[July 17th marks the 200th anniversary of the transfer of Florida from Spain to the U.S. The history of that addition is much more complex than that one date suggests, however—an idea which could be applied much more broadly as well. So this week I’ve highlighted a handful of texts that can help us engage more accurately with the fraught, multi-layered histories of U.S. expansion, leading up to this weekend tribute to one of the best scholarly resources for doing so!]
On a wonderful recent book that expands our whole frame for the US.
Part of the whole point of my week’s series has been that our collective memories and narratives of expansion have consistently been far too over-simplified and reductive (a premise that could be extended to all of American history, no doubt; but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about its specific applications for particular histories like these). One of those over-simplifications, and one that I’ve been guilty of sharing and communicating even in recent years, is that while the US had flirtations with imperialism and expansion beyond the continent earlier in the 19th century (and of course did take that step in a way with the 1867 purchase of Alaska, which while part of the continent was entirely separated from the rest of the continental United States), it was really at the very end of the century that the US truly became an empire, with its expansions into Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, and other late 1890s new territories.
If that narrative sounds accurate to you (and again, you’re not alone, as it largely did to me too until pretty recently), then you should check out one of the most unique and important books of the last few years: Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (2019). Immerwahr’s truly epic work of public scholarship certainly does engage at length with those late 19th century histories, as well as with a great deal of the 20th century (and into the 21st). But he also and most strikingly traces those imperial histories much further back, with roughly half of his book focused on earlier in the 19th century. A famous and wonderful example of all that he uncovered and shares in that half of the book is his section on Guano Islands, about which I can’t say much more than that without ruining the surprise inherent in learning about them from Immerwahr himself. But honestly every chapter, of the book as a whole but doubly so of that initial section, is truly mind-blowing, and will fundamentally shift much of what you thought you knew about US history (or at least it did for me, and many other readers it seems).
At the risk of over-explaining the pun at the heart of the week’s series (always a danger when it comes to Dad Jokes, of course), that’s exactly what I mean by “expanding histories”: not just that these are histories around the expansion of the United States, but also and especially that we need to expand our narratives and collective memories, to better engage with all the layers to expansion and all the salient contexts and connections. Fortunately as we work to do so we have not just the different kinds of primary sources I’ve written about throughout the series, but also the discoveries, analyses, and ideas of so many wonderful public scholarly voices and works. I know of no better one, and no more important one for expanding our histories of expansion, than Immerwahr’s book.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Expansion texts or contexts you’d highlight?