Why This Radical History Of …

Last month, Verso Books published The Common Wind, a radical work by the historian Julius Scott that shows how enslaved people in the Caribbean in the late 18th and early 19th century were able to communicate with each other, exchanging knowledge that helped them resist, revolt, and even escape.

In academia, The Common Wind is the book of the moment. But Scott actually finished it, as his PhD dissertation, in 1986.

Back then, Dr. Scott was a graduate student at Duke University. The Common Wind was his magnum opus, a subaltern tale that occupied a then-burgeoning space in historical writing – a “history from below” that focuses on the disenfranchised rather than the powerful. Specifically, it details how underground communication networks helped bring about the Haitian Revolution of the 1790s, a rebellion in which enslaved people rose up against the French who had colonized their island as a stop in the Atlantic sugar trade. The revolt was successful, ultimately making Haiti the first country to be founded by formerly enslaved people.

“What I really tried to do was set the broad context for trying to understand that within this world, which was based on the ultimate in human un-freedom, there were a lot of little specks where people tried to establish for themselves a little bit more mobility, and sometimes were able to grasp some freedom.” said Dr. Scott.

When PhD students earn their degree, the next step is often to find a publisher for their dissertation, the book-length culmination of doctoral research. Dr. Scott, however, took a different route. Despite some early publishing offers, he instead devoted his energies to teaching (he now lectures at the University of Michigan) while The Common Wind sat unpublished for decades.

Meanwhile, the work’s legend grew, passed around academic circles and cited hundreds of times. One early reader was historian and professor Marcus Rediker, who recommended the book to Verso Press for publication, and wrote the foreword to the version published in November. “The fugitive existence of this book is, I think, almost uncanny for its resemblance to the fugitive existence of the underground that spread the news of the Haitian Revolution, which the book describes,” said Dr. Rediker.

“I really didn’t quite understand for a long time how much my dissertation was having an impact and an influence,” Dr. Scott said. “I saw people would cite it. Books came out where people acknowledged the impact my dissertation had had on the way they thought. It was all kind of a big shock to me.”

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