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Book Review


Peter Linebaugh, Red Round Globe Hot Burning: A Tale at the Crossroads of Commons and Closure, of Love and Terror, of Race and Class, and of Kate and Ned Despard. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2019. Pp. xxii + 462. Works Cited and Index. $34.95 (cloth).


     My first clue that Red Round Globe Hot Burning would not be an easy book to read was the table of contents. The structure of the volume as outlined there reflects some of the intricacy of the content: three parts ("The Quest," "Atlantic Mountains," "Love and Struggle"), each part divided into three or four titled sections, and each of these sections further divided into roughly four named chapters, for a total of thirty-six chapters. My next clue was lines in David Lloyd's foreword warning that "[r]eader's (sic) seeking such a linear narrative may well be startled," advising that "[t]he formal qualities of the work do, however, pose some potential difficulty to the reader; it's easy to lose sight of the narrative" and urging readers to "suspend their impatience, to find a forward-moving thread," and drawing parallels to Irish storytelling which "moves by digression and apparent indirection, often defying the listener to decipher how it all hangs together." (xviii, xxi, xxi, xviii.) I read this book over the course of an entire month, frequently putting it down after a sitting of only twenty or thirty minutes, sometimes out of frustration and sometimes out of a surfeit of inspirations and thoughts.

     I mention this tough going because the rewards of persisting, as David Lloyd asks readers to do, are great.

     As the subtitle of the volume (A Tale at the Crossroads of Commons and Closure, of Love and Terror, of Race and Class, and of Kate and Ned Despard) indicates, this book is almost incidentally about the Despards, despite the Library of Congress cataloguing subject headings, two out of four which are the names of the couple. The Despards, and really Ned much more than the difficult-to-see-in-documents Kate, are a vehicle or entry point into a watershed era, as well as examples of right action, more than they are biographical subjects. Similarly, Ned Despard's home of colonial Ireland serves in this book as an example and entry point into the larger web of the Atlantic world that Linebaugh has researched for years, rather than as the tight focus of a conventionally bounded history.

     This book is the culmination of Linebaugh's life of research, writing, and advocacy for the commons, and the commons are indeed a subject here. Almost more central, however, is the depiction of the turn of the 19th century as a global watershed. If someone were to ask me to encapsulate this book in one line, impossible task though that is, I would say something like, "This book is about how and why 1800 is the beginning of modern capitalism and the world as we know it."

     The list that Linebaugh enumerates of the thresholds and pivots of that fateful era most prominently include enclosures: enclosures of land in the countryside, enclosures of urban space such as the streetscape and playing fields, enclosures of human liberty via the rise of the tightly controlled prison, literal spatial enclosures of artisanship and labor with the creation of the factory as the locus of work, enclosures of children and free childhood with the rise of child labor in factories, and enclosures of the womb with the first laws making abortion illegal. Accompanying these momentous strides in social control are the necessary means of enforcement, including a boom in executions (creating what Linebaugh calls a thanatocracy) and the invention of the police force, as well as industrialized warfare and soldiering.

     In the labor sphere our volume describes a transition from subsistence to a wage economy, the proletarianization of the peasantry evicted from the countryside, a move from in-kind payment to cash, and the new population explosion that so alarmed Thomas Malthus. In the technological sphere we see the beginning of the Anthropocene with the emergence of fossil fuels. In the cultural sphere we weave together the history of the meal, of the red cap of liberty, of the emerging race line, of folklore, and of the division of the disciplines one from the other, biology from geology, for example. In the political sphere we see the suppression of an Irish revolt and Ireland's submersion under English rule by the Act of Union, one of the first instances of the 19th century explosion of British imperialism. (As an originator of the concept of the Atlantic World, Linebaugh never uses the nation-state as a default category, gathering together scenes and lives in Central America, the Caribbean, and across the British Isles. Yet by using Irish Ned Despard as an organizing character, we are able to see the moments in this book as key in specifically Irish national history.)

     Picking up and leaving off, moving from setting to setting, this volume's many chapters slowly assemble scenes, moments, impulses, themes, and "spots of time," as one chapter title reminds us that William Wordsworth called them, building a world for the reader. Not merely descriptive, this book uses rich detail and abundant quotes from diaries, letters, and news articles of the time to build a case for connections. All these many instances are woven together to illustrate the larger picture of the birth, a mere two centuries ago, of a modern capitalist world that most readers take for granted. A consistent theme is that the commons are not a medieval phenomenon, as so many assume, but a method of living and working that was central across the world up until this era. As Linebaugh writes about the year 1802, on either side of the threshold of the 19th century are two contrasting eras. "The first was the confident Tudor capitalism of the sixteenth century…[a]nd the second, nearly two hundred years later, was the era of enclosure, mechanization, and slavery" (316).

     As such a live, immediate, textured portrait of so many facets of an era showed in new light as a transformational moment, it is a shame to say that this book will not be readable by most students; not only is the structure unconventional, but the style of the text itself almost requires exegesis, with poetic juxtapositions and leaps of logic that require pausing and pondering and a literary kind of letting go of explicit argumentation. (A minor complaint that nevertheless made reading noticeably harder is the poor copy editing, with punctuation frequently missing, misplaced, or incorrectly inserted.) The book will be best read by graduate students, by others already immersed in the time and issues discussed, or by those with calm patience and deep curiosity.

     Linebaugh remarks in this book that E. P. Thompson gave us class without the commons, and that recent scholarship that has rediscovered the commons has given us the commons without class; this book is, he tells us, an attempt to show us why we must have the two together (83). He also writes that this book is an attempt to unite the Romantic and the radical moments in a way that almost, but didn't quite, happen in 1800, using the commons as the bridge (5). There was "the widespread possibility in 1802 of a multiethnic, nonsectarian, transatlantic project of a republic composed of citizens and commoners, the people of no property sharing common things" (62), and while this book chronicles the historical dashing of that hope, it also clearly and openly holds out the new hope of another such possible moment.

     The "red round globe hot burning" of the title is a line from a poem by William Blake, Romantic poet and political radical, a poem about slavery, rape, and enclosure. Blake's red round globe is a heart, an entirely appropriate choice for a book by Linebaugh, who has never made any bones about where his heart lies—with the common people and their commons.

Eva-Maria Swidler teaches history and interdisciplinary studies at the Curtis Institute of Music and the University of the Arts. She can be contacted at


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