I've been thinking a lot of late about opening lines. This is largely because I'm getting to the end game with University, Court, and Slave. Err, at the the beginning of the end game anyway -- there's still a lot of revising to go and the concluding chapter (on public constitutional arguments about secession) needs a lot of work. I'll be testing the final chapter at the University of Florida in March and will be talking about this a bunch over the next few weeks.
Long before I get to the end, I have to finish the beginning. And so I've been thinking on three of my favorite openings to books. The first is Marshall Sahlins' line in his much-discussed book, How Natives Think: About Captain Cook, For Instance: "Heinrich Zimmerman heard it directly from the Hawaiians: Cook was Lono." That captures Sahlins' key theme -- that Captain Cook was believed by the native Hawaiians to be a god. Little bit of backstory here from an essay I published a few years back on Hawaiian property law:
Sahlins was engaged in a debate with Princeton anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere over whether native Hawaiians actually thought that Captain Cook was Lono, a god of the new year—or whether that was merely how westerners thought natives thought. The question whether natives believed Cook was a god has implications for our understanding of how natives thought. Obeyesekere opened the debate with a challenge to Sahlins: that Sahlins’ argument that natives believed Cook was a god indicated Sahlins’ adoption of a western viewpoint. The western viewpoint,in Obeyesekere’s opinion, was that natives would think some westerner was god. In fact, westerners since the time of Columbus had told themselves that natives believed them to be gods. Sahlins responded that Obeyesekere imposed his own set of values on the natives about what is rational. And so Sahlins turns what was an attack on him for imposing western values (what one might phrase as “of course, the unsophisticated natives must have thought that Cook was Lono”) into a claim that he respected natives’ ideas more than Obeyesekere (maybe some in the west think it’s irrational for natives to think that Cook was Lono, but it made sense within their world). The exchange is complex and an engaging read, in part for Sahlins’ sparkling prose. The first line of the book captures the essence of the argument.
Similarly, Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice's Report, begins with a very elegant line: "Let us begin with a clock." The clock, which now sits in a meeting room at Brown University was once on a ship that carried enslaved human beings to the new world.
There are longer openings, too. One of my favorites is Anthony F.C. Wallace's Rockdale. The book, published in 1972, is a great example of blending social history, based often on quantitative sources, with ideology.
There is a village in American called Rockdale where the people used to manufacture cotton cloth. It lies along the banks of Chester Creek in Delaware County, in southeastern Pennsylvania, between Philadelphia and Wilmington. None of the people who worked in the first cotton mills is alive anymore, but some of their children's children still live there, and the ruins of stone factories, as well as stone tenements and fine stone mansions, are yet standing. Nearby are remains of the other hamlets that made up the Rockdale manufacturing district--Lenni, Parkmount, West Branch, Crozerville, Glen Riddle, and Knowlton--where cotton yarn was spun on mules and throstles and cloth was woven on looms powered by water wheels. ...
As I leave my house on the outskirts of the village, drive the car along the roads, stroll along the paths in the cemetery at Calvary Church, I sometimes fell that I can almost reach out and touch the people I have come to know from their letters and diaries and ledgers, that they are near, behind a thin veil of time. It was just yesterday, just down the road. And it was so far away, so long ago ... In a certain mood of elegiacal sentimentality I can see old Rockdale glimmering through a golden haze, where the spinster Sunday School teacher Clementina Smith and her sister Harriet ar still sweetly instructing the mill hands int he elements of Christian faith, and the nervous manufacturer John P. Crozer still sweats over preparing a repor to the Board of Directors of the Delaware County National Bank, and John S. Phillips, that clever mechanicians, still drives his horse Mazeppa in a Byronic fury donw the hills and over the bridges to court the Du Pont girls on the Brandywine, fifteen miles away.
Every time I read those words again, I recall that it's one of my great regrets in life that I didn't take a class with him when I was in college. Too soon old; too late wise. But I do plan on making a trip by Rockdale next time I'm visiting Filler in Wallingford, because it's just down the road. I began to investigate this last summer and I think there's some high-end housing there now -- no surprise in that.
And then there's another model, which I am surprised to see only rarely used in serious history, where the story is told in simple terms (using pictures!) right up front. The best example I know of this is Rhys Isaac's Pulitzer Prize winning The Transformation of Virginia. (It just dawned on me this morning as I was talking about this that Isaac published his book just four years after Horwitz' Transformation of American Law. Lots of transformations were in the air in the late 1970s and early 1980s, apparently.) Isaac opens the book with a short graphic section with elegant and simple prose that describes his thesis. Actually, I think there are only about ten paragraphs to the entire opening, but they're spread over about twenty pages of photographs, so it seems like a lot longer. Here're three pages from the introduction to The Transformation of Virginia, which give you a sense of what Isaac was doing.