Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Bostonians by Henry James

Source of book: I own this.

A few months back, I was returning an audiobook to the library, and I found a used book sale in progress. (This was at a branch, rather than the main library, so the sale wasn’t one of the usual ones we attend…) I found a fairly good number of boxed hardbacks from the Library of America for dirt cheap, so I picked up the ones I didn’t have. Cheap as in a few bucks for a book. Sign me up! Anyway, three of the volumes I got were of Henry James.

I was fairly late to discover Henry James, which is a bit surprising because I have loved James Thurber since my teens, and he praises Henry James in many of his essays. If you want to read my previous reviews, Eight Novelas and Short Stories, which includes his shorter novels Daisy Miller (meh) and The Turn of the Screw (I enjoyed that one). And also his longer novel Washington Square, which I also thought was outstanding. I was due to read some James anyway, because it has been over three years. 

I chose The Bostonians because I had just read The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett, and recalled that she was in a “Boston Marriage” with another woman, and that the term came from James’ novel. The term applies to two women living together independently of a man. This relationship could be purely economical, based on close friendship, or sexual/romantic. It did, in any case, require that at least one of the women be financially independent. In the case of Jewett, there is nothing definitive, particularly since the other woman was a widow, and there are no obvious indications like passionate love letters. On the other hand, poet Elizabeth Bishop (who had some money of her own) was in two Boston Marriages during the course of her life that were decidedly passionate.

For other couples, they were more like the couple in The Bostonians, radical (for their time) feminists mutually devoted to the cause of women’s suffrage. Although, truth be told, James’ story is more complex than that - see below.

Henry James drew inspiration for his stories from people he knew, and never hesitated to observe or listen for ideas. In this book, the research for the female companions came in part from the relationship his sister Alice had with Katharine Loring. The characters of Verena and Olive are very loosely based on this real life couple - although as is the case with most of James’ stories, the borrowing is very free and loose, and should not be mistaken for an even approximate portrait of the real persons.

I will warn at this point that there are plot spoilers in the rest of this review, so if you don’t want to know how the story ends, you might want to stop here and read the book first. I have chosen to do this because I think the details are important to my analysis.

The novel opens with a visit by a young Southern gentleman, Mr. Basil Ransom, to his distant cousins, Adeline and Olive, who live in Boston. Adeline is a widow with a young - and very spoiled son - who decides early on she wishes to snare Mr. Ransom. And why not? She has the money, while he is impoverished, and she’d love a handsome, dashing man in her life.

Olive, on the other hand, wants nothing to do with men, and loathes Ransom from the start. This is no mystery. He is politically conservative, and believes that women should know there place - and their inherent inferiority. Olive is a suffragette, and finds Ransom condescending from the outset. However, she, on kind of a whim, invites him to come to the suffragette meeting that evening.

This soiree turns out to be the pivotal moment in the book. While the featured speaker is one of the old guard, the star of the show turns out to be the young and naive Verena Tarrant, the daughter of a snake oil salesman who has groomed her for public speaking. She is beautiful, winsome, eloquent in a shallow sort of way, and exceedingly young and inexperienced.

Both Ransom and Olive fall madly in love with her, and their battle for Verena’s affections are the story of the book.

The battle, though, isn’t just fought on the turf of romance - in fact, Olive really can’t fight on those terms. Rather, it is fought mostly on political and philosophical ground. Specifically, on the question of suffrage. Olive takes Verena in, allegedly to groom her as a better speaker and as a future suffragette warrior, using her skills and charm to advocate for the cause. And Olive definitely does this, taking Verena much further both socially and professionally than her hack con-man father ever could. But Olive doesn’t just want Verena’s skills. She wants Verena.

“Will you be my friend, my friend of friends, beyond every one, everything, forever and ever?”

Even for the Victorian Era, this seems a wee bit rich for a purely platonic desire. And throughout the book, Olive talks and speaks exactly like a jealous lover. She has it bad for Verena, that much is clear. However, this being the Victorian Era, James cannot breathe more than a faint whiff of sexuality. What is amazing is how he makes the novel so erotically charged. The frisson is electric.

What is less clear is exactly how Verena feels. There is a passage later in the novel where Verena is contemplating leaving Olive, but knows it will devastate her.

She had a vision of those dreadful years; she knew that Olive would never get over the disappointment. It would touch her in the point where she felt everything most keenly; she would be incurably lonely and eternally humiliated. It was a very peculiar thing, their friendship; it had elements which made it probably as complete as any (between women) that had ever existed. Of course it had been more on Olive’s side than on hers, she had always known that; but that, again, didn’t make any difference.

There’s a lot that is almost told in that paragraph. Hints, entendres, but not the thing itself. One cannot but feel that James says as much as he legally can for his era, and assumes the reader will get the hint. (And plenty did - and complained about it.)

In contrast to Olive, Ransom is able to speak his desire almost from the beginning. He wants Verena to be his wife. But that isn’t all. He wants her to be a certain kind of wife, staying at home, and utilizing her prodigious talents for the sole purpose of pleasing him. However, Ransom doesn’t approach Verena with this, rather, he finds reasons to be around her until he is sure her interest in him is mutual. They then debate the issues of gender and gender roles as a kind of proxy for dating.

The problem for Olive in winning this contest is that she is at an unfair disadvantage. Verena admires and respects Olive, and loves her as a friend. But, as far as I can tell, she isn’t attracted to her in the same way Olive experiences desire. Rather, Verena feels a personal attraction to Ransom, one she doesn’t quite understand, and one she fights against, because she dislikes his views of women. But nevertheless, she falls in love with him.

This is, of course, a common theme in Henry James. The falling in love against one’s will and better judgment. I am also kind of hard pressed to think of a romance in a James novel that goes well. It isn’t his style.

And there is a reason for this. There is solid evidence that Henry James was asexual. There is no evidence he ever had a romantic relationship with anyone, either male or female. He had a variety of friendships, and was quite social. But he never really got all that close with people. This may well have contributed to his ability to write interpersonal dysfunction extraordinarily well; but also to his inability (or unwillingness) to portray a believably healthy romance. (On a related note, the relationship between James’ sister Alice and his brother William was really creepy, and may well have been sexual. Strange family…)

In any case, instead of romantic banter, we get sparring over gender politics. It is difficult to know where James’ loyalties lay. He actually writes both sides well, but does not appear to be personally sympathetic to either Olive (and her views) or Ransom (and his.) Both are portrayed with a bit of acid humor. All that does seem certain is that James predicted misery for Ransom and Verena as a couple.

One thing that did strike me about the arguments on each side is that they haven’t really changed much since 1886. What has changed is the world we live in. Women vote - and have for the last 100 years. (That’s pretty recent, but still.) Women no longer stay at home and avoid careers, civic involvement, or opinions. But the arguments over gender roles remain fairly static, at least in certain circles. And in those circles, the connection of retrograde views of women continue to be connected to the idea of upper-class Southern culture. I ended up making notes about a number of the quotes, just because James so perfectly captures the rhetoric.

Ransom’s thoughts after meeting Olive for the first time:

The women he had hitherto known had been mainly of his own soft clime, and it was not often the exhibited the tendency he detected (and cursorily deplored) in [Olive]. That was the way he liked them - not to think too much, not to feel any responsibility for the government of the world, such as he was sure Miss Chancellor felt. If they would only be private and passive, and have no feeling but for that, and leave publicity to the sex of tougher hide.

I am particularly fond of the phrasing “private and passive.” That encapsulates much of the argument against women in positions of leadership.

Regarding Olive’s sister, Mrs. Luna, who, while less aggressive than Olive, still rubs Ransom the wrong way:

This boldness did not prevent him from thinking that women were essentially inferior to men, and infinitely tiresome when they declined to accept the lot which men had made for them. He had the most definite notions about their place in nature, in society, and was perfectly easy in his mind as to whether it excluded them from any proper homage. The chivalrous man paid that tax with alacrity. He admitted their rights; these consisted in a standing claim to the generosity and tenderness of the stronger race. The exercise of such feelings was full of advantage for both sexes, and they flowed most freely, of course, when women were gracious and grateful.  

I have absolutely been steeped in this philosophy. It is just better for both men and women when they stay in their places. Women don’t need respect, because they get more when they appeal to the need for protection and provision from men. And women should be grateful for this support, rather than demanding equality.

From an argument between Ransom and Verena:

“My interest is in my own sex; yours evidently can look after itself. That’s what I want to save.”
“To save it from what?” she asked.
“From the most damnable feminisation! I am so far from thinking, as you set forth the other night, that there is not enough woman in our general life, that it has long been pressed home to me that there is a great deal too much. The whole generation is womanized; the masculine tone is passing out of the world; it’s a feminine, a nervous, hysterical, chattering, canting age, an age of hollow phrases and false delicacy and exaggerated solicitudes and coddle sensibilities, which, if we don’t soon look out, will usher in the reign of mediocrity, of the feeblest and flattest and the most pretentious that has ever been. The masculine character, the ability to dare and endure, to know and yet not fear reality, to look the world in the face and take it for what it is - a very queer and partly very base mixture - that is what I want to preserve, or rather, as I may say, to recover; and I must tell you that I don’t in the least care what becomes of you ladies while I make the attempt.”

This was written, recall, in 1886. And yet, we are still saying the same things. The pearl clutching over the supposed feminization of culture, of the threat that women in the realm that rightfully belongs to males alone pose to the poor, vulnerable manboys. Yeah, the poor men, if we let women vote, hold jobs, earn their own money, and insist on males behaving themselves. Whatever will become of us? The only difference, by the way, between the above and the crap that I have heard in the official teaching on gender roles both from open Patriarchists and from mainstream Evangelicals is this: Henry James writes better. That’s the only difference. It’s still a condescending gender essentialism that rests in a belief in the inherent inferiority of women.

And, as the relationship with Verena progresses, Ransom gets more explicit in how he views Verena:

“[I]t’s all very comfortable for you to say that you wish to leave as alone. But you can’t leave us alone. We are here, and we have got to be disposed of. You have got to put us somewhere. It’s a remarkable social system that has no place for us!” the girl went on with her most charming laugh.
“No place in public. My plan is to keep you at home and have a better time with you there than ever.”
“Think what a confession you make when you say that women are less and less sought in marriage; what a testimony that is to the pernicious effect on their manners, their person, their nature, of this fatuous agitation.”
“That’s very complimentary to me!” Verena broke in, lightly.
But Ransom was carried over her interruption by the current of his argument. “There are a thousand ways in which any woman, all women, married or single, may find occupation. They may find it in making society agreeable.”
“Agreeable to men, of course.”
“To whom else, pray? Dear Miss Tarrant, what is most agreeable to women is to be agreeable to men. That is a truth as old as the human race…”

Again, all James does here is make this view more explicit than we usually experience in the 21st Century. Women belong at home, not out in positions of power and prominence. Excluding them from power doesn’t matter, because there are so many other things for them to do. History shows that what women really care about is pleasing men. And so on. I’ve heard them all. Some of them just recently in a discussion about women in religious leadership. Hey, it’s fine that they can’t serve in positions of power, because the “highest” callings (which turn out to be fairly far in the direction of “private and passive”) are open to them.

James also gets some zingers in with Verena’s speeches. On the one hand, he exaggerates the tone and “eloquence” of the style. (Really, if you have read speeches from this era, James spoofs them beautifully.) On the other, the ideas are pretty good. James plays fair, and accurately reproduces the suffrage arguments.

“Do you know how you strike me? You strike me as men who are starving to death while they have a cupboard at home, all full of bread and meat and wine; or as blind, demented beings who let themselves be cast into a debtor’s prison, while in their pocket they have the key of vaults and treasure-chests heaped up with gold and silver. The meat and wine, the gold and silver,” Verena went on, “are simply the suppressed and wasted force, the precious sovereign remedy, of which society insanely deprives itself - the genius, the intelligence, the inspiration of women. It is dying, inch by inch, in the midst of old superstitions which it invokes in vain, and yet it has the elixir of life in its hands. Let it drink but a draught, and it will bloom once more; it will be refreshed, radiant; it will find its youth again. The heart, the heart is cold, and nothing but the touch of woman can warm it, make it act. We are the Heart of humanity, and let us have the courage to insist on it! The public life of the world will move in the same barren, mechanical, vicious circle - the circle of egotism, cruelty, jealousy, greed, of blind striving to do things only for some, at the cost of others, instead of trying to do something for all. All, all? Who dares to say “all” when we are not there? We are an equal, a splendid, an inestimable part.”

Henry James was undoubtedly aware of the contributions of women and their intellects up to that time, and this speech seems particularly prophetic in the sense that once women were allowed to compete in science, the arts, leadership, and so on, they did indeed make huge contributions.

But one other thing stood out to me: the passage on the heart of humanity. Now, I am not so much of a gender essentialist as to say that women are inherently more compassionate. And if anything, my experience in family law has shown that women can be equally as cutthroat and vicious as men. But rather, I would say that in our society, virtues have been divided by gender such that compassion, empathy, cooperation, and so on, are believed to be female virtues. And because they are considered female, they are devalued in favor of the “masculine” counterparts like competition, hyperrationality, and individualism - or even the “masculine” vices like aggression, greed, lack of compassion, etc. I think this is a particular problem within conservative (and religious) groups here in the United States. It is not a coincidence that they have embraced Ransom’s view of the “feminization” of America, by which they have come to mean the contamination of radical individualism with that ooky female compassion thing. That’s one reason why I am hard pressed to think many women I know who are actually okay with, say, cutting off health care to the poor and sick and disabled. But I run across men all the time who openly favor that. And they tend to have toxic ideas about masculinity as well, because both are tied up in the idea that their worth is based on the way they can protect and provide for women. On a related note, the resistance to the social Darwinist policies of today’s Republican party has come in significant part from women. This is the symptom of considering compassion to be “feminization” rather than the heart of being a decent human being - or a Christian.

It is passages like these that form the philosophical heart of the book, the ideas which fill and dominate the narrative. The public was not particularly thrilled at the political nature of the book, and it was not a financial success for James. He would switch back to more personal and less political themes for future books. I found it interesting that both sides of the debate complained about the book. Those opposed to suffrage obviously found that James made them look provincial and regressive - and the sort of men that no woman should take up with. On the other, the suffragists were unhappy with the implication that feminism made them unmarriageable - or lesbian. Even the residents of Boston complained about how they were portrayed. Oh well, James was a bit hard on everyone, really.

There are a number of other things worth mentioning about this book. Particularly good was the portrayal of Miss Birdseye, one of the old guard feminists who truly lived her reformist beliefs. While she is an impoverished old lady at the time of the narrative, we hear about her early exploits, including smuggling bibles to slaves - an act that landed her in a Georgia prison. She preached temperance to groups of Irish, which ended with missiles, as the book puts it. She took in impoverished children, and gave of herself in every way possible. Unsurprisingly, she is the most obviously likeable character in the book. Even Ransom likes her, even if he cannot accept her views.

Another intriguing character is Mrs. Burrage, the mother of a wealthy heir who wishes to marry Verena. She disapproves of Verena’s execrable parents - the con-man father and the wife who has some blood but is gauche beyond belief. However, she is progressive enough to put aside her reservations and embrace Verena. Too bad her son is dumb and insipid, or it might have worked out.

Also interesting are the characters of Olive and Ransom. Olive is abrasive, and not the most pleasant. In particular, her hatred of men seems a bit over the top, but it does kind of make sense. There is no doubt that she is treated vastly differently than a man in her situation would be treated. She has to fight for every bit of respect she gets - and she is dismissed as an old maid (despite being quite young) because it is clear she has no intention of marrying.

One telling line about her concerns her deigning to visit Verena’s parents.

Great efforts were nothing new to her - it was a great effort to live at all - but this one appeared to her exceptionally cruel. She determined, however, to make it, promising herself that her first visit to Mrs. Tarrant should also be her last. Her only consolation was that she expected to suffer intensely; for the prospect of suffering was always, spiritually speaking, so much cash in her pocket.

Henry James can seem gentle at first, but he can twist the knife like nobody’s business when he wants.

Not that Mrs. Tarrant gets off easy.

When she talked and wished to insist, and she was always insisting, she puckered and distorted her face, with an effort to express the inexpressible, which turned out, after all, to be nothing.

I know a few people who do that.

Ransom is even more irritating, though. He has all of the entitlement of a chauvinist without the character to actually make a living. His family’s money has dwindled after the Civil War, so he has to fend for himself, which he does poorly. He seems unfocused (except when it comes to wooing Verena) and flaky. Presumably his best bet would have been to go back to his hometown and practice law there, rather than trying to break into the New York City clique. But to him the thought of “coming down in the world” by going from gentleman to mere professional in the sight of his people is too much. He must either succeed or fail out of their sight. He is perhaps the most anti-hero of any of the protagonists I have met in a James book.

Another interesting character is Mrs. Adeline Luna, Olive’s sister. She has money to burn, and has no scruples about marrying a poor but handsome man. Heck, she would be willing to let him think he was the boss, even as her economic situation enabled her to do as she pleased. I am inclined to agree with Olive’s assessment of her.

In spite of the difference in their age, Olive had long since judged her, and made up her mind that Adeline lacked every quality that a person needed to be interesting in her eyes. She was rich (or sufficiently so), she was conventional and timid, very fond of attentions from men (with whom indeed she was reputed bold, but Olive scorned such boldness as that), given up to a merely personal, egotistical, instinctive life, and as unconscious of the tendencies of the age, the revenges of the future, the new truths and the great social questions, as if she had been a mere bundle of dress-trimmings, which she very nearly was. It was perfectly observable that she had no conscience, and it irritated Olive deeply to see how much trouble a woman was spared when she was constructed on that system.

Again, brilliant. And I know far too many women (personally and professionally) who fall into this category as well. (Men fall more into the male stereotype like Ransom when they lose their consciences.) It really is easier to just lose the conscience, and substitute adherence to social norms. It saves a lot of trouble.

One more observation on the suffrage theme. A minor character is Doctor Prance, a female physician who is part of the suffragette circle, but a bit more cynical than most. In talking with Ransom, she mentions she is not as feminist as she once was. Ransom asks if that fact distressed the old guard like Miss Birdseye.

“Not much, because I am not of importance. They think women the equals of men; but they are a great deal more pleased when a man joins than when when a women does.”

I’m not sure that Doctor Prance is correct here, at least in one sense. Perhaps it isn’t that they accept that men are more important, but that in a male-dominated society, the presence of a man lends it credibility. This is, by the way, one of my wife’s pet peeves, that still, many - perhaps most - refuse to listen to what a woman says...until a man says the exact same thing, then suddenly it is important. Gah! You see the same thing when it comes to discussing race. (Interesting case in point is that only now are people considering opioids a national emergency: because middle class white people are dying of overdoses. Back when it was (perceived as) being mostly poor minorities, it wasn’t a big deal - except in the sense of “jail all the druggies!”) Something can be said for decades by people of color, and nobody wants to give it credibility until a white male says it…

I do want to say something about the style. Henry James is not the easiest to read, particularly in his later works. He has a tendency to write really long paragraphs - some I noted were more than two pages long. He has an immense vocabulary, which can either be good if (like me) you enjoy running across more obscure and precise words, or a pain, if you have to look a bunch of them up. The quotes above give a pretty good flavor of his style, which I rather like, even if it makes for slower reading - you have to savor the perfect turns of phrase.

The other thing I love about James is his use of the semicolon. I think they are underrated and underused. They too can slow things down, which is often what you want at a particular juncture; a pause that focuses attention on the next phrase.

I also should mention that I find James writes good female characters. Not always likeable female characters, but good ones. And they are by no means all the same. Sure, there are the fainting Victorian females, but they are rare, and usually more complex than that anyway. He also is genuinely sympathetic to their situations, even though he doesn’t tend to give them true love in the end.

Not everyone finds James to be as enjoyable as I do, and your mileage may vary. But I say, if you already enjoy a good psychologically complex novel, the beauty of well used language, and don’t mind a bit of wordiness, James might be for you. I’m not convinced The Bostonians is his best work, but it does have its moments.


One thing that came to me after I finished was an observation with a personal connection. Like many Christian homeschoolers of my age and younger, we were kind of like Verena. While we were young and impressionable, we were carefully groomed to be Cultural Warriors™ in the great fight against “evil” in the form of modernity. We were the generation that would change the world, that would stem the tide of feminism and multiculturalism and sex and communism and whatever the other bogeymen of the day were. And we too had con-men who had Selah Tarrant’s lack of ethics combined with Olive Chancellor’s ideological vision. Our parents may or may not have bought into it all, but there were definite expectations placed on us that we would save the world politically and culturally.

And then, we one day found ourselves grown up, having known only one side of the issues, and realizing that what we wanted out of our lives didn’t really matter. We we just pawns in that hands of those with agendas that were not really, internally, our own.

Verena finds herself in this situation, and she responds as many of us did, with a determination to break free and follow our own hearts and minds, not just regurgitate what we have been fed.

Unfortunately for Verena, the best option wasn’t really available. That would have been to get an education in an area she was interested, get a job, support herself, and have a chance to grow up and figure out who she was.

Instead, she ended stuck between a Boston Marriage, and an conventional marriage that meant giving up her very self and independence completely.

Fortunately for us in the 21st Century, there are other options, and even ways of moving past mistakes rather than being trapped in them.

The Bostonians is a cautionary tale in that sense about viewing people as resources in your ideological war. Whether or not you are in the right, you risk alienating people with that level of control and indoctrination.


Just a note on name usage: Yes, using the man’s surname and the woman’s first name is totally sexist. I did that in my review because that is what James does in the book. 19th Century convention, I imagine. It just feels too weird to go with “Basil” since nobody ever calls him that, or to use “Miss Tarrant” in speaking of her with characters who were not so formal. It would feel anachronistic to do either in this case.


One of the first things I read about Henry James was this essay in The New Yorker by James Thurber, who is always so delightfully snarky. His fears of what would happen if Hollywood or Broadway gave happy endings to the great tragedies in literature are fantastic - give it a read.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Birthday Books 2017

I don’t always blog about it, but for the most part, my birthday presents are in the form of books. Gee, I wonder why…

Anyway, I wrote a bit about some in 2012, and again last year in 2016.

Another trip around the sun, and here I am again. Here is what I got:

  1. A Literary Feast: Recipes Inspired by Novels, Poems, and Plays by Jennifer Barclay

This book was from my in-laws, and is modeled above by my second daughter, who aspires to be a professional chef. (She just made herself flan from scratch as her birthday dessert - she’s well on her way.) I have scanned through it enough to believe that the recipes were seriously intended to be legitimate and edible. (Which is a contrast to, for example, attempts to duplicate the recipes of the past, which are often impractical and, frankly, gross.) Now, whether I can actually use it myself, or whether my daughter will appropriate it for herself remains to be seen.

2.     Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans (Photography)

This classic work was published in 1941, and is a documentation of the impoverished lives of Alabama sharecroppers during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. I suspect my older daughter (who devours anything she can find about the Depression era) will be interested as well. In light of our current political situation, I suspect this book will be more relevant than ever, as it shows that hard work alone is not, and never has been, enough to enable a rise from crushing poverty. And also that structural injustice cannot be wished away or ignored. My wife found this for me, used of course.

3.     Plum Sauce: A P. G. Wodehouse Companion (edited by Richard Usborne)

I have long been a Wodehouse fan, as any reader of my blog can see. This is kind of the coffee table book version of bon mots and other stuff. Probably fun to browse a bit at a time, rather than read straight through. I am impressed that, despite being “used,” it appears unread. On the one hand, that is sad. On the other, well, I have a new book and will read it.

4.     A Clearing in the Distance by Witold Rybczynski

This is a biography of Frederick Law Olmstead, best known for designing New York City’s Central Park. He was also an early abolitionist and had a rather diverse set of interests and talents. This book looks fascinating for its subject alone. I also enjoy Rybczynski for his writing in various magazines on architecture and city design, and for his book, City Life, which is marvelous, and gave me a new perspective on how zoning and city planning can either help or exacerbate poverty.

Well that should give me some stuff to read. 


Hey, some birthday flowers. These are Lycoris squamigera, commonly known as Magic Lillies, or, more racily, Naked Ladies. They have lush green leaves during the winter, which then die back to the ground. In July or August, they send up long stems with the flowers on the end. Like magic.

These bulbs were already in the ground (although neglected) at a house I moved to when I was nine years old. I kept them watered, and have moved them from place to place since then. This year, the flowers opened on my birthday itself. 


I’ll also mention that lasagna is my favorite food. (Italian in general and I are friends…) My wife always makes me some for my birthday, despite the hard work it requires. So, let’s have a tribute to this delicious food:

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

I have read some pretty serious (and often challenging) non-fiction this year, so it was nice to take a step back and read something a bit more lighthearted. Not fluff, exactly, but something not as heavy or long.


A History of the World in 6 Glasses (Yes, it uses the numeral. No, the style guides do not approve…) isn’t anything like a true history of the world, of course. Rather, it traces the influence of six specific beverages during particular eras in the history of Western civilization.

The book is divided as follows:

First is beer, which, as the book points out, wasn’t invented, but rather discovered. Once humans learned to harvest and cook cereal grains, it was only a matter of time before something left out a bit long fermented. From there, beer became a major factor in the establishment of cities, accounting, and more. This period and beverage are associated (by the author) with the first known human civilizations: Mesopotamia. It was interesting that the first writing and the first records of beer went hand in hand. Once beer was discovered, it became subject to accounting, with the towns keeping records of how much grain people contributed, and giving them a proportional ration of beer. Later, as jobs became more specialized, the ration was specified by class, sex, and age. In what would turn out to be a constant for all the beverages in this book, beer functioned as a currency, and as a form of payment for labor.

Next is wine, which, although (like beer) discovered rather than invented long before, is truly associated with Greece and Rome. From the Greek Symposium - the gathering of freemen as equals to drink and discuss the ideas of the day - to the Roman obsession with fine wine as a status symbol and medicine, wine is intertwined with Greco-Roman society in a way that beer was not. (And beer was for the plebes, not the aristocracy, at first. Later, as prices fell, it became more universal.) While Greece and Rome do fit this vision, I do have to mention the strong role that wine played in the history of Israel too: between sheep and wine, you have most of the great metaphors of the old testament. Another fascinating book that focuses on that part of history, I recommend Divine Vintage. I found the history in this section particularly fascinating, as those elements of Greco-Roman culture are usually a sideline in other discussions.

The third is that of distilled spirits. Ironically, the first four of these beverages originated in the Middle East. Although Islam generally rejected the use of alcohol (although that is, shall we say, complicated, as the book points out…), it was Arabic alchemists that can be said to have invented the distillation of alcohol. (In fact, “alcohol,” like “algebra,” is an Arabic word. Alcohol meant a distillate of any sort - ethanol is “alcohol of wine.”) Originally used in chemical reactions, distilled alcohol also found a use as a solvent and as a base for medicinal preparations. It also turned out to be both tasty and an effective means of intoxication.

The author, however, doesn’t look at the early history of distillation as the era associated with hard liquor. Rather, he ties it to the Colonialist period. There are several excellent reasons for this. First, because hard liquor is easier to preserve - and transport - it made for an excellent shipboard form of booze. Most famous, of course, is the ration of Grog given to British sailors. This mixture of rum and lemon or lime juice turned out to be the cure for scurvy, and helped the British Navy become the dominant water power of its time.

However, there is also a seriously dark side to this. Rum is made from molasses, a byproduct of sugar production. Sugar was then produced largely in the Caribbean, on plantations dependent on slave labor. This led to an unholy triangle. The Caribbean sent molasses to the American colonies (particularly New England), who then made it into rum, which they then sent to Africa, where it was used to purchase slaves, which were then sent to the Caribbean (and the southern colonies too.) By the mid 1700s, rum production accounted for no less than 80% of New England’s exports, and formed the largest industry in its economy. So New England certainly can’t claim innocence when it comes to blame for slavery. Actually, come to think of it, New England was kind of like the Columbia of its time, supporting itself in significant part on selling intoxicating drugs...just saying.

The fourth drink also originated in the Middle East, which initially made it suspicious to Europeans. It had the advantage of being a stimulant, rather than an intoxicant, which made it acceptable under Islamic law. But this advantage also meant that it was the perfect drink for the Age of Enlightenment. Just as wine lubricated the Greek symposium, coffee was the perfect drink for the European coffeehouse, where political ideas were discussed, and culture bloomed. No less a character (and revolutionary) than Jonathan Swift said he was “not yet convinced that any access to men in power gives a man more Truth or Light than the Politicks of a Coffee House.” Naturally, those men in power were deeply distrustful of these dens of dissent. While English coffee houses were important, their role in France and the French Revolution was crucial. It is unlikely that the ideas would have spread as they did without them. I found particularly interesting that one significant problem in France before the revolution was the exemption of the ultra-wealthy and the Church from taxation. We are still fighting over that question today, with the actual tax burden (once you factor in all taxes, not just income tax) falling heavily on the lower and middle classes, and most loopholes benefiting the most wealthy.

Coffee eventually spread around Europe and to the Americas as well, but while it was popular in England initially, it would be supplanted by the fifth drink: Tea.

It is unsurprising that tea would be associated with the British Empire. However, it is important to note that tea more properly belongs to the civilizations of China and Japan (and even India) than it does to Britain. However, given the book’s focus on Western history, and the important role that tea did play in the Empire, the choice is defensible. I did want to mention the glossing over of the role tea played in the eastern world. To the author’s credit, he did give some important background information on the history of tea.

The Opium Wars naturally enter the book here, as the export of opium was necessary (at least it seemed at the time) to balance out the trade deficit with China. Hey, that’s two cases already where the Anglo-Americans sold drugs to other countries....

One additional interesting tidbit in this section is that each of the first five beverages were at some point restricted in access to exclude women. Beer was originally for male rulers, only later being issued to women and children. Wine was for men - wealthy men originally - and only later for women. It wasn’t until recently that women could drink whisky in public without risking their reputation. Coffee was believed to harm women more than men - and most of the coffeehouses were, naturally, men only. Tea too was originally off limits to women. The tea houses were male only, and women could not purchase tea themselves, but had to send a male servant to do so. This state of affairs didn’t survive the Feminist movement, however, and women eventually came to be important and influential consumers of tea.

Also fascinating is the history of the East India Company, perhaps the most dominant corporation of all time, wielding tremendous political power. At one time, its taxes accounted for an astounding 10% of all revenue to the British government. It is not at all surprising, therefore, that it pretty much got its way. Except in the case of those pesky American colonists who had the audacity to rebel and start a war and all. (My wife has an ancestor who threw tea in Boston Harbor, for what that is worth.) The whole sordid history is a good lesson on why it isn’t a good thing when corporations control government.

The final beverage is Coca-Cola, which is (surprise!) associated with 20th Century American Consumerism. And really, it is still the world’s most recognizable brand, and the one thing you can find pretty much everywhere in the world.

The history of the beverage is pretty fun, of course. It was originally a “patent medicine” during the heyday of unregulated snake oil remedies. And it contained cocaine, as did plenty of “medicines” - including those marketed for children. (Yep, and heroine and morphine too…) It was the combination of the remedy with chilled soda water and a brilliant shift in marketing from a cure to a refreshment that gave it the boost it needed to succeed.

It also came at a crucial junction in a uniquely American history. The Temperance movement was gaining steam, and there was a lot of political pressure to suppress the saloons and alcohol consumption. Coca-Cola was perceived as a culturally acceptable alternative; and the soda fountain at the drugstore a wholesome counterpart to the dark and sordid bar. The rest is history.

Well, there were a few hiccups. For example, the lawsuit filed by the US Government, claiming Coke was harmful to children, and should be restricted. Unsurprisingly to any student of American history, the government pearl clutching was joined by the religious fundamentalists, who claimed that (and you must have known this was coming…) the caffeine in Coke promoted illicit sexual activity.

There were some intriguing sections on the partnership of the US military and Coca-Cola in spreading Coke around the world. It certainly was a comfort to the servicemen and women, and endured more than, say, cigarettes. On the one hand, it is kind of an uncomfortable form of cultural imperialism. But on the other, Coke is pretty benign as far as things go. Certainly less so than production of, say, coffee, sugar, or bananas. In any event, I am not really a soda sort of person. It’s a rare treat, but not something I would bother with in France or England.

In fact, Coke is really the only one of the six drinks that I do not consume with some regularity. More than anything, that is because sugar and my body do not play well together, and I feel better when I limit my intake. And, I was born too late for the heyday of American consumer culture, I’m afraid. My generation really pioneered the more globalist and eclectic consumerism, partaking more of traditions from around the world than from the most recognizable American brands.

One more fun factoid from this book that doesn’t really fit elsewhere. In the first century BCE, there was a whole industry devoted to “universal antidotes,” preparations of wine and herbs and chemicals that would (allegedly) give immunity to poisons. In the legend, King Mithradates was given such a mixture by Galen himself, with the result that he became immune to all known poisons. This proved to be a disadvantage, however, when his son overthrew and imprisoned him. The logical solution at the time was suicide, rather than disgrace. But how? He eventually had to bribe a guard to stab him to death.

This book is fun rather than academic, to be sure. That said, the information is accurate and supported by primary sources, from what I can determine. It is intended to give an amusing yet informative account of the role of these important beverages in history. Perhaps the most important point is that each in its own way has been a weapon against tainted water, from the boiling of beer and coffee, to the natural antiseptic qualities of wine, tea, and liquor, to the sterile preparation methods of Coca-Cola. Access to each has had health benefits in that sense, from allowing humans to live in close proximity without dying of dysentery, to being a reliably germ-free liquid on the battlefield.

Standish mixes a good combination of science, history, and sociology with an intriguing narrative. Hard to beat that for a light summer non-fiction read.