Tag: history

“Jewish Radicals” – an interview with Tony Michels

“Jewish Radicals” – an interview with Tony Michels

I had the pleasure of reading the book Jewish Radicals by Professor Tony Michels.  I was on a quest to learn more about the history of American Jews and in particular, find out more about the roots of social justice and radical politics in our community.  Tony’s book was well-organized, readable, and deeply informative about important topics that don’t tend to be front-and-center in our typical Hebrew school curriculum.  One thing I took away was that even among the left-wing of the Jewish community, there have always been a wide variety of ideologies.  That can certainly be a challenge and it can also be a source of richness and progress.  In addition, we often think of our ancestors as more conservative than ourselves, and this book shows that’s not necessarily true.  I’m grateful to Professor Michels for the opportunity to interview him via email and below are his insightful thoughts.  As befits a Jewish interview, I asked four questions 🙂


1) What was your goal in writing the book “Jewish Radicals”?

My goal was to assemble a variety of documents that could bring readers into the history of Jews and their diverse experiences with the socialist movement, broadly defined.   In order to be historically accurate, I wanted to cover as many left-wing perspectives as possible: anarchism, Bundism, socialism, communism, socialist-Zionism, Trotskyism, and other ideologies.  At the same time, I didn’t want to tell a history reduced to heroic struggles and victories, which I think is a temptation for many historians of the American left.   I wanted to capture the ups and downs, mistakes, ironies, sometimes humorous ironies, and so forth.

2) There seems to be a renewed interest in left-wing politics among young Jews – learning Yiddish, advocating for refugees, even confronting major Jewish organizations in recent months.  Do you see a revival of some of the spirit of the activists in your book?

I’m not sure I know enough to answer intelligently.   Like you, I have noticed a revival of interest in socialism since, especially since the recession of 2008 and the Bernie Sanders campaign.  And I have noticed an interest in the history of the old Jewish labor movement among some Jewish activists today.  In the 1960s, Jewish activists expressed a similar interest in the involvement of immigrant Jews in the labor movement and socialism, and that urge to recover the past has been evident in every decade since.  The difficult thing is that the history of the left in the U.S. is one characterized by discontinuities.  There are connecting threads between generations, organizations, ideas and so forth, but not a great many continuities.

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3) What is the greatest misconception American Jews have about their own community’s political past?

Good question.   I’d say many Jews don’t understand how widespread sympathy for socialism was between the 1880s and 1930s.  I’d also add that many people—I have my own students in mind—seem to believe that all immigrants from Eastern Europe were very traditional and religiously devout, and that secularization came later with Americanized generations.  That immigrants were often daring and open to experimentation seems surprising.  And finally I’d say American Jews don’t seem to be familiar with the extensive body of writings on Jewish identity and culture, many of them produced by Jewish intellectuals writing in English and Yiddish who thought seriously about what it means to be a modern Jew in America.

4) As a historian, what do you find most rewarding and most challenging about your job?

I enjoy the detective work of uncovering the people, events, and ideas of the past.  Studying the past helps me gain an understanding of myself in relation to the world around me, and that’s satisfying.   And writing about the past, shaping a story out of whatever information I can find, satisfies a creative urge.  One thing I didn’t understand when I started graduate school was that, in a sense, history is a form of creative writing, in as much as it requires imagination to interpret documents—which do not often yield all the information I’m looking for or do so in an obvious way—and get into the minds of the people who produced them.  Writing history requires inferences, sometimes speculation, in addition to facts and evidence.

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Napoleon in America

Napoleon in America

No, Napoleon didn’t actually make it to America, though it would’ve been interesting to see what happened!  That’s exactly what Shannon Selin’s book Napoleon in America imagines.  What if Napoleon had escaped his captors and ended up in the U.S.?  I can’t recommend the book highly enough.  It was the first fiction book I had read in years and it was so engrossing, fun, and creative.  As an American who loves Spanish/Latin American history as well as French culture, I found so many of my interests satisfied and engaged.  Shannon graciously agreed to answer some questions of mine about the book below, so take a look!

1. It seems to me that historical fiction is a tricky balancing act- finding elements of fantasy and creativity that have to seem somewhat plausible and rooted in some historical fact.  How do you find the right balance between fantasy and history?

I think the physical setting, the social customs and the details of daily life have to be depicted with reasonable historical accuracy. This helps the reader imagine the period and gives the novel an aura of plausibility. Since all of the characters in Napoleon in America are actual historical figures, I also tried to keep their words and actions consistent with my understanding of their personalities, as gleaned from my research. Within this scaffolding, the plot can be as fanciful as one wants to make it.

2. What kinds of sources did you use for your research for the book and what are some elements of the book that people might be surprised to find are true?

I started by reading biographies of Napoleon and the other major historical figures featured in the book. I also read about Napoleon’s time on St. Helena, and about the post-Napoleonic War years in Europe and North America. I then turned to relevant letters, diaries, memoirs, travellers’ accounts and newspapers of the time. Basically I read sources that helped me:

  • identify the possibilities and constraints Napoleon might have faced if he escaped from St. Helena and went to North America;
  • select people and events that might have been affected by such an adventure; and
  • imagine what it was like to be alive in the early 1820s in the places where the novel is set.

I delved into more esoteric topics as I was writing each scene, e.g., early 19th-century medical practices, the history of voodoo in New Orleans, the diplomacy surrounding the Congress of Verona.

One of the things that surprised me was the extent of the Bonaparte family’s connections with the United States. Napoleon’s brother Joseph really was living in New Jersey in 1821. Napoleon had an American nephew, Jerome Bonaparte (the son of Napoleon’s brother Jerome), who – as happens in Napoleon in America – was considered a potential husband for Joseph’s daughter Charlotte. Another nephew who appears in the book, Achille Murat (the son of Napoleon’s sister Caroline), also moved to the United States.

A number of Napoleonic officers fled to the United States after Napoleon’s 1815 abdication, which explains why so many show up to help him in the novel. Also, France really did invade Spain in 1823, and a group of men led by Colonel Charles Fabvier really did attempt to subvert the French troops at the Bidassoa River.

3. Your book imagines how the Quebecois may have supported Napoleon’s return to power- to what degree was this based on historical fact?  Was there Quebecois support for Napoleon during his reign?

One of the things I learned when I was researching Napoleon in America (and, as a Canadian, and the daughter of a history teacher, I feel rather guilty about not knowing this before) was that in 1805 some French Canadians wrote a petition to Napoleon asking him to help free them from British rule. This was a minority opinion, however. French Canadians were largely loyal British subjects, pro-Bourbon and anti-Napoleon. It was only after Napoleon’s death that general sympathy for him began to emerge in Quebec. I wrote an article about this. I also wrote a couple of short stories set in Quebec during the Napoleonic Wars, including one about that 1805 petition.

4. This was the first time in a long time that I’ve delved into a historical fiction book.  Since I so enjoyed your book, do you have any recommendations for similar books I might try out next (while I wait for your sequel!)?

I’m a great fan of Penelope Fitzgerald and her four historical fiction books are marvelous: Innocence (set in Italy in the 1950s), The Gate of Angels (Cambridge in 1912), The Beginning of Spring (pre-revolutionary Russia) and The Blue Flower (late 18th-century Germany). If you’d prefer to read more about Napoleon, see my blog post about Napoleon in historical fiction.

5. You’ve said that you’re in the middle of writing a sequel to the book.  Without giving anything away, can you give a hint of what we can expect next on Napoleon’s adventure?

Let’s just say that I’ve done a lot of reading about Mexico in the early 1820s, General Antonio López de Santa Anna, the diplomatic to-ing and fro-ing surrounding the Monroe Doctrine, and the 1824 US presidential election.

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Historical fiction writer Shannon Selin is the author of Napoleon in America, which imagines what might have happened if Napoleon Bonaparte had escaped from exile on St. Helena and wound up in the United States in 1821. Shannon blogs about Napoleonic and 19th century history at shannonselin.com. She lives in Vancouver, Canada, where she is working on the next novel in her Napoleon series.

A Short History of Quebec

A Short History of Quebec

Recently I had the pleasure of reading A Short History of Quebec by Brian Young and John Dickinson.  It’s a great introduction to the history of the region and is filled with social history (the role of women, first nations, labor movement, etc) that may be overlooked by books more focused on politics.  Special thanks to Professor Young for granting me this interview:

1. If I’m correct, I believe both of you are anglophones.  How does this background influence your understanding of the region’s history?

Being ‘anglophones’ is just one factor in our makeup as historians of Quebec. John and I are of a generation born in the 1940s, we are males from middle class families, are parents, and we studied in the particular intellectual ambiance of Toronto. English speakers by birth both of us have been deeply involved in francophone society. John is perfectly bilingual, his children have French as their first language, and he spent his career in French at the Université de Montréal. In retirement, John lives in Brest, France. I trained first as a political historian with my consciousness of Quebec dating from the Pierre-Elliot Trudeau phenomenon of the 1960s. I taught at McGill University in Montreal from 1976, an institution that can be seen as a sort of litmus test of linguistic relations in Montreal. After my PhD and teaching in the U.S. of post Vietnam for six years, I came to Quebec to participate in a progressive, social democratic society, unique in North America, and one in which French was the ‘official’ language. I have been less at ease with events in Quebec since the second referendum on independence in 1995 and the ‘ethnic’ and conservative turn in Quebec politics.

2. As an American, I came in with the stereotype that Quebec had a definitively more progressive history than ours.  Yet in your book, you give a fascinating and nuanced picture of Quebecois society.  For example, women could vote in the early 1800s, but were then disenfranchised mid-century.  And taverns were restricted to men until 1979.  What is the most common misconception people have about Quebec’s history?

Whether one is referring to women’s, legal, or political history, Quebec has a distinct history that most North Americans ignore royally. Certainly, Quebec, historically dominated by the Catholic Church and a traditional elite, was, until the mid twentieth century, behind other North American jurisdictions in its labor, educational and social policies. In the past half century, it has leapfrogged on social issues like the welfare state, the environment, gay rights, women’s equality, right to die, low university tuition etc. Deindustrialization, dependence on equalization payments from more prosperous parts of Canada, periodic bouts of ethnocentrism, and the decline of Montreal, have hurt Quebec’s reputation. Americans have profound misconceptions about Quebec and Canada. Their neighbors to the north are certainly not dull. On their very doorstep, Americans can experience Quebec’s linguistic, cultural, and social experiment.

3. Your book details many economic/social issues (which I had known less about) as well as the better-known linguistic ones.  What is the relationship between language and the fight for social justice in Quebec history- how has one affected the other?

This question is at the very root of the Quebec question. Is a nationalist movement with a fixation on language inevitably conservative and prone to ethnic centrism? My own feeling is that Quebec vacillitates between a rich history of tolerance, ‘bonne ententism’, vibrant reception of immmigrants, and social justice and periodic episodes of nativism, fear, and mistrust of the ‘other’.

4. Your book reviews some of the pro-independence movements and politicians in Quebec.  Has there ever been a movement to reunite Quebec with France?  If not, why do you think an independence movement developed but not a reunification one?

The cession of New France to Britain in 1763 acted as a firewall isolating Quebec from the French Revolution, republicanism, and France’s vigorous assertion of laicitiy. As a result, Quebec developed in very different ways from France. Quebecers, although singularly secular, seem quite at ease with a crucifix over the speaker’s chair in the National Assembly and a dual educational and hospital system that reflects historic Catholic and Protestant communities. A strong independence movement has long existed in Quebec, Quebecers were enchanted with Charles de Gaulle’s ‘Vive le Québec libre’ declaration from the balcony of the Montreal City Hall in 1967, and sovereignty referendums were held in 1980 and 1995. In the latter, the ‘Yes’ received 49.2% of eligible votes and through the Parti Québécois independence remains a strong option. Visits to Paris and to the proverbial French ‘cousins’ remain a favorite destination. However, free trade with the United States, a ‘National’ Hockey League largely composed of American teams, Celine Dion who made her career in Las Vegas, and the attraction of Quebec ‘snowbirds’ to Florida rather than the Riviera, are indicative of Quebec’s integration as a North American society.

5. While the book focuses on Quebec, it also touches on the fate of francophones in the rest of Canada.  Are you optimistic about the survival of French-Canadian culture outside Quebec?

The future of linguistic minorities is hard to predict. Of the 1,067,000 Canadians of French mother tongue outside Quebec, most live in Ontario and New Brunswick where they represent sizeable minorities. Although they benefit from various federal and provincial programs in the educational, social, and cultural sectors, their survival in an English world is perhaps precarious. Two of my grandchildren are in francophone schools in the Toronto region: their schools are well-funded and excellent and they will become part of a bilingual citizenry.

6. I’m headed to Quebec this summer with my partner for vacation.  Besides this fantastic book, what other ones would you recommend I read to learn more about Quebec?  And for our trip, what are some “must-see” historic sites we should include on our itinerary?

How about a novel or two to set the stage for your trip to Quebec. In English, the works of Mordecai Richler are probably the best known but for popular life in francophone Montreal try Michel Tremblay’s The Blue Notebook or for an historical classic try Anne Hébert’s Kamouraska. Quebec films are another useful introduction to Quebec. Why not sample, Claude Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine (1971); Deny Arcand’s Decline of the American Empire (1986), or Xavier Dolan’s recent Mommy (2014). For more academic treatments of Quebec history, I enjoyed Jack Little and Peter Gossage, An Illustrated History of Quebec and Denyse Baillargeon’s A Brief HIstory of Women in Quebec. The museums, historic sites, restaurants, and night life of Montreal and Quebec City make them the principal tourist destinations. In addition, why not get off the beaten track (see the Quebec government’s web site http://www.bonjourquebec.com/qc-en/accueil0.html) and travel along the south shore of the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City visiting the quarantine station at Grosse Île and the Reford Gardens (Jardin de Métis) at Grand-Métis. Close to Vermont, the region of the Eastern Townships around Sherbrooke has hidden historical treasures, delightful inns, and good food.

A native of Winnipeg Manitoba, Brian Young taught the social and institutional history of Quebec at McGill University, Montreal. Retired, he now divides his time between Montreal and Nice. His most recent book, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press (2014), is Patrician Families and the Making of Quebec The Taschereaus and the McCords.

photo Briaan promenade cyclistesnm