Happy December 2, raquetistas. Today marks a number of milestones in history, including the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte and the 1899 Battle of Tirad Pass in the Philippine-American War (as commemorated in the blockbuster film Goyo, featuring a certain newsletter writer). It is also just 47 days until the release of Gangsters of Capitalism.
I didn’t have a ton of time for pleasure reading this year, but I did spend time with a lot of books. The selected bibliography of Gangsters runs seven pages, and there are far more titles than those in the forty-five (!) pages of endnotes. (Whew.) So I thought, why not share with you a very, very partial list of some of the titles that I’ve learned from? Some are great reads I would highly recommend on their own merits. Others are valuable resources for anyone interested in learning more about America’s empire and the themes I explore in the book.
If you enjoy this list, let me know and I’ll do more, maybe in the coming weeks or after the book drops on January 18. If you don’t … well, there will be other editions of The Racket soon.
Biography of a Runaway Slave
Miguel Barnet and Esteban Montejo
Esteban Mesa Montejo was born into slavery in Cuba in the 1860s. He died in 1973. In between, he was a participant or first-hand observer of the Cuban wars of independence against Spain, the U.S. invasion of 1898, the repeated U.S. invasions and occupations that followed, and finally the Cuban Revolution of 1953-1959. In 1963, Montejo gave an oral history to the Cuban anthropologist Miguel Barnet. The work was almost certainly influenced by (if not directly edited on the orders of) the Communist regime. Yet it remains one of the only direct testimonies of some of the most important events in Cuban (and U.S.) history from the perspective of an Afro-Cuban who lived through it all. Montejo offers searing criticism of the Americans, but he also does not hold back when it came to Cubans—especially the white ones, who he says erased the contribution of Black revolutionaries like himself and kept them out of power. He also provided the invaluable service of preserving the U.S. soldier’s cry, circa 1900: “Fucky, fucky, Margarita.”
Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars
Kristin L. Hoganson
I knew I was going to have to write about gender when it came to tracing the rise of America’s empire. But I didn’t realize until I really dove into the subject how fundamental a role it played. Not only did gender roles (particularly women’s “civilizing influence”) inform the creation of colonial spaces like the Panama Canal Zone, but the men and boys (like Smedley Butler) who fought in the wars were driven by their ideas of masculinity and femininity: their quests to achieve the former, to protect (and attract) the latter, and to impose what they saw as the “proper” separation between the two on “primitive” societies. Historian Kristin Hoganson wrote this book in the 1990s and it still provides new insights. It is also a model for how to breathe new life into an old, musty-seeming topic by approaching it from a new angle.
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The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783
Alfred Thayer Mahan
Speaking of old and musty, this isn’t a book I’d recommend curling up with, but it is a valuable source if you want to understand how the 20th Century happened. Its author, A. T. Mahan, was a very bad Navy pilot turned Naval War College instructor, who became easily the most influential military theorist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. If you’ve ever heard of the State of Hawai‘i, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, or Naval Station Guantánamo Bay, you are familiar with his handiwork. Smedley Butler and his Marines essentially spent their lives chasing Mahan’s vision around the world. This ponderous brick was Mahan’s magnum opus: a treatise on European naval battles through which he made his case that true imperial power was built on the seas. Among its most fervent adherents were Theodore Roosevelt, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto—the architect of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor (a base that would also not have existed if it hadn’t been for Mahan, and this book).
After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene
This might not seem like a book about empire at first, but it is one. (Among other things.) Britton-Purdy (he changed his name after publication) is one of our generation’s most gifted thinkers and writers. In 2015, he turned in this exegesis about how American culture has thought about the environment at different points in the past, and how those overlapping pasts influenced each other and still influence us in the era of climate catastrophe. The book was especially useful for my project, in how clearly he laid out the direct (and surprising, to me) connections between the creation of the U.S. National Park system and the imperial project—especially the colonization of the Philippines. It also changed the way I thought about a lot of things, especially what he identifies as the palimpsest of environmental history. In short, he explains in simple terms how there are many people still walking around in 2021 who think of the world around us pretty much in the same way as the Puritans did, and as the Rooseveltian imperialist/conservationists did, and as the Rachel Carson-era environmentalists, etc., etc., and how all of our thinking is contoured by the shadows of the eras that came before. Then he points a way forward. It’s a great read.
Boxers and Saints
Gene Luen Yang
These are actually two books—graphic novels, to be more precise. It was marketed as a young adult series, which I guess it qualifies as, but it is also a considered work of historical fiction that punches way above that weight. Each focuses on the Boxer Uprising—an anti-foreign rebellion that raged in China in 1900. The first book follows Little Bao, a peasant boy from Shandong Province whose village is plundered by foreign missionaries, then joins the guerrilla Boxers, who practiced a form of Chinese folk magic derived from traditional religion. The second is about a girl from the same village who converts to Christianity and takes the name Vibiana, dreaming of following in the footsteps of Joan of Arc. The books reflect both the conflict that ravaged northern China in the first year of the 20th Century, and the author’s own struggles with his identity as the American-born son of Chinese immigrant parents who himself is a committed Christian. It’s a fascinating perspective on an event that is largely forgotten in the West (but plays a big role in Smedley Butler’s life, and thus in Gangsters).
Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean
Researching the historical portion of Gangsters (a story that required heavy background lifting on ten different countries including the United States) meant relying to a great extent on the work of professional historians. The historian whose research touched more countries than pretty much any other was Peter Hudson, an associate professor of African American Studies and History at UCLA. This book is both very well written and exhaustively researched, documenting in meticulous detail the relationships between U.S. banks and the formative histories of the Caribbean and Central America, as well as the Philippines, China, and elsewhere. Early on, Hudson recounts a minstrel show held annually at the Wall Street offices of City Bank (now Citibank) from 1911 until the eve of the Great Depression. The bankers blackened their faces with burnt cork, dressed as racist archetypes like the “dusky queen” and “the darktown multi-millionaire,” and sang songs like “There’s a Little Bit of Monkey in You and Me.” Then the party would end, the bankers would wash up and go back to ransacking the economies of Haiti, Cuba, Panama, and elsewhere. It will change the way you understand both the history of finance and the United States’ relationships with the rest of our hemisphere.
Three last book notes:
My publisher is offering a special December-only deal on The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. You can get the ebook right now at the crazy low price of $2.99. They’re throwing in an early excerpt from Gangsters as well. You can get it in:
We just officially announced the launch event for Gangsters, and it is extremely cool. I’m going to be in conversation with podcaster superstar Mike Duncan (Revolutions, Man of Two Worlds) at Politics & Prose. The event will be on Tuesday, Jan. 18 at 6 p.m. ET. It will be virtual and free, so you can attend from anywhere. You can read more about it and register here.
We’re also working on a way to make signed bookplates available to people who preorder Gangsters this month. So if you were looking for something to give as a Christmas (or late Hanukkah) present, and were bummed the book isn’t coming out until January, we’ve (provisionally) got you covered. More details to follow. (And if you’re pressed for a sixth-through-eighth night of Hanukkah gift, message me directly.)