THE GREAT FRONTIER

FREEDOM AND HIERARCHY IN MODERN TIMES (CHARLES EDMONDSON HISTORICAL LECTURES)

In two papers (delivered at Baylor in 1982) and 61 pellucid pages, McNeill (The Rise of the West, Plagues and Peoples, The Human Condition) revives and renews Walter Prescott Webb's thesis that European expansion created a Great Frontier around the globe—where not only progress, freedom, and equality prevailed, but also destruction, compulsion, and slavery: "the persistent double-edgeness of change." The aim is to rid us of provincialism—put "the States back into the world as one of a family of peoples and nations similarly situated"—and also to expose the "romantic delusion" of an Arcadian past. The evidence derives from McNeill's unsurpassed knowledge of steppe and veldt and Outback, of disease and demographics, of transportation, communication, agriculture, and trade—in which he perceives patterns. The two papers divide at 1750. In the two centuries before, the Europeans' diseases ("epidemiological superiority"), combined with their "greater or lesser superiority of skills," destroyed native populations (in the US, USSR, Latin America); the resulting labor shortage, for agricultural or mineral production, brought recourse to compulsory labor (slaves, serfs, indentured servants, peons); "the arts and skills of civilization" made little headway. After 1750, however, transportation and communication links grew—and, most crucially, population soared. (McNeill reviews the possible reasons—with particular attention to the spread of American food crops, like potatoes and peanuts, yielding "more calories per acre than anything grown before.") When there was no more land to be tilled, and no other livelihood at hand, migration set in (to Australia and South Africa, as well as North and South America)—reducing the differences between European and frontier societies, and bringing the legal abolition of slavery and serfdom. But, McNeill emphasizes, "legally sanctioned compulsory labor" persisted—in Australia and the Congo, in the transport of Indian and Chinese "coolies" to the fringes of British and American settlements (carrying "three times as many persons across the world's oceans as ever left Africa in Atlantic slave ships"). Once again: a monumental thesis, compactly and matter-of-factly put.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 1983

ISBN: 0691046581

Page Count: 73

Publisher: Princeton Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 21, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1983

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

NOTES ON THE FIRST 150 YEARS IN AMERICA

The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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