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TAC Bookshelf: Those Communitarian Northumbrians

Here’s what our writers and editors are reading this week.

Daniel Larison, senior editor: The Northumbrians: North East England and Its People is a fascinating study of the character and history of the people who have lived in the old counties of Durham and Northumberland. Author Dan Jackson traces the particular social and cultural habits that set the region apart, and seeks to show how a distinctive regional identity has been created and reinforced over the centuries. This is a thematic survey of Northumbrian history and not a straight chronological narrative.

One chapter explains how the Northumbrians have been shaped by the major industries that once dominated the economic life there with a focus on the influence of mining on social and political life. There is a tradition of strong communitarianism that has grown out of that experience. He refers to the “kibbutzim-like quality of pit villages,” and traces this to earlier patterns of settlement that grew out of the experience of the border wars with Scotland. That also produced a culture of sociability and friendliness. There are some unusual and surprising details that crop up in the book. For instance, Jackson tells us how Yevgeni Zamyatin, the author of the dystopian novel We, supervised the construction of icebreakers destined for Russia during World War I and likely drew inspiration for his book from the regimentation and organization of the Tyneside shipyards.

Jackson points to the martial traditions of the region as another major influence on regional identity. He recounts that Northumbrians were among the most likely to volunteer for Britain’s wars and were among the most formidable soldiers in both world wars. The region’s industries also produced Britain’s wartime arsenal, and Tyneside shipyards were responsible for building much of the modern British navy and the fleets of other countries as well.

Jackson emphasizes the importance of learning in Northumbrian society. Newcastle was an important publishing center from early on, and it had a profusion of periodicals and newspapers starting in the early 18th century. Jackson writes without exaggeration about a Northumbrian Enlightenment that led to many of the practical inventions that in turn contributed to the region’s industrial success. He traces this interest in learning back through the ecclesiastical center of Durham and its County Palatine, which gave the bishopric considerable power and patronage, and all the way back to the work of Bede.

The Northumbrians is an outstanding work of regional history, and will leave you with a much better understanding of this part of England.

Scott Beauchamp, contributor: Roberto Calasso fans (I know you’re out there) were excited to learn that another in Calasso’s cycle of books exploring what might be called the metaphysics of aesthetics and aesthetics of metaphysics will be published in the spring. In a celebratory spirit, I picked up the lone Calasso book I had yet to read, La folie Baudelaire. A folie is a “garden pavilion set aside for people of leisure, a place of delight and fantasy.” In this work, Calasso explores the delights (few) and fantasies (many) of Baudelaire by using his still cutting-edge perceptions as a guide to the painters Ingres, Delacroix, Degas, and Manet. The Calasso work this book most resembles would have to be Tiepolo Pink, for obvious reasons, except the entire thing is inflected with Baudelaire’s phantasmagoric clarity. A highlight so far is an account of one of Baudelaire’s dreams, about a general condemned to execution killing his own horse as a substitution, unwittingly articulating the logic of the Vedic Horse Ritual. That’s the kind of stuff you get with Calasso.

Another book that I’ve only just picked up and still have yet to open (hopefully I will have by the time you see this, gentle reader) is Ted V. McAllister’s Revolt Against Modernity: Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, & the Search for a Postliberal Order. I’m more familiar with Voegelin than Strauss, but hopefully this book will remedy that. I also need something to balance out the Italian Renaissance political writing that I’ve been reading lately for work. Petrarch is great for psychology but you have to go to Voegelin for consciousness.