The books behind the book, Vol. 3
This week, two corners of Twitter got in a fight over sourcing and attribution in nonfiction. The debate was sparked by a Washington Post excerpt of Kim Kelly’s upcoming popular press labor history, Fight Like Hell. The Post, it seems, omitted a key attribution to Princeton historian Tera W. Hunter’s 1997 work, To ’Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War. Kelly tweeted that the omission was an oversight. (She credits Hunter in her book.) Hunter responded that even a single attribution was not sufficient.
As Peter Sterne summarized, the fight mashed a lot of buttons:
I haven’t read either work, so I’m not going to weigh on the particulars of that argument. But the broad strokes of the debate resonated with me, as a journalist whose just-published, wide-ranging history relied on a boatload of existing scholarship. (At least some of those scholars, I’m happy to say, seem satisfied with my efforts.)
As it happens, I was already planning to do another in my occasional series on some of the many books I used in the making of Gangsters of Capitalism. (Previous editions here and here.) So here we go, another five. All this time are both enlightening sources and good reads on their own:
Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I
This fascinating book traces a longer historical arc than the subtitle suggests, from the wreckage of Reconstruction to the first stirrings of the 20th-century Civil Rights movement. Lentz-Smith, a historian at Duke, vividly renders the lives and memories of Black soldiers before, during, and after their deployments to Europe. I drew from it to understand and explain how intrinsic white supremacy was to the American wars in Cuba and the Philippines. It also helped inform my understanding of the hate and promise of the interwar period. As Lentz-Smith writes, the experience in an international conflict “opened up the world for African American soldiers,” showing avenues to “begin to hold the United States accountable to its own stated ideals, or commerce the world fight for black rights” — only to face violent opposition and repression on the return home. It’s a book I think of whenever some historical racist is excused as being a “person of their time”; the soldiers in Lentz-Smith’s book, who found themselves fighting on two continents for their freedom, were very much “of their time” as well.
Hobsbawm was one of the most influential historians of the last hundred years, and easily the most popular to identify as a Marxist until the end of his life. (He died in 2012 at the age of 95.) His best-known works are probably his “Age” series — starting with The Age of Revolution (1962) and ending with The Age of Extremes (1994). Any of those would have been a good resource for my book, as would his short collection of lectures, On Empire.
But as it happened, I ended up turning to this slim volume most of all. Bandits, published in 1969, gives an answer to a deceptively simple question that kept popping up across my book: what separates a criminal from a revolutionary? His three-fold theory of the “social bandit” is a handy way to understand what unites and differentiates figures as varied and yet related as Robin Hood, Al Capone, and Pancho Villa (the latter appears on the cover above). This both helped explain why one person’s (or empire’s) bandit is another’s freedom fighter. When the scholar Steven Palmer described the namesake of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, Augusto Sandino, as a “petty-bourgeois caudillo, a social bandit,” Palmer was playing in an Hobsbawmian mode. In another world, Smedley Butler might have been a social bandit himself.
Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
Rebecca E. Karl
I knew before I started researching that my biggest hill to climb was going to be getting as smart as possible as fast as possible on Chinese history. My first stop was an on-point title by a fellow journalist — Howard French’s Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power — which came out right as I was starting to do my research. French’s book is a valuable read on its own (it’s also in my bibliography), but digging through his text and endotes, I quickly realized that the source for much of his most pertinent material was the work of Rebecca Karl, a professor of Chinese history at NYU. I ended up devouring much of Karl’s work — I also cite her 2010 book, Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World.) Staging the World in particular is a fascinating, globally minded history about a place and time that is little-known to many English speakers. It contains a gold mine of information and analysis not only about China from the end of the Qing Dynasty to the rise of Sun Yat-sen’s Republic, but about how Chinese thinkers viewed the rising tide of American imperialism at the time, particularly in the Philippines. I hope some lucky readers will find their way to Karl and other specialized scholars through my book, and the circle of life will continue.
We Dream Together: Dominican Independence, Haiti, and the Fight for Caribbean Freedom
Another great scholar, and this time a friend of mine, Anne Eller’s work is indispensable in piecing together the history of the island of Hispaniola. Too often American journalists and writers dismiss the relationship between the Caribbean neighbors as a story of eternal and mutual mistrust or conflict, not realizing how much of that story is filtered through decades of nationalist ideology, particularly on the Dominican side. (The U.S.-trained Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo made antihaitianismo, with a focus on the differences real and imagined between the countries, a bulwark of his murderous regime.) Blowing past the well-trod narratives, Eller uncovers a long and often undiscussed history of Haitians and Dominicans fighting for independence together, and in so doing makes an argument for the centrality of the Dominican story to anti-colonial and anti-slavery history. It also contains one of the best accounts of the Dominican War of Restoration of 1863-65 — which, despite Trujillo’s efforts to obscure the fact, was the actual moment at which the Dominican Republic became, and has remained, an independent country.
From Mahan to Pearl Harbor: The Imperial Japanese Navy and the United States
This one is for nerds, but if you are into trans-national histories and strategic theory — first of all, we should hang out — and second, this is a barnburner. Asada, who died in 2019, was probably the foremost historian of the Japanese Imperial Navy. Born in Kyoto in the 1930s, he survived the war and went on to study at Yale under Samuel Flagg Bemis, a longtime president of the American Historical Association and one of the founders of U.S. diplomatic history.
Asada’s book makes a strong case that, ironically, the Japanese convinced themselves to arm against and eventually attack the United States based on their reading of one of the most influential American naval theorists of all time: Alfred Thayer Mahan — whose name will be familiar to Gangsters readers and whose major work I talked about here. World War II heads will especially appreciate the last third of the book, as the road to Pearl Harbor is laid out in terrific detail. The book is also a timely reminder that it isn’t just cultural differences that can push countries toward war. Sharing a love of the same militarist philosophy can do the trick as well.
Edited by Sam Thielman
If you haven’t yet, get Gangsters of Capitalism. The hardcover is still in stock at Barnes & Noble, and due to be back soon at Bezosland. The audio edition is also very popular. I have no idea what’s going on at Bookshop.org. You can also find it at a growing number of local libraries.
And if you missed it, the panel on the legacies of American colonialism I did at the last Virginia Festival of the Book just aired on C-SPAN. It’s a conversation with Albert Samaha, the author of the excellent new Concepcion: An Immigrant Family’s Fortunes, moderated by Jamelle Bouie. You can watch it here:
I’ll have more writing about Russia’s war and rackets at home upcoming. We’re doing another Inside the Chapter very soon for paid subscribers as well. Make sure you don’t miss an issue by signing up below:
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