POX AMERICANA: Interesting, readable, flawed history
May 21, 2002
Pros: An engaging thesis
Cons: An engaging thesis
The Bottom Line: Recommended for only a very narrow audience, or very bored persons.
Pox Americana is not good popular or social history, or scholarly history, and ergo unfortunately not a very good book.
Those of you who know me as a curmudgeon should note that it isn't a bad book, and I don't really like saying it isn't very good.
I hate introductions, and usually don't read them until I've read the book itself -- they are either irrelevant -- I would like to thank my dear wife for keeping me fed during the long hours I worked on this manuscript -- patronizing -- Few people know that consumption took Keats' life at 25 -- or worse -- If you are not familiar with the cartoon works of Charles M. 'Sparky' Schulz, you're in for a treat! Fenn's foreword is thankfully brief, though riddled with thank-yous.
And it's unnecessary by the time you've finished the book, since it only serves to confirm what was an uneasy feeling that you had during the first chapter and a full-blown certainty by the end of the book: you have been conned into reading what is more or less somebody's recycled schoolwork. Outside of Seven Types of Ambiguity, I can't think of any thesis-turned-book that really should have made that transition.
The only part of the introduction that may be interesting is the curious side note that Fenn interrupted her studies for a good number of years while pursuing a career as an auto mechanic. If you think you have disparate interests, try to find two of your own that are farther apart than "smallpox and its influence on the American Revolution" and "auto mechanics." An interesting mind, at any rate.
. . .
The shortcomings of Pox Americana are not entirely Elizabeth Fenn's fault -- okay, maybe the stupid name, shameless timing of publication (it is not of interest to 11-Sept-2001 addicts, though this isn't immediately obvious), bad maps, and a few other things are, but the topic(s) are mostly to blame.
'Smallpox greatly influenced U.S. history' seems to be the thesis, which isn't really proved or analysed anywhere. The book does very little to support her contention that smallpox greatly affected the outcome of the war -- it provides much fodder for conjecture, but analysis is lacking. Another purported point of the book seems to be 'smallpox in the Americas has been understudied.' This is better proved, and it is solely as an inquiry into 18th-century smallpox outbreaks in the Americas that Pox Americana excels.
'Excels' should be taken with grain of salt. Her maps are too few, poorly done, and poorly reproduced. A ridiculous near-80-page pile of endnotes does very little for the average reader, other than to further reinforce the sense of having been ripped off one encounters when reading other people's school assignments. She does have an interesting tone which saves the book and keeps it readable, but it suffers from shoddy editing: repetitions and other distractions should be excised from future editions.
What I don't have any answer for is how this book remained engaging during endless continent-wide chases for outbreaks and routes of transmission, and I congratulate Fenn for doing as well as she did with a topic that seems too broad, too sloppy, for one book. I found the chapters on Mexico and Canada interesting, but anybody looking for information on the American Revolution will undoubtedly find the historical tidbits on the Hudson's Bay Company (www.hbc.com...) dull. Smallpox does wander and excursions to Mexico City and the Canadian shield do seem necessary, as much as they distract from the U.S. focus of the subject at hand. This is what I meant by the topic being to blame for shortcomings -- it's just too unwieldy.
What I found missing was a good description of smallpox. This is because I like disgusting, foul things, and because a few things are hard to understand without a clearer understanding of smallpox. Much attention is paid to the practice of inoculation -- a rather gruesome process of nicking in to the skin of the healthy and introducing smallpox -- which is hard for the contemporary reader to understand. The idea, it seems, was to obtain immunity by going through the disease voluntarily, but how this reduced mortality isn't really explained. It looks and sounds like a dreadful disease, and it's hard to understand how anyone would submit to it voluntarily -- all the more confusing given that the wealthy were, at times in various places, the most likely to undergo inoculation. And didn't a bout of the milder cowpox provide immunity to smallpox? Discussion of the disease itself is kept to a minimum, and there is nearly no mention of other maladies of the age or other eras of widespread, history-making disease.
Suggested for disease freaks, people who have picked it up cheap second-hand, and those with no time to browse in the airport bookstore.
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