Alfred Crosby interviewed

1 minute read

Last week I linked to an article about the dispersal of the potato (“How the Potato Changed the World”). Smithsonian also has an interview with Alfred Crosby, the historian who coined the term, “Columbian Exchange”:

When you wrote The Columbian Exchange, this was a new ideatelling history from an ecological perspective. Why hadnt this approach been taken before?
Sometimes the more obvious a thing is the more difficult it is to see it. I am 80 years old, and for the first 40 or 50 years of my life, the Columbian Exchange simply didnt figure into history courses even at the finest universities. We were thinking politically and ideologically, but very rarely were historians thinking ecologically, biologically.

To me, this was the most interesting part:

I had a great deal of trouble getting it published. Now, the ideas are not particularly startling anymore, but they were at the time. Publisher after publisher read it, and it didnt make a significant impression. Finally, I said, the hell with this. I gave it up. And a little publisher in New England wrote me and asked me if I would let them have a try at it, which I did. It came out in 1972, and it has been in print ever since. It has really caused a stir.

To me, Crosby’s work marks a trend in which anthropology and archaeology were damaged by changing academic fashion. In Kroeber’s time, quantitative study of the material things and their appearance in history was a central part of cultural anthropology and archaeology. Cases like the origin of the fire drill and the spread of the potato were the essential subject matter of a debate between diffusionist and evolutionist theories of culture change. Such cases mattered to anthropologists. By the 1960’s, they mattered not so much.

Historical economists and historians took up the subject. Today we are much more likely to see a “history of everyday things” written by a historian, and a popular work of “ecological history” is rather more likely than a popular work in ethnobotany.