Looking at History Through the Deadly Conflicts Over Territory


How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World
By Simon Winchester

We don’t talk much about land reform these days, but after reading Simon Winchester’s “Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World,” I am wondering whether we should. In the United States, Winchester points out, “the top 100” landowners, taken together, own “as much land as the entire state of Florida.” Nor is this exclusively the result of the dead hand of the past. As Winchester explains, “Since 2007 the amount of American land owned by these wealthy 100 has increased by 50 percent, and is showing no signs of slowing down.”

Winchester clearly sees this as a problem, but his book is not a polemic, as much as one might sometimes wish it were. Like a lot of journalists-turned-historians, Winchester is a quick study, and there is an astounding amount of information in “Land,” much of it revealing, although it can also feel somewhat random. As he roams his seemingly boundless terrain, Winchester provides us with set piece after set piece. And yet, despite the epic continents-and-centuries scale he tries to take on, his approach at its best is often miniaturist, as it has been with perhaps greater success in some of his previous books, most notably “The Professor and the Madman,” which tells the singular story of a murderer who was crucial to the development of the Oxford English Dictionary.

[ “Land” was one of our most anticipated titles of January. See the full list. ]

Winchester opens his new book with his own purchase of 123 acres of forested land in Dutchess County, N.Y., but goes on to tell us about Stalin’s murderous collectivization in Ukraine, the depredations of the midcentury British government officials who blithely drew maps of the Indian subcontinent that proved to be deadly, Maori campaigners who sought to reclaim the land that had been taken from them by settlers in New Zealand, the forced displacement of Scottish crofters by the preindustrial enclosure movement and much, much more.

Winchester likes to move around as a kind of raconteur. He will often illustrate a larger phenomenon — the fate of interned Japanese-Americans, for example — with one particular story, in this case the tale of a strawberry farmer named Akira Aramaki. Aramaki returns from internment to find that the neighbor he’d entrusted with his farm has no intention of giving it back. Aramaki does eventually reclaim his land, only to change his mind and become a real estate agent. Interesting enough, but as far as the book goes, Aramaki is really there so Winchester can tell us about the larger historical currents that swept around Aramaki and made his life what it was. After a while, this can get annoying, because most if not all of the people in the book end up becoming symbols, and we can never really grasp how they all interconnect. Personalizing history can sometimes make it more remote, not less.

You can’t help learning a lot from a well-researched book like this, though some of the material may be familiar from other accounts. To give one example, Winchester’s description of Stalin’s slaughter in Ukraine can be affecting, but if you really want to know what happened there, you would be better off reading Anne Applebaum or Robert Conquest.

And despite Winchester’s evident sympathy toward dispossessed Native Americans, which serves as a kind of leitmotif throughout “Land,” there are too many sentences that could have come out of a high school textbook, like this one: “They were, in short, a sophisticated and civilized people — and though many Americans today believe there to be precious few Natives remaining in the country, there are in fact some 500 tribes remaining and officially recognized today.” Winchester can also, in his zeal for arguing that Native Americans have a nobler conception of the land than the men who deprived them of it, sound inadvertently condescending: “In the United States too, representations of the true value of land — of its spiritual value, well beyond its mere monetary worth — can be found occasionally in public declarations of Native Americans.”

Without a real thesis or overarching theme driving it, “Land” does not quite come together. It can often be hard to discern why the reader is being told a particular story. Sometimes, though, it is when Winchester is at his least colorful and most reportorial that the connections he is trying to make between the past and the present come through vividly. Late in the book, for example, Winchester notes that “the disparity between the amount of land owned today by Blacks and by whites — the average Black household holding assets of no more than 8 percent of those owned by the median white household, land being a central component of those assets — is an enduring legacy that contributes to the country’s racial disharmony.” Here the nasty contemporary effects of historical dispossession are at their clearest.

When he was writing “Land,” Winchester could not have known that a fresh plague would circumnavigate the globe, but the course of the disease in the United States has proved him right. Dispossession is itself a risk factor for dying of Covid-19. The same Native American, African-American and Hispanic-American communities that have never had their fair share of the land are suffering cruelly disproportionate infection and death rates from Covid-19. There are many reasons for this, but if we want to reform the society that made this devastating difference in death rates an inevitability, we would be smart to use the tool of land reform that Winchester helps us see is still a necessity.

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