The Age of Questions: An Interview with Holly Case

“The book’s cover is based loosely on a patch of wallpaper in a rented apartment. While thinking about the age of questions and staring at the wallpaper, the design began to suggest the book’s structure. As the several threads come together and push apart, sometimes the light makes the pattern they describe flash out all the more clearly. And how apt that it’s wallpaper, because the idea was to see the patterns that emerge after staring long and hard at something that otherwise appears only as background.” –Holly Case

In The Age of Questions (Princeton University Press, 2018), historian Holly Case (Brown University) presents seven interpretations of the many “questions” of the long nineteenth century—the Eastern, Social, Woman, American, Jewish, Polish, Bullion, and Tuberculosis Questions, among others.

Previous historians have questioned the reality of several such “x questions,” demonstrating, for example, how bourgeois nationalists sought to impose the categories of nation on people often unaccustomed or resistant to thinking in such terms. Holly Case sets herself a more ambitious task. She seeks to understand why nineteenth-century actors frequently framed political matters as “x questions”, what thinking in “x questions” served to do and collectively inclined toward, and how the many “x questions” were entangled across regions and domains of life.

Case’s work enables us to more forthrightly confront how current questions, scholarly and popular, are interpolated with the “x questions” of the long nineteenth century. In offering half a dozen distinct interpretations, internally coherent yet sometimes conflicting, she introduces a novel mode of writing history. It is a book ideally composed to provoke questions and invite common debate in today’s “age of fracture.”

Liat Spiro (Harvard University/College of the Holy Cross)

Protectionism and Empire: An Interview with Marc-William Palen

‘Free Trade England Wants the Earth.’ Pro-Republican Judge magazine depicts US protectionism shielding the country from the British free trade spider’s grasp, 27 Oct. 1888. Source: he ‘Conspiracy’ of Free Trade: The Anglo-American Struggle Over Empire and Economic Globalisation, 1846-1896 (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

The last twenty-four months have witnessed world-wide dissent against the current regime of trade liberalisation. The United States disengaged from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Britons renounced the EU, and in Tokyo, Sydney, Lima, and other cities across the Pacific Rim thousands protested a potential transpacific trade partnership. While the popularity of protectionism is not unexpected, its recent embrace by political elites everywhere is more surprising. This is particularly true of the United States, which one president ago was still steering the global economy towards freer trade.

In The ‘Conspiracy’ of Free Trade: The Anglo-American Struggle Over Empire and Economic Globalisation, 1846-1896 (Cambridge University Press, 2016), Marc-William Palen traces the roots of this debate to the United States in the 1840s. There began a political and ideological battle between Victorian free trade cosmopolitanism and economic nationalism which lasted the remainder of the century and beyond. Talks about tariffs dominated American political life. Through them, Palen is able to tell a much broader story. The Republican and Democratic parties were transformed in the process. Debates about trade influenced the character of American imperial and commercial expansion, as well as the contours of the Anglo-American struggle for empire and globalisation. Palen’s argument that economic nationalism dominated the period also forces us to rethink received notions of the US Gilded Age, which is usually portrayed as an era dominated by laissez-faire and free trade.

We recently met with Marc-William Palen in Bristol, where he resides. He discussed nineteenth century American political thought, the political economy of Anglo-American globalisation and empire in the Victorian Era, and his future research plans. Dr Palen is a historian at the University of Exeter. The ‘Conspiracy’ of Free Trade is his first book. You can follow him via Twitter: @MWPalen.

Martin Crevier