The History of White People

August 2, 2017 § 2 Comments

I am reading Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People.  For those who don’t know, Painter is Professor Emeritus of History at Princeton University.  She is, in academic parlance, a heavyweight.  This might be one of the most frustrating books I have ever read.  Not for its content argument and its basic argument, which is to trace the history of ‘whiteness’ as a social construct in American society, stretching back to the Greeks.  Rather, it is frustrating for a certain sloppiness and factual inaccuracy that dogs the book.

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Part of what we base our reputation and claims to authority on, as historians, is our attention to detail and our attempts to make sure we remain factually correct.

To wit, only seven pages in, in discussing the great Greek historian, Herodotus, Painter writes:

Herodotus’ world is still flat — that notion would stand for another thousand years.

She is correct, Herodotus did believe the world was flat.  So, too, did, amongst others, Homer.  But, for many Greek philosophers (to the Greeks, philosophy and science was the same thing), the world was anything but flat. Pythagoras (he of the theorem) was amongst many Greek thinkers who believed in a spherical Earth.  Plato believed the world was spherical.  So, too, did Aristotle.  Eratosthenes, around 240, attempted to estimate the Earth’s circumference.  He did this without any modern tools, of course, and though he was wrong in his estimation, he was only off by around 10%.  The great Ptolemy thought the Earth spherical. So, too, did the Romans.  Even the early Christian Church believed in the spherical nature of the Earth.  Indeed, the belief in a spherical Earth lasted into the Middle Ages and beyond.  Stephen Jay Gould argued that the belief in a flat Earth was non-existant amongst the educated classes of Medieval Europe.  So, clearly, Herodotus’ error in the belief in a flat Earth did not stand for another thousand years.

Other anachronisms abound.  For example, she discusses Samuel Stanhope Smith’s views on race during his academic career in late 18th and early 19th centuries.  And while, when introducing him as the president of the College of New Jersey, she notes that said college is now Princeton University, on the very next page, she calls Smith the President of Princeton.  He was not.  Princeton did not exist until 1896, until then, it was the College of New Jersey.

And then there is a long discussion of the works of Gustave de Beaumont, a French lawyer, more famous for his fiction and quasi-sociological studies of the United States and Ireland.  Beaumont is even more famous for being the second fiddle to Alexis de Tocqueville.  Beaumont and Tocqueville were life-long friends and Beaumont accompanied Tocqueville on his famous tour of the United States that led to his legendary Democracy in America.  In fact, Beaumont published his own work, a novel, that examined that which Tocqueville did not, race in America.  But, his Marie, or Slavery in the United States, a Picture of American Manners, while it won the Prix Montyon of the Académie Française, quickly faded from view.  Following their tour of the United States, the two French gentlemen made their way to Ireland, and were rather shocked by the wretchedness of the Irish peasants.

But here, Painter engages in some very sloppy and lazy historical accounting.  The Irish Famine was from 1845-52.  During the Famine, any number of ‘journalists’ headed out from London and other English cities to the Irish countryside, to see the conditions of the starving nation first-hand. Painter is correct to suggest many of these journalists thought the news reports sensationalized.  They discovered they were not.  But, she conflates, for example, Thomas Carlyle toured Ireland in 1849, two years after the worst of the Famine in 1847, but in the midst of the Famine.  Painter conflates the trip of Beaumont and Tocqueville a decade earlier, before the Famine.  She also goes on about the Famine conditions Beaumont saw and wrote about.  Except, of course, he was in Ireland six years prior to the Famine.

She also, I should add, claims that the Irish were slaves in North America.  That is the subject of another post, at an another time.

This is nothing but sloppy and lazy scholarship.  Painter is flat-out wrong in her characterizations of views of the shape of the Earth and Beaumont’s journey to Ireland vis-à-vis the Famine.  She severely mis-characterizes what Smith was president of.  Errors like this should cause the reader to stop and question the author.  Is the author to be trusted?  How could she make such lazy mistakes?

And this is most unfortunate.  Because The History of White People is a fascinating read for the very fact that Painter historocizes and problematizes whiteness as a category.  Anyone who knows anything about race and science knows that race is social, not scientific construct, and yet it still dominates our society.  So, quite frankly, unpacking the constructions of whiteness in the US is an important historical, sociological, and political act. I would say that this is a book that everyone should read, but such egregious errors with historical fact makes me hesitant.

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§ 2 Responses to The History of White People

  • Brian Bixby says:

    I recall Barbara Tuchman makes an egregious error in her last book, overlooking the Diplomatic Revolution of 1756. Did make me wonder if her heirs had rushed off a manuscript that hadn’t been ready.

    • Quite possible. Or, because of reputation, editors don’t edit. I know of one historian of the Irish world in Canada whose book contracts include a clause that his work will not be edited for anything beyond grammar, and even that the publishers need to insist upon.

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