Prairie Fever -- British Aristocrats in the American West, 1830--1890 by Peter Pagnamenta, Norton '12, $27.95, 338 pages, ASIN #0393072398. Index, credits, notes, grouping of b&w glossy images.
Schoolchildren traditionally learn that the opening of the American West in the early years of the 19th century was an American enterprise, whether in the links to the open prairie, minerals, or wildlife. But in his fascinating new book, historian Peter Pagnamenta recounts the scales falling from the eyes of British elites as they read written accounts by travelers or the wide array of riches held way across the pond.
"Alongside the detailed botanical, geological, and ethnological studies (discovered by the Brits), writes Pagnamenta, "was a growing intellectual interest in what the American wilderness might represent and questions it raised about man's status in nature, and the philosophical debate about savagery versus civilization." Much as Americans had done before then, the British explorers pursued "exciting and unfamiliar big game: bears, buffalo, and elk."
Among the more fascinating aspects of this quest, "wealthy families began to view the Far West as a potential solution to the problem of their younger sons who did not stand to inherit land at home, where laws of primogeniture dictated how land could be passed on. Might these younger sons be able to own land, live a gentleman's life with ample sport, and participate in moneymaking enterprise in the American West?"
Londoner Peter Pagnamenta is a writer and social historian. He wrote the book Sword and Blossom: a British Officer's Enduring Love for a Japanese Woman.
1356 -- A Novel by Bernard Cornwell, Harper '12, $28.99, 417 pages, ASIN #0061969672.
Although the French severely outnumbered the British that September day in 1356, in what became known as the Battle of Poitiers, "What ensued was the most decisive and improbable English victory of the Hundred Years' War," writes novelist Bernard Cornwell. In a brief Q&A, the author discusses the writing of his new book:
Q. What initially drew you to the 100 Years War, and what made you decide to write about the Battle of Poitiers?
A. I've always been fascinated by the 100 Years War. I guess it helps to understand that the English tend to measure their history by a rivalry with France, which is why the most famous battles of that history are Hastings, Crecy, Agincourt, Trafalgar and Waterloo, so my fascination is, as it were, bred in the bone.
Q. You pepper your novels with religion and magic and 1356 is no different. What is your point of view in approaching religion and fantastical elements in your historican fiction?
A. For most of human history there was no rational answer available for the large questions: why did my child die? Why did the harvest fail? Why did the river flood? And, lacking either technological or scientific explanations, they were driven back to a supernatural answer. This means that religion and superstitution ruled their thinking, simply because they had no choice.
The Black Death occurred in Thomas of Hookton's lifetime and killed perhaps a third of Europe's inhabitants. Nowadays we'd look to the Center for Disease Control to come up with an answer and, hopefully, a solution, but they had no idea what caused the plague, and no idea how to stop it, and the easiest answer was that God was displeased with them and had sent the pandemic, and that answer was rammed home by the church. So my characters, though every bit as clever as we are, did not have the intellectual equipment to fight superstition.
Novelist Bernard Cornwell wrote the New York Times bestsellers Agincourt and The Fort, the bestselling Saxon Tales, and the Richard Sharpe novels. He lives on Cape Cod and in Charleston, S.C.
Contemporary Irish Poetry and the Pastoral Tradition by Donna L. Potts, UMissouri Press '11, 216 pages, ASIN #0826219438. Index, bibliography, notes, unillustrated.
From the dust jacket:
"In Contemporary Irish Poetry and the Pastoral Tradition, Donna L. Potts closely examines the pastoral genre in the work of six Irish poets writing today. Through the exploration of the poets and their works, she reveals the wide range of purposes that pastoral has served in both Northern Ireland and the Republic: a postcolonial critique of British imperialism; a response to modernity, industrialization, and globalization; a way of uncovering political and social repercussions of gendered representations of Ireland; and, more recently, a means for conveying environmentalism's more complex understanding of the value of nature.
"Potts traces the pastoral back to its origins in the work of Theocritus of Syracuse in the third century and plots its evolution due to cultural changes. While all pastoral poems share certain generic traits, Potts makes clear that pastorals are shaped by social and historical contexts, and Irish pastorals in particular were influenced by Ireland's unique relationship with the land, language, and industrialization due to England's colonization."
Donna L. Potts teaches English at Kansas State University and has written many articles on Irish poetry. She lives in Manhattan, KS.