Books interview: Sarah Kinkel

The author and history professor discusses the 18th-century British Navy, her love of science fiction and gifting books as a public service

May 24, 2018
Sarah Kinkel

What sort of books inspired you as a child?

I read a lot of young adult historical fiction – along the lines of Scott O’Dell or Esther Forbes – and novels such as [James Fenimore Cooper’s] The Last of the Mohicans. Not all of them were great history, but they got me in the habit of thinking about what it would be like to live in other times and places. I also have always enjoyed reading fantasy and science fiction novels set in what I would call “our world but with a twist”, such as Diana Wynne Jones’ A Tale of Time City, which is a fun historical meditation in its own right.

Your new book, Disciplining the Empire, examines the British Navy in the 18th century. Which books stirred your interest in naval history?

It was more the collective national myths around British naval heroes than any one book. You hear all the stories about Horatio Nelson and see his bullet-ripped uniform in the National Maritime Museum, for example, and it’s hard not to feel admiration, but I started to wonder where that set of behaviours came from and how they fit in with the other changes that we know were taking place in the British Empire at the time.

Which earlier books provided useful models for integrating maritime history with broader cultural and political themes?

Kathleen Wilson, Marcus Rediker and Benjamin Carp, among others, have all done a great job of showing how connected British and colonial societies were to the sea, and the variety of ways that maritime experiences resonated on land.

What are good overviews of 18th-century Atlantic and British imperial history?

For an interesting comparison with the Spanish, I love J.H. Elliott’s Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492-1830 . It’s a tome, but it’s beautifully detailed and addresses high politics as well as local experiences. For a very readable sense of what this all looked like for real people, I recommend Emma Rothschild’s The Inner Life of Empires: An Eighteenth-Century History and Linda Colley’s The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: How a Remarkable Woman Crossed Seas and Empires to Become Part of World History.

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?

I recently gave my father David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon: Oil, Money, Murder and the Birth of the FBI, which is a fascinating exploration of early 20th-century Native American history. I also regularly gift Tana French’s and Kate Atkinson’s books. They are so good that I consider this to be practically a public service.

What books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?

I’m currently working my way through Jonathan Israel’s The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775-1848, which examines the global influences and consequences of the American Revolution as one battleground of the Enlightenment. I’m also about to revisit the gorgeous and brilliant Spreading Canvas: Eighteenth-Century British Maritime Painting, which emerged from an exhibition curated by Eleanor Hughes.

Sarah Kinkel is assistant professor of history at Ohio University and the author of Disciplining the Empire: Politics, Governance, and 
the Rise of the British Navy (Harvard University Press).

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