion was the criteria of freedom – but only because the advent of colonial powers and the use of slavery as the main means for mass production did feudal/caste/religious systems evolve into racial/biological ones.

After establishing this, and the institutionalization of race theory within early European academia, Prashad then situates the modern problem of race discourse. Abandoning it entirely is not productive; nonetheless, neoliberal democracies conflate any kind of race discourse with racism (and in polyculturalism is the remedy). This is where the crux of Prashad’s argument emerges: in embedding the polycultural race theory within the Marxist framework of class struggle. In contemporary America, discussion of race and culture are ignored because of their ‘irrelevance’ to a supposed free and fair capitalist system. For an example Prashad deconstructs the image of the model Asian minority, who demand nothing (in terms of affirmative action) and instead ‘work hard’, unlike ‘lazier’ groups who simply do not work hard enough to make enough money and attain a better economic status. Taking the analysis to various scales, he argues that both on the individual and state level, “Public institutions that seek to redress inequality are to be downsized in favor of private institutions committed to the extraction of profit (46)”.

Thus the changing, dynamic vision of cultural identity in polyculturalism is subsumed within class identity. In fact, Prashad claims that the most illustrative instances of polyculturalism emerged out of the working class: from the Chinese/Indians coolies working under colonial state, unable to negotiate their wages while British workers participate in the Labour movement; on the plains of Jamaica, where Rastafarianism emerged out of contact with East Indian migrant laborers; or in British Guyana, where the polycultural festival of Hosay, incorporating elements of Islamic, Hindu and African-Christian traditions, provided the ideal conditions of a worker’s strike and was subsequently suppressed by colonial authorities through cultural separation. His notion of Third World Solidarity is what stands out the most. The preceding four chapters are spent building up this concept– of polyculturalism representing the unity of the working classes. The last chapter and the conclusion of the book is simply a cursory history of the interconnectedness of independence movements and moments where such polyculturalism and radicalism interact, including gems like Malcolm X’s death in the arms of Yuri Kochiyama; connections between Red Guards and Black Panthers; Ho Chi Minh’s times in ‘Garveyite halls in Harlem’; and the meetings of Nkrumah and Nehru. Marxism and Communism, and largely, post-colonial solidarity, is the main framework of his “Afro-Asian Connections”. Thus perhaps his generous use of the phrase “Third World Solidarity” would be more appropriate in the title of the book. Indeed, it is not until the conclusion of the book that Prashad outright states:

polycultural solidarity is not the melancholic hope for unity that sometimes guides the imagination of the Left, but it is a materialist recognition that people who share similar experiences create the platform for cultural interaction… solidarity of the class, across color, grew not from any predisposition toward class unity, but because Japanese and African Americans had to live side by side, share a similar set of circumstances, and create a common cultural world[2],

an understanding that is much different than Kelley’s. Perhaps this is the greatest weakness of Prashad’s work, that he does not acknowledge it as a work of class relations and not simply a ‘history of polyculturalism”. For its work on the intersections of race and class it is commendable; but after reading Robin Kelley’s article in which ‘polyculturalism’ is first posited,  and without a claim by Prashad about his class dimension, Prashad’s book feels like a disappointing attempt at producing a historical study of the theory. Thus one wonders if Prashad himself may not have misconstrued Kelley’s argument… his emphasis on South Asian and West Indian contexts and his tendency to problematize Black cultural norms by ‘tracing’ their origins to migrant laborers in the colonial period or to Asian Marxism in the postmodern period appear suspiciously one-sided, although Prashad to takes care to constantly remind the reader that “culture is not a category”. But this is simply a virtue of the fact that Prashad tends towards radical class activism, both in colonial and postcolonial periods, while Kelley is focused only on culture.

Nonetheless, for a popular work that attempts to theorize and historicize ambiguous concepts of race and class, Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting provides a fast-paced, colorful introduction. Surely a rhetorical gesture, the book itself is a polycultural product, incorporating vibrant references of poems, rap lyrics of the Ruff Ryders and Rakim, historical photographs, and witty sub-titles, all neatly wrapped up in the metaphor of Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting, a Chinese-American pop song by Indian songwriter Bindu and performed by the African-American Carl Douglas. Though the argument’s clarity sometimes suffers from its kaleidoscopic approach, it still offers an insight into the overlap of race and class, and unwittingly highlights some of the theoretical challenges of studying race, culture and class together.

Works Cited

Prashad, Vijay. 2001. Everybody was Kung Fu fighting: Afro-Asian connections and the myth of cultural purity. Boston: Beacon Press

Prashad, Vijay, and Russell Endo. 2003. “BOOK REVIEWS – Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Racial Purity”. The International Migration Review : IMR. 37 (4): 1313.

Kelley, Robin. “People In Me: “So, What Are You?”.”ColorLines, Winter 1999. In Me.pdf (accessed March 17, 2014).

[1] Kelley, Robin. “People In Me: “So, What Are You?”.”ColorLines, Winter 1999.

[2] Prashad, Vijay. 2001. Everybody was Kung Fu fighting: Afro-Asian connections and the myth of cultural purity. Boston: Beacon Press, 120.


At the Dark End of the Street: Illuminating But Overly Reductive, Reviewed by Will Kitchens



For the most part, Danielle McGuire presents a powerful and coherent narrative – that black women’s testimony against sexual violence emerged as an important method of direct action, and through protest, challenged the ingrained system of white supremacy in the post-war period. Ultimately, it a strong and logical thesis, especially when applied to the testimonies of Recy Taylor, Betty Jean Owens, and the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. Undoubtedly, a history of sexual violence perpetrated with impunity against black women was integral to popular protest and shifting public opinions on both the national and international stages. My primary contention with At the Dark of the Street is not the premise, but rather that – as a popular history – it is reductive, and self-servingly interprets evidence. McGuire seeks a dramatic watershed moment, a singular causal link between sexual violence and the very beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement that does not exist on its own. In her attempts to reexamine dominant Civil Rights narratives and accordingly orient black women as its central figures, I question if she has a tendency to assign historical significance to events in order to perpetuate her thesis and central claims even if there exists little evidence for such. With that being said, it is ultimately an illuminating read. It uncovers a long overlooked and ignored strain of civil rights history, but in McGuire’s efforts to closely follow her central narrative, she reduces the overall coherence and convincing nature of her entire argument.

My issue with her work – and perhaps popular histories in general – is not with her intention or general thesis, but rather that in her search for complexity she is overly reductive in her methodology and interpretation of a diverse movement and historical period. McGuire is seeking a dramatic watershed moment, a foundational link between sexual violence and the very origins of the Civil Rights Movement that does not exist. Simply, it feels as if McGuire has a thesis in mind, a point she intends to reach, and her treatment and interpretation of sources and evidence suffers accordingly. For example, McGuire asserts that the Montgomery Bus Boycott, as a reaction to a history of unimpeded, racialized sexual abuse, is often interpreted as the beginning of the modern Civil Rights Movement. Much of the gravitas she assigns women’s involvement in the broader Civil Rights Movement is completely predicated on this singular event, yet she provides no evidence of any historian or historical figure assigning it such significance. As a student with a focus on 20th century American history, I do not contest the importance of the boycotts, but rather her ability to present an unsubstantiated argument.

As Sewell writes in Historical Events as Transformations of Structures, “deciding how to bound an event is necessarily a matter of judgment”. How we choose to do such is determined by one’s perspective, and there is often more than one boundary for a single event.[1] As a popular history, McGuire seeks to present a coherent, unified thesis but in her attempts to do so, leaves room for little else. For example, McGuire only briefly mentions A. Philip Randolph and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters’ 1941 March on Washington, which helped ensure the passing of Executive Order 8802, which prohibited segregation in defense industries. By 1948, the Porters successfully pressured Truman to issue an executive order banning segregation in the armed forces. Clearly, a tradition of peaceful direct action had preceded the events in Montgomery, yet McGuire provides little recognition of such. Accordingly, framing the bus boycotts as the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement feels convoluted. McGuire has a point she intends to make, and her methodology and interpretation of the evidence suffers accordingly. In this context, I feel as if the book is characterized by a steadfast devotion to a single coherent narrative and thesis for readability’s sake. Ultimately, McGuire she oversteps its logical boundaries, ultimately reducing the overall impact of her argument and undermining the complexities of the movement as a whole.

As one large narrative of silence and absence, At the Dark End of the Street certainly adds to our understanding of the historiographical theme of silences. As Michel Rolph Trouillot writes, “silences are inherent in history because any single event enters history with some of its constituting parts missing. Something is always left out while something else is recorded”.[2] Accordingly, McGuire asserts that the missing piece of the civil rights narrative is the long history of unimpeded sexual abuse and the subsequent testimony and direct action of black women. Most convincingly, McGuire challenges the dominant trope of Rosa Parks as an old lady who, tired on the bus, simply refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. Instead, McGuire notes “the ministers leading the mass meeting that night silenced Parks, they turned her into the kind of woman she wasn’t: a quite victim and solemn symbol…Parks was sainted and celebrated for her quiet dignity, prim demeanor, and middle-class propriety, her radicalism all but erased…”.[3] Particularly illuminating is the recognition that historical silences are not always used to marginalize an opponent. Instead, the silencing of aspects of Park’s character were essential to establishing her as a model of middle-class decorum and thus a defendant who could stand the rigors of both court and media. To be sure, an element of patriarchy and egotism may exist in this silencing, but McGuire’s work exists as a powerful testament to the conscious presentation of appearances and the use of silences to further ones own ends. Despite my issues with McGuire’s work and her own historical silences, her ability to uncover a largely ignored history is commendable and adds a welcome layer of depth to civil rights studies.

Additionally, At the Dark End of the Street touched upon important questions of how we deal with the historiographical issue of an “event” and how we interpret and assign it significance. As the book progresses, McGuire continually makes reference to black women’s attempts to reclaim their bodies as a linear predecessor of the coming women’s rights movement. Despite this, she provides no elaboration or explanation of the link that she has drawn. In this context, I question if McGuire, from a 21st century perspective, assigned significance to the role of being a woman that was not existent during the movement itself. Similarly, has she assigned significance to these particular historical events and cases in an effort to substantiate the involvement of women within the movement? Does she unjustly prioritize the bus boycotts? As McGuire is seeking these connections, I cannot help but wonder if the lens from which she attempts to view this history assigns ahistorical significance to past events. In response to the Browder case, McGuire claimed that it marked the “full arrival” of blacks as citizens. To regard blacks as full citizens in 1956 is an absolute farce and a dramatic overstatement of the advances made. McGuire seems to exhibit a clear tendency to overinflate the historical significance and impact of the events that she sees central to her thesis. This is not to diminish their value or to claim they are of none, but rather that imbedded within McGuire’s work exists a penchant for sensationalism.

Similarly, questions of how we assign significance and historicity can be applied to McGuire’s treatment of gender and identity. Simply, if McGuire had intended to analyze the civil rights movement through a gender history – has she prioritized being female as the foremost determinant of black women’s identity when they could have actually been more united in, and defined by their struggle for racial equality? Is she consciously trying to isolate a women’s movement from within the broader civil rights movement in an effort to draw the connections that uphold her thesis? Women’s testimonies were undoubtedly a form of direct action, but men testified in these trials too. Men too experienced humiliation on buses, walked to work, and were vulnerable to violence. To be clear, I am not attempting to diminish the particularly ghastly and unique relationship with the Jim Crow South that black women experienced, but rather I ask if women’s involvement in boycotts, marches, and testimonies were ever conceptualized as the actions of a woman, or were they merely seen as part of a broader racial movement in which both sides sought to fight against systemic abuse? Simply, does she historically isolate women from the broader movement in a way that never existed and they never intended?

Despite my penchant for criticality, At the Dark End of the Street is of particular importance in its ability to uncover a strand of history largely ignored, and to encourage a reexamination of the civil rights period. The history of unimpeded sexual violence prompted organization, protest, and helped to shift public opinions on both the national and world stage in the post-war context. Women’s testimonies emerged as an important method of direct action and resisting the pervasive system of white supremacy. My contention with McGuire’s work is rather its reductive nature and tendency to overlook and obscure evidence in a self-serving manner. Furthermore, At the Dark End of the Street is a testament to the powerful and diverse nature of historical silences, as well as the complex issues we deal with when assigning historical significance to “events”. McGuire’s continued, strict adherence to a singular thesis pervades the book, raises questions regarding validity of her methodology and interpretation, and ultimately undermines the overall impact of the book.


McGuire, Danielle L.. At The Dark End of The Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance. New York: Vintage Books, 2011. Print.

Sewell Jr., William H.. “Historical Events as Transformations of Structures: Inventing Revolution at the Bastille.” Theory and Society 25.6 (1996): 841-881. Print.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995. Print.


[1] Sewell, 878

[2] Trouillot, 49

[3] McGuire, 107.

The Inventor and the Tycoon, Reviewed by Alexander Smith



In The Inventor and the Tycoon, Edward Ball adopts a microhistorical approach to tell the stories of two profoundly different men – Leland Stanford, a cantankerous, incredibly wealthy railroad tycoon, and Edward Muybridge, a wild, obsessively brilliant artist and inventor. The strange and oftentimes perplexing relationship between these two profoundly different men constitutes the bulk of the material for this surprisingly satisfying and impressively researched work of popular history. Although many professional historians may dismiss The Inventor and the Tycoon as little more than entertainment directed at a popular audience, the book nevertheless raises a number of important questions about the kinds of individuals we should focus on, as academic historians, when carrying out microhistorical inquiries. Mr. Ball, like many historians before him, focuses his attention on the lives of individuals who cannot be considered ‘normal’ in any sense of the word. Does this narrow focus on atypical, anomalous cases vitiate our ability to derive accurate conclusions about the historical and social context in which those individuals lived? Although Ball’s book does not provide any definite answers to the problems faced by those practicing microhistory, the very fact that it raises these issues – and that it does so within an engrossing, vividly detailed and surprisingly immersive narrative – makes The Inventor and the Tycoon worthy of attention and admiration from amateurs and professionals alike.

Throughout The Inventor and the Tycoon, Mr. Ball attempts to establish a connection between the strange working relationship of Muybridge and Stanford with the establishment of the “modern visual media landscape.” However before Ball can present his case, he begins his narrative by introducing us to each man separately. Leland Stanford, a man of humble origins born into a modest farming family in upstate New York, came West to California, like many before and after him, hoping to strike it rich. Establishing himself first as a grocer in Sacramento, Stanford would eventually co-found the California Pacific Railroad Company and become one of the richest, most powerful men in Gilded Age America. Stanford’s life – full of success and conquest – stands in stark opposition to the troubled life of his business partner, Edward Muybridge. As an immigrant to America, Muybridge was met with a series of professional failures. As a middle-aged man with mounting debts and rapidly diminishing prospects, Muybridge made an incredibly risky move, a move which, according to Ball, would make an indelible impact on the American media landscape forever: he decided to become an artist. As one of the pioneers of landscape photography, Muybridge managed to secure highly lucrative contracts from the U.S. Government to photograph the vast swaths of land that lay between the Utah desserts and the sunny coast of California. Incredibly, Muybridge’s photographs were being purchased faster than he could produce them, and before long, he had become one of the premiere names in his field.

By the time Muybridge began working as a personal photographer for Stanford, he had gained a measure of fame – not only because of his artistic skills, but also because he had shot and killed a man whom he claimed had “seduced” his young wife. Muybridge was eventually acquitted when a jury concluded that his action had been ‘justifiable’ based upon the young lady’s supposed ‘indiscretion.’ In an attempt to refocus his professional career, Muybridge was tasked with using his photographic tools to determine whether or not Stanford’s racehorses were ever completely airborne while they trotted. With the financial aid and patronage of Stanford, Muybridge would eventually develop the Zoopraxoscope, a kind of proto-film projector that would eventually inspire the pioneers of cinema and usher in the age of the moving image.

Directing his narrative at a popular audience, Ball creates a vivid, seductive landscape out of Gilded Age San Francisco. Ball presents a lively, thriving city where the possibility of striking it rich always exists and if one fails, one can always recreate oneself into something, or someone, completely new. Although it makes for compelling reading, Ball’s narrative never seems to slow down and find time for analysis and reflection. Because The Inventor and The Tycoon is after all a work of popular history, this is wholly acceptable, however, this lack of analysis ultimately undermines his attempt to connect the relationship between Muybridge and Stanford with the larger historical context in which it took place.

Although Ball leaves us with a clear and lasting impression of the two men, their strange working relationship and the technology which emerged out of their partnership, when we reach the end of The Inventor and the Tycoon, it is much less clear where their contribution stands in the broader context of the history of cinema, and also, in the history of California during the Gilded Age. Furthermore, although there is little doubt that Muybridge and Stanford led fascinating lives, it is unclear exactly how we are to extrapolate from their fascinating biographies to arrive at meaningful conclusions about the world in which they lived. The lives of Muybridge and Stanford cannot be considered ordinary in any sense, and although their exploits make for captivating reading, one feels compelled to ask – should we even consider The Inventor and the Tycoon a work of history? Perhaps biography, or in this unusual case, a dual biography, would be a more appropriate title for what Mr. Ball is doing in The Inventor and the Tycoon.

Classificatory difficulties such as these highlight a particularly vexing problem facing academic historians, particularly those working in the field of microhistory: how can we extrapolate from a single individual or event to arrive at accurate conclusions about the historical or social context in which that individual lived or that event took place? What if the individual subject of the microhistorical analysis is simply an outlier or an oddity – can this lead to an inaccurate or ahistorical account? If we are unable to ‘connect’ the individual’s story to its broader historical context, does microhistory simply become a glorified form of biography? While The Inventor and The Tycoon bears almost all of the hallmarks of a microhistory, it is, at the end of the day, a work of pop-history and is therefore freed from the burden of answering such troublesome questions. Although Ball ultimately fails to satisfactorily ‘connect’ the biographies of Stanford and Muybridge with the broader historical picture of their era, The Inventor and the Tycoon nevertheless maintains the kind of dense, unrelenting investigatory energy seen in the very best works of microhistory.

Methodologically, Ball has taken a surprisingly judicious approach when it comes to analyzing and interpreting his sources. Unfortunately, one cannot say the same when it comes to the questionable connection he asserts between Muybridge’s invention – the Zoopraxoscope – and the establishment of the “modern visual media landscape.” If one familiarizes oneself with the history of cinema, it becomes immediately clear that Muybridge’s Zoopraxoscope was one of many devices, most of which served the very same purpose, which emerged in the final decades of the 19th century (the Zoetrope being the most famous of these devices, had existed for centuries before Muybridge’s invention was presented to the world). This is not to say that Muybridge’s invention was insignificant or that Ball’s account is inaccurate, rather, these facts simply show that the history of the moving image is much more complex and messy than The Inventor and the Tycoon would lead one to believe.

While Ball’s proposed connection between Muybridge’s Zoopraxoscope and the creation of cinematography may ultimately be untenable, it is clear that with the invention of the moving image, the American media landscape was irrevocably changed. Through newsreels, documentaries, propaganda films and Hollywood’s major motion pictures, many Americans gained access to vast swaths of information about the exotic, complex and sometimes frightening world which surrounded them. Without the contributions of Edward Muybridge and his wealthy patron, it seems likely that the creation of cinematography would have been delayed at least 20 years. Although this conclusion is far less exciting and salable than Ball’s, it seems wholly inaccurate to attribute the phenomenon of moving pictures to the strange relationship between Muybridge and Stanford. In the final chapter, Ball himself vaguely acknowledges the tenuousness of this claim and he instead proposes an alternate, much more satisfying relationship between the subjects of his book and the development of cinematography and the modern media. Ball suggests that the relationship between Muybridge and Stanford acts as a kind of precursor to, or microcosm of, the combination of forces (artistic and financial) that would eventually come together in order to shape the future American media landscape. Muybridge possessed the obsessive, innovative artistic capabilities and Stanford possessed the practical business knowledge and cold hard cash to transform Muybridge’s artistic ideas into a viable product available to the masses. Ultimately, Ball seems to concede that the connection between Muybridge and Stanford’s work and the creation of the modern media is more symbolic than it is causal.

Perhaps the limitations of the pop-history genre (namely that the content must be salable to a general audience) have forced Ball to make sensationalized historical connections that he cannot substantiate. The Inventor and the Tycoon leaves one with the distinct impression that he has been misled, but that he has been misled in the most entertaining, engrossing way possible. The content of the lives of Muybridge and Stanford are so fascinating and salacious that The Inventor and the Tycoon ultimately make up for its analytic deficiencies by presenting the reader with a genuinely compelling, efficiently written and vividly detailed historical narrative. Although Ball’s book will not leave you a particularly nuanced understanding of the Gilded Age, the social forces which brought these two men together or the long-term impact their relationship had, The Inventor and the Tycoon, like the images created by Muybridge’s Zoopraxoscope, creates a historical picture well worth looking at.































The Return of Martin Guerre, Reviewed by Cole Bricker


In the 1540s in Languedoc, France, a rich peasant named Martin Guerre left his wife, child and property and was not heard from for eight years. Upon returning, Guerre lived in relative marital bliss with his wife Bertrande, until three years later when Bertrande declared that she had been tricked by an imposter and brought her purportedly fraudulent husband to court. The case garnered so much attention that it was referred to the high court in Toulouse. At the trial, the husband was so compelling in reciting the details of Martin’s life – his Basque heritage, his interpersonal relationships, and his intimate experiences with Bertrande – that the judges were on the verge of dismissing the case. However, before the verdict could be rendered, a man appeared who completely altered the outcome of the trial. That man was Martin Guerre. Consequently, Arnaud du Tilh (the imposter) was forced to confess to fraud, and was subsequently executed.

Natalie Zemon Davis’ The Return of Martin Guerre successfully employs a micro-historical approach to thoroughly examine this remarkable tale of marital deceit. Davis’ microhistory is based primarily on two accounts of the trial that were widely disseminated after its conclusion – one by judge Jean de Coras who acted as the trial’s lead justice, and another by legal scholar Guillaume Le Sueur. Additionally, Zemon Davis employs court and financial records to reconstruct the aspirations and agency of Arnaud, Martin, and most importantly, Bertrande. Critically, however, Davis’ account is not intended to solely unearth the personhood of these figures; rather, the intent of her work is to demonstrate that the experiences of these three villagers “are not too many steps beyond the more common experience of their neighbors, [and] that an impostor’s fabrication has links with more ordinary ways of creating personal identity” (Zemon Davis, VII). Thus, The Return of Martin Guerre does not simply provide a descriptive account of an isolated deception; instead, Zemon Davis seeks to analyze the social conditions that could produce such a seemingly bizarre and duplicitous act.

In reviewing The Return of Martin Guerre, I intend to focus on three critical elements of the narrative and the methodology it employs. First, I contend Zemon Davis successfully uses her micro-historical lens to unearth the aspirations of Bertrande, who, in my opinion, is the most enigmatic figure in this saga. I believe that Zemon Davis rightfully concludes that Bertrande was not a victim of Arnaud’s deception; rather, she was wholly complicit in constructing a fraudulent marriage that allowed her the rare opportunity to act autonomously in a community that largely consigned women to a position of inferiority. Second, Zemon Davis’ work demonstrates the complex nature of France’s legal system in the sixteenth century – a system that allowed peasants meaningful judicial recourse and employed jurisprudential standards in deciding cases. Finally, while Zemon Davis’ work provides an incredibly compelling account of the trial, she fails to link the relationship of Bertrande and Arnaud to emerging Protestantism in the region (a core argument of her text).

Zemon Davis’ work reveals a critical aspect of this well-documented saga that had previously gone unreported: Martin Guerre’s wife was likely complicit in assisting Arnaud in his deception, even going so far as to aid him in his defense. Indeed, not only did Arnaud have an encyclopedic knowledge of Martin Guerre’s personal relationships, but the testimony he provided in his defense was entirely congruent with Bertrande’s account of their life together. As Zemon Davis argues, if Bertrande desired a conviction she could have easily contradicted Arnaud’s statements in open court, or merely prompted the judges to ask questions that could have trapped the imposter. Thus, Zemon Davis concludes that Bertrande must have assisted Arnaud in constructing his account of Martin’s life. In addition, Zemon Davis compellingly argues that Bertrande was not particularly interested in pursuing these charges against the fake imposter as the charges originated at the behest of Martin’s uncle, Pierre. For Zemon Davis, the impetus for these charges was Pierre’s vehement opposition to the “new” Martin’s request for him to disclose the financial records of their family business. This account is buttressed by evidence that Bertrande was coerced into bringing the case to trial with Pierre being briefly imprisoned for threatening her with violence should she refrain from doing so. Therefore, it is highly probable that Bertrande was complicit in facilitating Arnaud’s deception.

But why would Bertrande knowingly perpetuate a fraudulent marriage? It is in answering this question that The Return of Martin Guerre is most impactful. In the sixteenth century, marriage among the French peasantry was primarily an economic institution. Bertrande was offered to Martin for marriage in order to solidify their respective families’ economic prospects in Languedoc; however, their marriage was not a particularly happy one. Although they had one child together, Martin suffered from impotence, and many villagers reported that the couple quarreled regularly. Additionally, when Martin disappeared for eight years, local marriage laws prevented Bertrande from receiving a divorce. Therefore, upon meeting the “new” Martin (a figure who resembled Martin, but did not appear identical), Bertrande had the ability to do something she had been unable to do in her marriage: make an autonomous decision about whether to enter into a relationship. By accepting Arnaud, living with him, and having two children with him, Bertrande was able – albeit in a limited fashion – to break free of the particular constraints that had been imposed upon her by virtue of her class and gender. Thus, the seemingly bizarre act of harbouring a fraudulent husband does not seem so absurd when considered within the context of a patriarchal society that systematically denied women the ability to make decisions about their amorous relationships. Therefore, while Bertrande’s harbouring of Arnaud is undeniably abnormal, this case does elucidate much about the unique plight of female peasants in sixteenth century France.

Another crucial aspect of Zemon Davis’ text is her analysis of the French legal system. Specifically, by employing the texts of two legal professionals, Zemon Davis highlights that members of the peasantry could seek meaningful recourse in France’s legal system. Indeed, despite Pierre having important connections with local aristocrats and landholders, the jurists were unwilling to be influenced by these relationships, and genuinely strived to provide the imposter with a fair trial. This crucially assists in dispelling the notion that French peasants had no access to a fair and responsive system of justice – a point of particular importance when considering that peasants in many other European states were largely subject to arbitrary standards of justice meted out by feudal lords and local aristocrats.

In addition to the surprisingly equitable nature of the French legal system, Zemon Davis’ work also highlights the system’s myriad complexities. For instance, rather than being bound to a specific interpretation of the law when addressing the sentencing of Arnaud, Bertrande and Pierre, Coras based his decision on the principle that maintaining Bertrande’s family should be the main aim of the court. He upheld this principle by releasing Pierre for charges of intimidation and through classifying the two children Bertrande had with Arnaud as “legitimate” heirs to their family’s estate. In order to buttress these verdicts Coras employed jurisprudential frameworks that had been reached in previous decisions. Thus, judges in sixteenth century France not only addressed cases that dealt with the peasantry, but were also granted a large degree of discretion in rendering their verdicts. Ultimately, Zemon Davis demonstrates that the peasantry did have meaningful access to justice in France, while unearthing the complexities of the French legal system.

While Zemon Davis’ micro-historical approach richly outlines the social circumstances of the French peasantry in the sixteenth century, she utterly fails to connect the relationship of Bertrande and Arnaud to emerging Protestantism in rural France. Specifically, Zemon Davis contends that Bertrande and Arnaud must have been a part of this groundswell of emerging rural Protestantism because the Catholic Church would have “excommunicated them as notorious adulterers unless they separated immediately” (Zemon Davis, 47). Zemon Davis asserts that because Protestantism relied less on institutional intermediaries in order to foster a relationship with God, Arnaud and Bertrande would have been attracted to this emerging form of religiosity. Finally, she notes that Arnaud’s final confession (prior to his execution) possessed “no references to Catholic formulas or the saints” (Zemon Davis, 48).

In this context it appears that Zemon Davis is merely asserting that Bertrande and Arnaud were Protestant absent much substantiation. While it is true that they may have been excommunicated from the Catholic Church had they disclosed their adultery, such a fraudulent relationship would have very likely elicited the scorn of local Protestants as well. Moreover, the absence of explicit references to Catholicism in Arnaud’s confession certainly implies that he was not a fervent Catholic; however, the absence of such references does not necessarily mean he was a practicing Protestant. Thus, by concluding that Bertrande and Arnaud were Protestant without convincing evidence, Zemon Davis only detracts from the core aim of her work: unearthing the personhood and aspirations of the French peasantry.

Ultimately, The Return of Martin Guerre is a fascinating mircohistory that illustrates much about the experience of the French peasantry. Zemon Davis crafts a masterful narrative, uncovering Bertrande’s complicity in continuing a fraudulent marriage, while delivering important contextual knowledge of the French legal system. While Zemon Davis’ failure to demonstrate Arnaud and Bertrande’s supposed Protestantism shows the extrapolatory limitations of a micro-historical approach, her work is truly impressive. Zemon Davis’ writing compels the reader to empathize with the decisions Arnaud, Martin and Bertrande were forced to undertake. Thus, at the end of the work, you are left with a genuine understanding of these figures’ social constraints, their society’s legal system, and most importantly, their personal aspirations. It is for that reason that I strongly recommend The Return of Martin Guerre.


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