17 September 2023

If pigs could fly

A list from Katie Couric Media, “10 American History Books Every Citizen Should Read” (26 June 2023) caught my attention when it was shared last month on Society for U.S. Intellectual History’s Facebook Page. I had read three of the ten, and had a fourth on my shelf. I quickly added a fourth I had read: Ijeoma Oluo, Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America (2020). It is a good book worth recommending, but I think it could have gone much further unpacking unmerited privilege and its consequences. Oluo does an excellent job of bringing forth example of oppression through compelling anecdotes well-written.

Other books on the list that I had read previously are Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (1980); James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me (1995); and Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (2005). I bought with intentions to read another, but then my teaching schedule became busier than expected and sent my reading in other directions. Now, however, I may find the time to read Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (2016). Zinn, of course, is part of the initial focus of Patriots and Peoples (see “Patriots' and Peoples' Histories”). I have referenced Mann several times.

Last week, I started into the Kindle sample of Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States (2018). The sample had been sitting idle in my app for two years. Early in the book was an egregious error that gave me considerable doubts about reading further.

In a paragraph that begins, “In 1492,” Lepore wrote:
…most people in the Americas lived in smaller settlements [Tenochtitlán is mentioned as having at least a quarter-million] and gathered and hunted for their food. A good number were farmers who grew squash and corn and beans, hunted and fished. They kept pigs and chickens but not bigger animals. (8)
They did not keep pigs. Lepore should know this. If she does not, perhaps there is a great deal about the Columbian Exchange that she is missing as well (see “The Columbian Exchange”). In the same paragraph is a confident assertion that the population of the Americas in 1492 was 75 million. It is a plausible number and within the range of what I consider likely, but should have been presented with more nuance. We do not know. All figures for the aboriginal population of the Americas are speculative, but some are far better estimates than others. There is a footnote, but the sample does not offer access. Now that I have the book, I can find the reference is to Mann, 1491. I would prefer a reference to scholarship by a specialist in the field of American Indian studies.

Chickens, too, came to America via the Columbian Exchange, although turkeys originated in the Americas. 

Even so, I pressed on through the sample. As I was doing so, I kept musing about how pigs, originally from Eurasia, made it to the Americas ahead of Columbus. Maybe they had wings and could fly.

A few pages later, Lepore begins to describe the Columbian Exchange, albeit without deploying the term (it is absent from the index, as well). She correctly credits Columbus with introducing pigs:
When Columbus made a second voyage across the ocean in 1493, he commanded a fleet of seventeen ships carrying twelve hundred men, and another kind of army, too: seeds and cuttings of wheat, chickpeas, melons, onions, radishes, greens, grapevines, and sugar cane, and horses, pigs, cattle, chickens, sheep, and goats, male and female, two by two. Hidden among the men and plants and the animals were stowaways, seeds stuck to animal skins or clinging to the folds of cloaks and blankets, in clods of mud. (18)
The process of ecological transformation that was fundamental to the European conquest is described well as this paragraph continues, including the astounding destructive success of eight pigs who quickly became thousands, spreading well ahead of Europeans. That paragraph rescued the book from its earlier error and I placed the order. Having the book in hand, I can also confirm the paragraph’s footnote offers Alfred Crosby’s two vital books on the subject: Columbian Exchange (1972) and Ecological Imperialism (1986).

Lepore's focus in the book concerns the political ideals expressed during the American Revolution and in the Constitution. Small errors about pigs arriving ahead of Columbus are a minor distraction.

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