Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America by Eric Jay Dolin - review by Frank McLynn

Frank McLynn

Full Pelt History

Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America

By

W W Norton & Co 442pp £22.99 order from our bookshop
 

If drama is life with the boring bits left out, there is a kind of popular history, increasingly in vogue, which consists of edited highlights of the past. Eric Jay Dolin’s book is a perfect example of the genre. I estimate that a comprehensive history of the American fur trade, including all its diplomatic and ethnographic nuances, could not be achieved in fewer than 1,000 pages. To take just one example, there is a bitterly contested anthropological debate in academe between formalists and substantivists about what the notion of ‘market’ meant to North American Indians and other primitive peoples. John C Phillips, J W Smurr, E E Rich, Karl Polanyi and Abraham Rotstein are just some of those who have written on this subject, yet none of them is cited in Dolin’s bibliography. Dolin’s approach, market-driven in another sense, is to eschew all this in favour of what is essentially a series of mini-biographies of Peter Stuyvesant, Captain Cook, La Pérouse, Mackenzie, Jefferson, John Jacob Astor, Jedediah Smith, Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, and so on. In other words Dolin, a biologist by training, is a storyteller above all. His propensity for the pacy ‘trailer’ approach to history makes him a lightweight historian but a first-rate anecdotalist, and it is at this level that his fast-moving narrative should be approached.

One of the attractive things about Dolin’s book is the way the author spends time on the natural history of the creatures – principally the beaver and the otter – that were hunted for their fur in North America. With this biological basis – which most historians would

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