I am thrilled to be writing for Powell's, not only because I grew up in the Northwest and have many happy memories of visiting the store, but because the book that I just wrote owes its start to Powell's.
Sometime in the late 1980s I was browsing at the store and came across a used paperback on a bottom shelf: Ecological Imperialism by Alfred W. Crosby, Jr. I'd heard of both ecology and imperialism before, of course, but had never seen them put together. My curiosity was snagged. I bent down and picked up the book.
Rarely can I recall, years later, the exact circumstances in which I first read a book. It only happens when a book grabs me hard, forcing me to exist in its world. Suddenly I'll look up, blinking, and realize with a little shock that I'm actually on the beach, or at a coffee shop, or (once) lying in the back of an old station wagon. That was the way it was Ecological Imperialism. Suddenly it was hours later, my back was aching from sitting in what I remember as a ratty kitchen-type chair in the aisle, and I'd totally blown the afternoon.
Crosby writes well, with a welcome dry wit. But what pulled me in was his picture of history. In Ecological Imperialism, the monarchs, armies, and inventors who had dominated the stage in my textbooks were suddenly joined by an unruly, surging, brightly colored menagerie of other beasts: bacteria and viruses, grasses and mosquitoes, wheat and bananas, honeybees and dandelions, horses and cattle. They were like the swirl of characters in a great Victorian novel, their paths crossing unexpectedly, disappearing in one place only to end up in another, affecting the protagonists' fates in ways impossible to predict.
Before Columbus, these creatures had been confined to their native continents. After 1492 they were carried over the oceans, often inadvertently — and released. Huge numbers of species from over there came over here, and huge numbers of species from over here went over there. It was the biggest event in the history of life since the death of the dinosaurs.
Crosby called this ecological convulsion the "Columbian Exchange" in a previous book of that name and argued that it lay under and helped explain much subsequent history. The environmental changes induced by the exchange, he argued, benefited Europeans disproportionately, in ways they rarely understood at the time. Ultimately the rise of the West owed more to biology than it did to technology or economics.
Crosby's exact proposals have been argued about fiercely. But the idea of the Columbian Exchange is now part of the intellectual furniture of most historians, ecologists, anthropologists, archaeologists, and geographers.
Years later, I got to know Crosby slightly. Almost every time we spoke, I suggested that he should update his books to take into account the enormous amount of research they had stimulated. Crosby was never interested; a restless, creative guy, he was on to other, newer things. One day when I had mentioned this notion a few too many times, he growled, "Well, if you think it's such a good idea, why don't you do it?" Naturally, I took his offhand quip as license. 1493, published this week, is the result.
Thanks, Al. And thanks, Powell's.
A Really Good Book
Although I was, as I say, thrilled to be writing for Powell's, I also felt uncomfortable. These blog posts are supposed to sound like chatty updates from this interesting fellow you'd want maybe to know while actually being advertisements for a commercial product (my book). So I thought that one way I could neutralize the whiff of bad faith, at least a little, was to talk about other books — books that I could tout with a clear conscience, because they're not by me, and I get no benefit from it. At the end of each post in my little stint, down at the bottom here, I'll describe a book that was both helpful to 1493 (thanks!) and that might be fun to read for somebody who is not researching the subject.
After Al Crosby's works, Mosquito Empires is the first book that jumps to mind. Writing my previous book, I had corresponded with the author, John McNeill ("JR," like the Gaddis novel, is his byline). When I visited Jamestown, Va., on a research trip, I asked McNeill if I could buy him a cup of coffee (he teaches not too far away, in Washington, D.C.). He was kind enough to give me a then-unpublished book chapter, "Revolutionary Mosquitoes," about the insect's contribution to revolutions in Haiti, South America, and the United States.
I had vaguely planned to have a chapter about malaria, yellow fever, and mosquitoes that carry them, but McNeill's stuff was so much better than anything I had that I immediately decided to loot it (I am a journalist, after all). I have some pride, so I did a lot of research and came up with some material that I thought was interesting — and wasn't in McNeill's piece. Then, just as I was finishing my chapter, I discovered that McNeill, curse him, had expanded his article into a book. Worse, the book was really good — insightful, convincing, scientifically literate (not always a given for historians), and crisply written (not always a given for historians). I, of course, went through a second round of looting, but there was way too much good stuff for me in Mosquito Empires to do more than pilfer the odd fact or theme.
Here is McNeill on the travails of the English general Cornwallis, besieged with his troops on the malarial peninsula of Yorktown, Va., in the fall of 1781:
Most of Cornwallis's men were in their second ague [fever] season in the land of An. Quadrimaculatus [the mosquito that carries malaria in the U.S. South]. At most ten percent had served in the south since 1778 and were thus in their fourth season. In the arduous process of building up malaria resistance his troops lagged about twenty years behind the average American soldier. Cornwallis could not close this gap....
Beginning their trenches on September 28, [French commander] Rochambeau, Lafayette, and Washington conducted the siege competently and quickly. They knew that the French fleet [outside Yorktown, which was trapping the English] could not linger and had to return to the West Indies. They also knew that come November, the ague season would end and the British Army would recover its vigor. They had good reasons to hurry.
Three weeks later, on October 19, Cornwallis surrendered. In his account of the siege Cornwallis gave credit to the siegecraft of the French and the Americans but stressed the importance of sickness... Yorktown and its mosquitoes ended British hopes and decided the American war.
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Charles C. Mann, three-time National Magazine Award finalist and winner of the National Academies Communication Award for the best book of the year, writes for such diverse publications as the New York Times, Science, Vanity Fair, Fortune, and many others.
Books mentioned in this post
Charles Mann is the author of 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created