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.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • Start your week with a dose of Russian Revolutionary zeal. Donald Rayfield reviews Tobie Mathew's 'Greetings From t… ,
    • A treat from the LR Archive: exactly 20 years ago, Malcolm Bradbury reviewed John Updike's 'Bech at Bay' ,
    • ‘When bullets come close, the noise they make as they go past changes from a zing to a crack’ John Lanchester's dy… ,
    • Man with a Bloody Paintbrush: Robin Simon on Lucian Freud ,
    • Jane Ridley reviews The Diaries of Kenneth Rose (ed. D R Thorpe) ,
    • ‘Look,’ says Trump. ‘The fact is I’m only human.’ On the evidence of this book that point is debatable. From the A… ,
    • From our December/January issue - here's John Banville's review of Colm Tóibín on the fathers of Wilde, Yeats and J… ,