From 1868–1872, German geologist Ferdinand von Richthofen went on an expedition to China. His reports on what he found there would transform Western interest in China from the land of porcelain and tea to a repository of immense coal reserves. By the 1890s, European and American powers and the Qing state and local elites battled for control over the rights to these valuable mineral deposits. As coal went from a useful commodity to the essential fuel of industrialization, this vast natural resource would prove integral to the struggle for political control of China.
In Empires of Coal, Shellen Xiao Wu argues that the changes specific to the late Qing were part of global trends in the nineteenth century, when the rise of science and industrialization destabilized global systems and caused widespread unrest and the toppling of ruling regimes around the world.
Steve Ash’s most recent book is A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot That Shook the Nation One Year after the Civil War (2013). It is the first book-length study of the horrific, three-day-long Memphis riot of 1866, in which rampaging white mobs murdered 46 black men, women, and children; assaulted, robbed, and raped many others; and burned down every black church and school in the city along with many dwellings. One of the most sensational events of the post–Civil War era, the riot spurred Congress to take action to protect the South’s ex-slaves and helped launch Radical Reconstruction.
In spring 2013, Ernest Freeberg published The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America, a history of the social and cultural impact of electric light. The Washington Post has called the book “a captivating intellectual adventure that offers long-forgotten stories of the birth pangs of the electrical age that are amusing, surprising, and tragic.” Freeberg has been sharing his findings with audiences across the country, including appearances on National Public Radio and C-Span.
Luke Harlow’s Religion, Race, and the Making of Confederate Kentucky, 1830-1880 (2014) shows the influential role of debates over Christian “orthodoxy” in the shaping of American political debates over slavery and abolition. Focusing on the border slave state of Kentucky, which claimed a longstanding antislavery presence and remained with the Union during the Civil War, Harlow explains how theological conservatism compelled the majority of the state’s whites to embrace the Confederate cause after the fact. In so doing, the book shows both the potential and limitations of public discourse about race and slavery throughout the United States before, during, and after the Civil War. Harlow spoke with fellow UTK history professor Monica Black about the book for the New Books in History podcast.
In Bloody Breathitt: Politics and Violence in the Appalachian South (2013), Robert Hutton offers an account of the intersection of power and brutality between the Civil War and the Progressive era in one tumultuous community. In the late 1800s, Breathitt County, Kentucky, seemed the quintessential “feud” locale, a remote mountain anomaly bereft of New South progress. In fact, Breathitt County’s violent history reflected events far beyond its borders. “Feud,” and all it entailed, was only one of many deceptive names for killing that continue to distort the causes of violent death all over the globe.
Laura Nenzi is the author of The Chaos and Cosmos of Kurosawa Tokiko: the story of a self-described “base-born nobody” who tried to change the course of Japanese history. Kurosawa Tokiko (1806–1890), a commoner from rural Mito domain, was a poet, teacher, oracle, and political activist. In 1859 she embraced the xenophobic loyalist faction (known for the motto “revere the emperor, expel the barbarians”) and traveled to Kyoto to denounce the shogun’s policies before the emperor. She was arrested, taken to Edo’s infamous Tenmachō prison, and sentenced to banishment. In her later years, having crossed the Tokugawa-Meiji divide, Tokiko became an elementary school teacher and experienced firsthand the modernizing policies of the new government. After her death she was honored with court rank for her devotion to the loyalist cause.
Robert (Jeff) Norrell has published a novel, Eden Rise (2013), in which Tom McKee, a white college freshman, returns to his Alabama home in 1965 and becomes embroiled in civil-rights conflict that splits his family, his town, and his own identity. McKee’s powerful family is not prepared for the effects of the Selma march. John Gregory Brown, writer-in-residence at Sweetbriar College, says Eden Rise “offers a dramatic and beautifully written examination of racial injustice and violence in the South during the tumultuous 1960s” and that Norrell “demonstrates that he’s not merely a profoundly insightful historian, he’s a first-class novelist as well.”
Denise Phillips is the author of Acolytes of Nature: Defining Natural Science in Germany, 1770–1850 (2012). Phillips’s book offers a history of the concept “science” within German-speaking Europe, exploring how changes in German culture and society affected ideas about scientific knowledge. The Germans started using a modern concept of science several decades in advance of other European nations, and Phillips’s research explains the reasons for their precocious adoption of this category.
In Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse (2011), Jay Rubenstein retells the story of the First Crusade in a way that draws forth the apocalyptic motivations and beliefs that underlay the unprecedented brutal battles that it spawned. In 1096, tens of thousands of warriors from France, Germany, and Italy, marched east with the goal of reclaiming the city of Jerusalem for Christendom. Their mission, later known as the First Crusade, reached its culmination four years later and in the process inaugurated a new kind of warfare: holy, unrestrained, and apocalyptic.
Charles Sanft’s new book Communication and Cooperation in Early Imperial China: Publicizing the Qin Dynasty (2014) challenges longstanding notions of the Qin dynasty, China’s first imperial rulers. Historians have long portrayed the Qin as epitomizing totalitarian government. Communication and Cooperation synthesizes received accounts and new information from archaeology in China with interdisciplinary theory to provide a reconsideration of this key period in China’s history. It shows that rather than ruling solely or even primarily through oppression, the Qin had a sophisticated approach to rule that incorporated significant non-coercive elements.