Friday, June 26, 2009

Kevin Kenny

Kevin Kenny is Professor of History at Boston College, where he teaches the history of Atlantic migration and popular protest in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He is author of Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn’s Holy Experiment (Oxford University Press, 2009), The American Irish: A History (Longman, 2000), and Making Sense of the Molly Maguires (Oxford University Press, 1998); and contributing editor of New Directions in Irish-American History (University of Wisconsin Press, 2003) and Ireland and the British Empire (Oxford University Press, 2004). He teaches courses on the history of American immigration, race, and ethnicity.

Earlier this week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I am currently reading Peter Kolchin’s American Slavery, 1619-1877. A classic in its field, American Slavery was first published in 1993. The current Tenth Anniversary edition comes with a new Preface and Afterword by Kolchin. Accessible to specialists and general readers alike, this elegantly written book covers the period from the beginnings of American slavery through the Civil War and Reconstruction. Kolchin offers a remarkably balanced account of a highly contentious topic, viewing the “peculiar institution” from the perspectives of the slaves, the slave owners, non-slaveowning Southerners, and Northern observers across the political spectrum. He shows how American slavery, far from being a static or monolithic evil, changed over time and spread across space, assuming very different forms in different periods and places. And he interweaves the relevant scholarly controversies into his narrative with a nice, light touch. As the author of Unfree Labor (1990), a study of American slavery and Russian serfdom, Kolchin also excels at placing his subject in comparative contexts, especially Brazil and the Caribbean. He describes American Slavery, 1619-1877 as a “short, interpretive survey” and it is without question the best of its kind.

I have just started reading Timothy J. Shannon’s Iroquois Diplomacy on the Early American Frontier (New York: Penguin, 2008), a volume in the new “Penguin Library of American Indian History.” From their base in upper New York, the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy were the dominant Native American power in the northern American colonies during the eighteenth century. Through a combination of expert diplomacy and the threat of military force they claimed sovereignty over most American Indians in the present-day Northeast and Midwest. They also served as intermediaries between Britain and France in their long struggle for imperial mastery over North America. Shannon’s book takes us from the zenith of Iroquois power in the early eighteenth century to its nadir in the Revolutionary era, concentrating on the intricate art of diplomacy in treaty negotiations over war, peace, and trade between the various colonial governments and the Indians. In this account the Iroquois are major players rather than pawns in history, even if their story ends, inexorably, in tragedy. In keeping with the tone of the series, Shannon writes about even the most complex issues in an impressively deft style.

For pleasure, I am reading Andrea Camilleri’s August Heat (La vampa d’agosto, trans. Stephen Sartarelli). The hero, Inspector Salvo Montalbano, fights crime in the small but hopelessly corrupt town of Vig├áta, in Sicily. He maintains a passionate but distant love affair with Livia, who spends most of her time in Genoa but occasionally comes to visit. His assistants, Gallo and Catarella, out-do each other in clownishness, but beyond the comedy lie layer after ominous layer of corruption and intrigue. Camilleri misses no opportunity to skewer the local mafiosi, the Berlusconi administration, and northern Italian fascists. Montalbano loves nothing more than to be alone, to swim, and to eat good food. Camilleri’s mouth-watering descriptions of his hero at table, always with simple, fresh ingredients in just the right combination – shrimp or baby octopus tossed in olive oil with chopped parsley – exquisitely reveal Montalbano’s inmost self. Food is his refuge from an otherwise sinister world. When Livia comes to Sicily with two friends and their young son in the midst of the August heat, the holiday soon turns into a disaster. Beneath the apartment he has rented for the family they discover a second underground apartment, and in that that concealed apartment they find the body of …
Read more about Peaceable Kingdom Lost at the Oxford University Press website, and see the related essay in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “The ‘holy experiment’ was too good to last,” and his recent entry on OUPblog, Immigrants and Native Americans.”

Learn more about Kevin Kenny's scholarship at his Boston College faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue