Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Bruce E. Baker

Bruce E. Baker is Lecturer in American History at the University of Newcastle. He is co-author, with Barbara Hahn, of The Cotton Kings: Capitalism and Corruption in Turn-of-the-Century New York and New Orleans.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Baker's reply:
I guess it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that one of the things I am reading is about cotton: Sven Beckert’s prize-winning book Empire of Cotton. Barbara Hahn and I knew this book was on the way while we were writing The Cotton Kings, and we had read Beckert’s earlier articles, but as often happens, especially in academic publishing, his book came out after our manuscript had gone in to the publisher.

What we were doing was looking at one small but significant part of the story of cotton in a very narrow period of time at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, about twenty-five years, and trying to explain a particular thing about how the cotton trade worked. Beckert’s book is sort of the opposite. It takes the story of cotton from all over the world, starting literally thousands of years ago, and follows it to the present. More importantly, he uses that story to explain the development of capitalism in the West and also to provide a new interpretation of what historian Kenneth Pomeranz called the “great divergence” between Europe and Asia. There is a lot that is impressive about the book, but perhaps nothing more so than the way Beckert manages to combine extensive, exhaustive research in an incredibly readable book. He did research in probably dozens of archives on several continents, and yet the whole thing never feels heavy at all. It is really going to be one of those books that changes how we think about a lot of things.

I have a really bad habit of getting busy during the academic year and just not finding time to read fiction, so the breaks between semesters is when I tend to get around to the novels I have been meaning to read. I live in the Scottish Borders, and this Christmas we rented a cottage in the far northwest of Scotland near Cape Wrath. I took a copy of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s The Speak of the Mearns. Gibbon was one of Scotland’s greatest writers of the twentieth century, even though his career was cut short when he died at the age of thirty-four in 1935. His work reflects the rural world of the Mearns, a region of Aberdeenshire where he grew up, and his most famous novel, Sunset Song, describes a fictionalized version of his village as World War I brings change and destroys the old ways of life. The Speak of the Mearns was Gibbon’s last, unfinished novel, and it is similar to Sunset Song but rather than follow one central character, the main character is really the land itself and the entire rural community. What I find so compelling about Gibbon’s writing is his intense eye for the detail of rural life and his evocation of characters who seem as real as any I meet in daily life today. And he does all this in language that is an amazing blend of Scots words and idioms and literary English, a truly distinctive voice. I grew up in a semirural environment on the edge of a small town in South Carolina, and a lot of the history I write has to do with rural life, so I think that is part of the appeal to me.

And finally – because I always have several books on the go – I am reading a book from about a decade ago that relates to my next project, which is a study of the 1914 outbreak of bubonic plague in New Orleans and the public health response. Ari Kelman’s A River and Its City: The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans was based on his Ph.D. dissertation and was published in 2003. It is a fascinating environmental history of the relationship between the Mississippi River and New Orleans from the time of the city’s founding in the early eighteenth century to the present. It was a great book and won a prize when it was published, but it got a lot more attention when Hurricane Katrina forced everyone to think about New Orleans and the river a lot more in 2005.

I haven’t read all of it yet because I skipped ahead to the chapter I was most interested in, which was about changes to the port’s infrastructure in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This is important to what I am studying because ratproofing the port was one of the key challenges in the effort to prevent plague from taking hold in New Orleans. After thinking that no one besides me was much interested in obscure bits of urban infrastructure and administration like the Dock Board and the Public Belt Railroad, it was fantastic to find an interesting study that covers these things and pays attention to one of the sadly neglected figures in American history, Martin Behrman, who was mayor and political boss of New Orleans for seventeen years.
Learn more about The Cotton Kings at the Oxford University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: The Cotton Kings.

My Book, The Movie: The Cotton Kings.

--Marshal Zeringue