I thought I’d read quite a few books this year, and a lot of newly-published ones, too, and yet the best-of lists remain full of titles I haven’t got around to, or have never even heard of. So while my wish list takes a battering, here’s my chance to return the favour. I know I ought to wait until the end of the month but something about this time of year just provokes the urge to tot up the balance sheet. It’s been an excellent reading year, as what follows will show.
Two hundred years ago, instead of being littered with gleaming glass towers and skyscrapers, Manhattan was home to thousands of wandering pigs and livestock. Antebellum Manhattan bore little resemblance to modern Manhattan’s gleaming skyline. Catherine McNeur, assistant professor at Portland State University, has written a new book, Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City, published by Harvard University Press that explores a Manhattan filled with shanty towns, farmland and domesticated animals running loose in the streets. Her book examines the battle between upper class Manhattanites and poor New Yorkers over the direction and shape of the city. While poor Manhattanites depended on farming, domesticated animals and recycling the city’s garbage for their survival, wealthier residents were deeply concerned about sanitation, the threat of fires and epidemics, and the deepening poverty of the city. If you want to see more of her work, visit www.catherinemcneur.com.
Here is our interview:
Why did you become interested in antebellum Manhattan? What was the inspiration for the project?
As an undergrad at NYU I wrote an honors thesis about an architect who worked in antebellum Manhattan. I loved taking walks around the city, finding remnants of that era in the brick rowhouses and other buildings that are mixed in with more recent structures. The antebellum period felt both familiar and foreign and I loved that.
A few years later after I had started grad school, I was searching for a topic for a research seminar and remembered reading about the hog riots that had occurred in the 1820s. The mere idea of that was amusing to me—hogs roaming the streets of Manhattan?!—and I wanted to look into it further. As I started doing research, the topic quickly expanded to include food, parks, shantytowns, sanitation and the like.
How would you summarize your book?
Ultimately, Taming Manhattan is a book about the dramatic physical, social, and economic changes facing the city during a period of vast urbanization. New Yorkers from all social classes found in the urban environment a means for controlling these changes, whether that involved maps, animals, parks, manure, food, or shantytowns. The progress that seems almost inevitable to us now in terms of cleaner streets, more green spaces, fewer epidemics, safer food sources, and fewer livestock blocking traffic hardly felt inevitable to the New Yorkers and other urban Americans witnessing those changes and often times the battles over those issues were highly contentious.There were a lot of people who lost when those steps toward “progress” were won. In Taming Manhattan, I focus primarily on those environmental justice issues.
The Manhattan that you have described in your book is fundamentally different than today’s NYC. What differences do you think will shock your readers most about antebellum New York?
I think for most people who know New York, they’ll probably be surprised by just how incredibly filthy it was. People today complain about Manhattan’s smells and grime, but it’s practically sterile compared to the nineteenth century. Often times New Yorkers forgot that their streets were paved because of all the manure, garbage, mud, and general filth that had accumulated on top of it. That said, while many antebellum New Yorkers complained heartily about the filth they encountered daily, there were many who truly valued the waste on the streets, from the city government that collected and sold animal manure, to the ragpickers who gleaned reusable and salable raw materials from the piles of trash.
Today, most Americans never see hog farms, but they play a prominent role in your research. Hogs appear to have been a part of everyday life for the antebellum residents of New York City. Why did people have cows and hogs in the city? How pervasive were hogs in Manhattan?
Hogs and other livestock had been a common part of urban life for centuries in New York City and most other cities and for quite some time people of all economic classes relied on them as food sources. By the nineteenth century, they were almost exclusively the property of the poor. Before municipalities outlawed livestock (which happened mainly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United States), it wouldn’t be uncommon to find cows, goats, pigs, or fowl roaming the streets, let alone in dedicated stables or hog farms.
Getting a true count for the number of hogs in Manhattan at any given time can be hard because many were kept illegally by the time the city or state began counting. An 1820 estimate put the number at 20,000, or roughly 1 hog for every 5 New Yorkers. From tourist descriptions, government documents, newspaper accounts, and diaries, it is clear that New York was well known to be lousy with hogs—first free-roaming, later confined in piggeries–in the antebellum period.
The subtitle of your book is “Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City,” but these battles were not just environmental. Were they just as much battles between the nativists vs. the immigrants and the prosperous vs. the poor?
Oh definitely, but the larger point that I try to make in the book is that the environment can’t be separated from the battles between classes, races, and ethnicities. In fact, it’s integral for understanding those battles. For example, it would be impossible to separate the increasing privatization and inaccessibility of park space in the 1830s from the growing class disparities in that period.Along a similar vein, the fervent nativism of the 1850s can be better understood when we look in detail at food regulation during that decade.
Who were the biggest winners and losers as New York City sought to regulate farmland and undeveloped spaces?
The owners of the livestock and the residents of shantytowns certainly had the most to lose. In each battle, though, the tally wasn’t always clearly in favor of their opponents. The livestock owners fought back, for instance, and kept animals on the streets for decades after the city had begun attempting to enforce anti-livestock laws. Political corruption also got in the way and protected some so-called nuisance industries while eliminating others. That said, through the increased regulation of the urban environment you see increasingly privatized and controlled spaces that didn’t allow for the same kinds of informal land uses that poorer New Yorkers once relied on.
What surprised you the most during your research?
I think the part that most surprised me most was how much nineteenth-century Americans embraced recycling (though they didn’t use that term) in a way that we might consider modern today. It’s typical to look back at the nineteenth century and point fingers at the Industrial Revolution as a moment when we became much more environmentally wasteful. But many types of manufacturers in the mid-nineteenth century actively embraced recycling as a way of obtaining raw materials. So much urban waste was reused—toothbrush manufacturers, button makers, fertilizer companies, and sugar refiners all used discarded bones found in the garbage heaps to make their products, for instance. Offal boilers transformed a lot of the food waste from garbage heaps into tallow for candle makers and soap makers. Whatever was leftover was fed to pigs and converted into edible protein. Regional farmers purchased animal waste from the streets. For several decades, Americans even embraced poudrette—processed human waste—as a fertilizer. This all would come to change, of course, and it would be a mistake to completely revise the way we understand the massive production and consumption involved in the Industrial Revolution. Still, modern recyclers are often confident that what they are doing is very revolutionary, that they are breaking with the past in a major way. In reality, there are some ways that nineteenth-century Americans were doing even more to find ways to reuse their waste.
How would you recommend using your book in class? How can your book help understand environmental issues in Antebellum America?
Ideally, this book will be useful in a range of different courses—whether they focus on the antebellum period, environmental history, urban history, city planning, public health, or the history of capitalism.
The majority of environmental histories of America focus on the Progressive Era and beyond, so Taming Manhattan will add to our understanding about what was happening before the Civil War. Antebellum Americans were making dramatic changes to their urban environments, attempting to transform nature alongside the social conditions that seemed to be making cities unsustainable. In the process, they defined what kinds of land uses belonged in an “urban” versus a “rural” setting—definitions we often take for granted, or, alternatively, are working to revise today.
Tales from the Reading Room have a review of Allen Shawn’s memoir Wish I Could Be There. Allen’s book explores how his agoraphobia has shaped his life and career as a pianist and composer. This is a fantastic review of Shawn’s book and makes a strong argument for why you should read it.
The feeling of panic that overwhelms the sufferer of a phobia must be one of the most unpleasant feelings that we are routinely forced to endure. I think that being set upon from behind and strangled must be akin to it – the increasingly laboured fight for breath while the heart hammers in terror, digestion deliquesces, vision dims and dizzies, sound is cut off and comes from far away. But worst of all, the urge to turn and run, fuelled as if by the energy of a nuclear explosion, has to be ignored. The phobic must sit and smile and try and look normal, while inside chaos rages, the Titanic sinks, great earthquakes rent the foundations of the self. Oh yes, I speak from personal experience.
Which is why I had to get hold of Allen Shawn’s amazing memoir, Wish I Could Be There, as soon as I heard…
In When Tobacco Was King, Evan Bennett examines the agriculture of tobacco, the South’s original staple crop. Advances in technology and shifts in labor and farming policy have altered the way of life for tobacco farmers, but rather than putting an end to tobacco culture, these developments have sent it in new directions and accelerated the change that has always been part of the farmer’s life. From Emancipation to the abandonment of federal crop controls in 2004, Bennett highlights changes endured by blacks and whites, landowners and tenants to show how tobacco farmers continued to find meaning and community in their work despite drastic changes.
Victoria Best has reviews of two books, Lisa See’s China Dolls and Jo-Ann Mapson’s Owen’s Daughter, at her blog Tales from the Reading Room. Best found both of the books to be interesting and engrossing. Check out her reviews.
I was very curious to read Lisa See, having seen her previous books travel around the blog world to mixed, but mostly positive reviews. China Dolls focuses on the situation for Oriental immigrants in America around the Second World War, and in particular the life of dancers and entertainers. Starting in 1938 in San Francisco, three young women come together in friendship as they try to make a living, and a life, for themselves. Grace is American-born Chinese, running from an abusive father. Helen comes from a large, traditional family in Chinatown and Ruby, as no one knows at first, is actually Japanese but hiding it. The Oriental nightclub, Forbidden City, is holding auditions for showgirls and over the course of these, the girls get to know one another and bond, though the friendship they share will always be shot through with rivalries and tensions, caused by the competitiveness of…
A.M.B. at the Misfortune of Knowing addresses Horace Engdahl criticism of the professionalization of writing. Instead of having normal jobs, writers can now get support from foundations and educational institutions that allow them to write full-time. Engdahl thinks the failure of writers to get real jobs will rob them of the experiences they need to become good writers. She points out that there is a “kernel of truth in his words: experience matters.” Do you agree with A.M.B.?
In comments to Le Croix, Horace Engdahl (of the Swedish Academy responsible for the Nobel Prize) criticized the “professionalization” of writing through financial support from foundations and educational institutions that allow writers to leave their “day jobs” to devote more time to writing. Noting that it’s particularly a problem for the “western side” of the world, he said:
Even though I understand the temptation, I think it cuts writers off from society, and creates an unhealthy link with institutions… Previously, writers would work as taxi drivers, clerks, secretaries and waiters to make a living. Samuel Beckett and many others lived like this. It was hard – but they fed themselves, from a literary perspective.
If we set aside Engdahl’s hypocrisy — he’s a literary academic linked with an institution — there’s a kernel of truth in his words: experience matters. Real-life experiences inform…
A Little Blog of Books has a review of Michel Faber’s anticipated new book The Book of Strange New Things. This genre crossing book combines science fiction and biblical elements to tell a story about a pastor ministering to inhabitants of another planet. Check out Little Blog of Books new review.
I was lucky enough to receive an advance review copy of Michel Faber’s new novel ‘The Book of Strange New Things’ which is due to be published in the UK this month. It tells the story of Peter Leigh, a Christian minister who is chosen by a mysterious corporation called USIC to embark on an out-of-this-world mission to a planet called Oasis in a far-away galaxy. Expecting a hostile reception from the native population, Peter is surprised to find the Oasans are keen to learn from the Bible which they refer to as The Book of Strange New Things and discovers that he isn’t the first pastor to visit them. However, Peter’s pregnant wife, Bea, is struggling to survive as various apocalyptic events unfold back on Earth which is putting a strain on their extremely long-distance relationship.
The History Manifesto is new book from Jo Guldi and David Armitage that argues historians need to shift back to longer-term narrative history. This may help historians recapture the prestige and influence that allowed them to help shape public policy. The shift to microhistories (writing about time periods of 30 years or less) has limited historians influence. Guldi and Armitage believe that the shift to longer narrative histories will encourage policy makers to take a longer approach to issues relating to human rights and the environment. The authors want the entire history profession to shift to long term thinking.
Guldi and Armitage make a fascinating argument. Additionally, new digital analytical tools will make it easier for historians to research and write about longer periods of time. Whether or not this shift would increase the prestige and influence of historians is debatable. There are a number of reviews about The HIstory Manifesto online. Scott McLemee has a brief review of their book at Inside Higher Ed.
Here is a short interview with the authors where they describe their project.
Recently, the New York Times published a brief interview with noted Civil War historian James McPherson, The George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University. He is best known for his Pulitzer Prize winning book Battle Cry of Freedom. In the interview McPherson identified who he believes are America’s top historians, the best book on the Civil War, the best military history books, the best books about African American history, most overrated history book (it’s a biggie), and the book most responsible for shaping his career.
All of the historians and books cited by McPherson are outstanding, but they are representative of his generation. Not surprisingly, this was pointed out by several younger scholars on twitter. It is also not shocking his preferences were predominantly from historians of either his generation or books that he read during his career. In many ways books are like music, people like the music of their formative years better than anything that came before it or after. His choices are certainly understandable, but open to debate.
In the interview, McPherson often referred to an author, but failed to specify which books he preferred. In a number of cases, I have extrapolated which books he might specifically be recommending. There are certainly other books from the authors he mentions that fit his descriptions.