Christopher Clark discovers a shared history in the Americas.
This is in every sense an extraordinary book. To seek to write a work about the whole of the Americas is no ordinary ambition. To sweep together such a varied set of insights into North and South American culture, economy and politics is no common achievement. And to question conventional conclusions about the histories of American societies is an aspiration more often accomplished in fragmentary writings than in the single work of a single author.
Mid-19th-century US travellers said that they had "seen the elephant", when they had seen all there was to see, say on a journey from the East Coast to California and back. But this was in complacent, touristic mode. James Dunkerley plumbs the phrase's darker meanings, which suggested encounters with the unexpected, shocking or disconcerting. Part of Americana 's purpose is to overturn conventional preconceptions about the character of the Americas, comparisons between North and South and the categories we employ to address these.
Americana is avowedly neither a textbook nor a work of interpretive synthesis. It avoids offering neatly pressed points or closely argued conclusions. As a package, it is deliberately heterogeneous and untidily wrapped. Its subject matter is the Americas of the period 1845 to 1855, but its details run beyond these boundaries and its juxtapositions are often unexpected and illuminating. It can be read in different ways, as a source of themes and stories to dip into or as a set of historiographical discussions about its chief topics.
The book is organised around three major themes: culture, political economy and international relations. Often-assumed contrasts between North America and Latin America are frequently re-examined. If "Latin America" once stood for cultural heterogeneity, for example, it is clear that the "US" can also stand for that, even if its cultural politics and historiography are still catching up with the fact.
If Latin America meant economic backwardness and financial instability in contrast with North America's capitalist progress and probity, Dunkerley suggests that the 1840s doubly call that into question. The largely pre-capitalist Americas could feed their people - something that Britain and Ireland failed to do. As for progress, Latin American regions were undergoing early industrialisation just like parts of the US; and as for probity, many states and individuals in the US had just gone bankrupt and had no better credit than their southern neighbours.
In the realm of ideology, too, parallels were often strong. If North Americans celebrated the strengths of their (largely Protestant) republican democracy, Latin American liberals could explore the links between Catholicism and democracy in the new republics of the South. If North Americans were tempted to exoticise or eroticise the South, they had Walt Whitman to destabilise their assumptions about culture, puritanism and sexuality. Threaded through these themes was chattel slavery - soon to be brought to an issue, but meanwhile one of the great common features of American societies, North and South.
In this period, depression in Europe and famine in Ireland were sending unprecedented numbers of emigrants to the Americas, and US nativist movements urged citizens to defend the Protestant republic against Catholic invasion and subversion. Simultaneously, the US was completing its conquest of Spanish North America and adopting new habits of adventurism in Latin America. In the context of war with Mexico, George Bancroft urged his compatriots to "take possession of my country", while William Hickling Prescott's histories of earlier conquests helped fix an anti-Hispanic taint in Anglo-American culture.
Between his main sections, Dunkerley inserts detailed accounts of three mid-century court cases. We have the British prosecution and transportation of the Irish nationalist John Mitchel; a Louisiana probate dispute rooted in early 19th-century plots and intrigues over the control of the lower Mississippi; and a Bolivian prosecution touching on the South American career of Francisco Burdett O'Connor, brother of the Chartist leader Feargus O'Connor. The three cases link one of Americana 's subsidiary themes - the importance of Irish figures and emigrants in the New World's 19th-century story - and illustrate a wider point: the agency of subaltern peoples in shaping the complex character of American societies. Yet this could have strange outcomes. Mitchel, champion of Ireland against British enslavement, found his way via Australian confinement and the former Spanish American West into becoming a champion of the Confederacy and the continued enslavement of black Americans.
Americana will appeal especially to scholars and students interested in the juxtapositions and relationships of North and South American histories. Yet it should be noted by all scholars of American history. Whether this will happen remains to be seen, but Dunkerley has given us a book that could start a process of rethinking the Americas.
Christopher Clark is professor of North American history and director of comparative American studies, University of Warwick.
The Americas in the World, around 1850
Author - James Dunkerley
ISBN - 1 85984 753 6
Publisher - Verso
Price - £29.00
Pages - 612