An Underground Sensation Arrives

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[Many thanks to Thomas Spear for bringing this item to our attention.] Here is a review of Julius S. Scott’s The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution (Verso, 2018). Tom Bartlett writes about “the three-decade publication saga of a revered manuscript.”

The manuscript was almost published a couple of times. One editor expressed enthusiasm, then abruptly passed. Oxford University Press offered the author — Julius S. Scott, a young historian who had just completed his doctorate at Duke — a contract, along with suggestions for significant revisions. Scott could have made the changes, argued with Oxford, or taken his chances with another press. Instead he set it aside. And there it stayed for three decades. The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution, which traces networks of communication among slaves and sailors in the Caribbean and beyond, was completed in 1987, and it will be published for the first time this month by Verso.

How is it that such a beloved and consequential work is only just now making it into print?

To be clear, this is not the story of a publisher’s dusting off an obscure gem: The Common Wind has long been revered by historians. Over the years, it’s been passed around, first in photocopies and later as a PDF. In 2008 the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor held a conference inspired by The Common Wind. It’s made its way onto required-reading lists and been cited hundreds of times. Not bad for an unpublished book in need of revision.

Among The Common Wind’s boosters is Marcus Rediker, a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and author of The Slave Ship: A Human History (Viking, 2007). Rediker heard about The Common Wind when it was still a dissertation in progress, and he’s been thumbing through the same dog-eared copy since the 1980s. “It is conceived in a very creative way, and there’s nothing else quite like it,” says Rediker. “He read these archival and published sources against the grain to see what they could reveal about the agency of working people and what role they played in this age of revolution.”

It was Rediker who brought The Common Wind to the attention of Verso. In 2016 an editor there casually asked him what he thought the press should publish. Rediker had a very specific suggestion: “You should publish The Common Wind,” he said. A copy of the manuscript then made it into the hands of another Verso editor, Ben Mabie. “It was surprisingly timely and relevant, and it kept up with a diverse set of academic trends over the last couple of decades,” says Mabie. “Above all, it’s just beautifully written.”

The book focuses on the way information traveled among slaves and sailors, the “mastered” and the “masterless,” and how that communication allowed them to share strategies to oppose their oppressors. Scott writes about how the “many avenues of intercolonial contact, rumors, and reports from English, Spanish, and French sources intermingled and fed upon each other, strengthening the idea that emancipation was near at hand, and finally leading to armed uprisings in both British and French colonies.” His research showed how those rumors and reports traversed national and geographic boundaries, and he makes the case for why they mattered.

“It was about smart black guys moving around and knowing how not to get in trouble, figuring out how to move information back and forth,” says Peter H. Wood, an emeritus professor of history at Duke and an adviser on Scott’s dissertation. When Scott traveled to the Caribbean to search the archives, he would send Wood letters about his progress and his setbacks.

“One of the things that made it this underground sensation is that it’s a model of careful research and clear writing,” says Wood, who considers Scott the best graduate student he ever had. “There’s no jargon. He’s not theorizing in some pedantic, postmodern way. He’s just telling what the records show.”

So how is it that such a beloved and consequential work is only just now making it into print? [. . .]

For full review, see https://www.chronicle.com/article/An-Underground-Sensation/245000/

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