This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the review‘s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our email newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.
Food fuels empire, as the historian Daniel Immerwahr makes clear in his review of Scott Reynolds Nelson’s Oceans of Grain in the July 21, 2022, issue of the magazine. “Cheap, easy-to-transport calories can feed cities, but they can also feed armies,” he writes. The story of wheat is the story of clashing world powers, from Russia’s ascendance as a grain exporter in the nineteenth century to the Soviet Union’s calamitous famines and the United States’ rise as one of the world’s breadbaskets. This conflict has worryingly re-emerged as Russia seeks to control Ukraine’s fields in order to cement its dominance in the wheat market.
Immerwahr, a professor of twentieth-century American history at Northwestern University, has written two books about the US’s exploits abroad: a critical account of American developmental aid and a history of the overseas territories under US control, which was selected by The New York Times as one of its Critic’s Top Books of 2019. He has published essays and book reviews in the teams, The New Republicand The Guardian on topics ranging from Marvel movies to the history of wood, though he often connects his subjects back to the US empire—a capacious subject.
Willa Glickman: What drew you to study US empire?
Daniel Immerwahr: If you grow up in the United States, like I did, at a certain point you notice how the world seems quietly arranged in your favor. People around the planet speak your language, use your currency, know your music, and play your sports—even if you find their unfamiliar and incomprehensible ways. It’s hard not to wonder about that.
Have you encountered particular difficulties in researching a transnational subject?
The hard part is obvious: you have to understand multiple places. But there’s an upside. Many of the phenomena we care most about—the economy, the environment, the flow of ideas—don’t obligingly stay within national borders. It’s actually harder to comprehend them if you look at only one country. Oceans of Grain is a terrific example. Scott Reynolds Nelson shows that you have to understand the international competition to feed Western Europe if you want to understand why the US economy took off as it did in the late nineteenth century. You need Ukraine in view to make sense of the American Midwest.
You’ve written about both dune and Star Wars in relationship to imperialism—are you a science fiction fan? Does sci-fi seem to reflect our cultural consciousness around empire in a unique way?
I’m not much of a sci-fi fan, certainly not of Star Wars or dune. But popular novels and movies—especially the ones that command enormous or enduring audiences—are windows onto a culture. The texts that “feel right” or “make sense” to people do so because they affirm deep-seated assumptions. Sci-fi is particularly interesting in this regard because it’s so often about weighty political themes: civilizations clashing, wars, transformative technologies, the colonization of new environments. It gives a historian of empire a lot to work with.
In your review, you mention that Nelson’s book is one among many recent commodity histories. What are some strengths and weaknesses of the genre? Are there any commodities you would be particularly interested in reading about?
There’s always a danger that commodity stories will be gimmicky and reductive. They place a lot of weight onto the shoulders of a single substance. Was US slavery all about cotton? Kind of, but don’t forget tobacco, rice, and turpentine—or nonagricultural tasks like repairing buildings and raising children. Surely there were social and cultural reasons why some people held others in captivity, too, reasons that went beyond the economics of forced labor. Commodity histories encourages you to see everything in relation to international markets, and that’s not the whole of human experience.
Still, I’m thrilled we’re writing them. The most popular histories are usually of leaders and wars—“chaps and maps.” After the strong Churchill biography, that can get tedious. What I love about commodity stories is that they have the courage to be weird. They jump to unexpected places, they help you think differently, they show you the world-historical importance of humdrum, everyday stuff.
In that vein, I’d welcome a global history of the ballpoint pen.
I notice you’re working on a new book about fire. Does this mark a departure from your previous subjects?
For me, it’s a way of writing about climate change. Today, fossil fuels are the source of our abundance, but they’re also the source of our apocalypse. They allow us to cheaply manufacture and transport a great flood of stuff—and a lot of that stuff is even made from petroleum-based plastic. Yet there’s every reason to think that fossil fuels are wrecking our environment.
This has an echo in the past. The United States was once the Saudi Arabia of wood—visitors were astonished by how much timber the country possessed. That wood made everything cheap: it was a fuel and a ubiquitous building material. But it was also combustible, condemning city after city to conflagration. To me, that feels uncannily familiar. And sometimes contemplating not-too-distant people dealing with not-too-different problems helps you think through your own predicament.