Monday, August 7, 2017

Q&A with Mike Rapport

Mike Rapport is the author of the new book The Unruly City: Paris, London and New York in the Age of Revolution. His other books include 1848: Year of Revolution and The Napoleonic Wars. He is a professor of modern European history at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, and he lives in Stirling, Scotland. 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Unruly City?

A: I have always been fascinated by cities and how to “read” them – the layout of the street plan, the buildings, how the urban landscape developed – and the ways in which people and communities live in them, how neighbourhoods develop and how things change. 

This meshed with my interest in the French Revolution, which began many years ago while I was still studying at school. When some of my family moved to Paris in the 1980s, I began to wonder what was left of the city from the days of the revolution. One of my hobbies on visits was to seek these places out. 

At first, I thought about writing a short guide book to revolutionary Paris and this simmered for a while. Years later, when meeting colleagues for a drink in Paris after working in the Archives Nationales, one of them (not an expert on the French Revolution) asked about where, precisely, certain famous revolutionary events took place. 

In answering these questions, it struck me that it would be fun to write a book that set the upheaval and the characters involved not just in a historical narrative, but also within a strong sense of place. 

Yet this begged the question: does physical space – the topography, the buildings, the cityscape – actually have an impact on revolutionary events? And, if so, how? 

To understand this fully, I felt, it was important to compare the experience of one revolution – the French – with another (the American) and then to contrast both with a country that avoided revolution (Britain). So I chose to write about Paris, London and New York in the age of revolution. 

Paris and London, I hope, are obvious choices, but I chose New York (rather than Boston – one of my favourite cities anywhere – or Philadelphia) because I know it best of all American cities and because it experienced the successive transformations of revolution, occupation and reconstruction (after the horrific fire of 1776) in a way the others did not.    

Q: What are some similarities in the way all three cities experienced the age of revolution?

A: All three cities witnessed a dramatic expansion of political participation – in New York, as the patrician Gouverneur Morris put it, “the mob begin to think and reason.”

All cities saw the creation and expansion of political organisations devoted to mobilizing a public – artisans, sailors, workers – that went way beyond the traditional social and legal limits of those who actually held power and authority. In many cases, women participated, too. 

All three cities witnessed violence, albeit to varying degrees of intensity, in different ways triggered by the revolutionary upheavals and wars that accompanied them. 

In New York there was violence and repression by patriots against loyalists, and then vice versa during the British military occupation; in Paris there was crowd and state-sponsored violence against opponents, real or suspected; in London the authorities lost control of parts of the city for five days in June 1780 when rioters went on the rampage in protest against measures to ease restrictions on Catholics. 

All three cities also experienced revolutionary warfare, albeit in different ways: New York and Paris with the direct mobilization of people and resources in defence of the Revolution, London in opposition to it. 

All three cities saw energetic and conflicting propaganda efforts by governments and their opponents to win “hearts and minds,” so that sites where civil society operated, like coffee houses, taverns, publishing houses, even theatres, became places where opposing sides mobilized – and where there were struggles for control of these public spaces. 

All three cities experienced political repression, too, with the “Terror” in Paris being the most hard-hitting, but New York saw surveillance, arrest, expulsions and expropriations of political enemies at different stages and London experienced a determined campaign waged by the government and its supporters against the incipient democratic movement. 

And all three cities were marked, physically, by the political battles that arose, through the embellishment and adaptation of existing buildings, as different sides tried to project their messages to the wider public. This process was particularly weighty in Paris and New York, but it can be traced in London, too. 

Q: What are some of the key differences in how the three cities reacted to the idea of revolution?

A: Crucially, London avoided a revolution altogether (although at times it seemed like it did so only by the skin of its teeth) – and I explore why this may have been the case in the book – whereas Paris and New York were epicentres of the upheaval. 

New York was the only city of the three to experience military occupation – although Paris at times looked like a city under siege, or at least a rear area town, particularly when the effects of the French Revolutionary Wars were at their most intense in 1793-94, the year of the “Terror.”

Ultimately, the differences in the experience of these three cities, particularly in the 1790s, the decade of the French Revolution and the war that accompanied it, help us to understand the different paths the three countries at large took towards democracy.

Q: How did you research the book, and was there anything that especially surprised you in the course of your work?

A: I did a lot of walking! I have kept the pair of boots I (mostly) wore during my urban hikes: the soles are so thin that I can now feel stray stones when I tread on them. 

I wanted to get a feel for the topography and – where they still existed – have a look at the buildings and streets that I describe in the book. So I also compared maps – modern with the old ones – to get a sense as to how the cities have changed between then and now. 

But the main thrust of the research was the work that all historians do, namely examining primary sources – archives (which are always fun), published letters, memoirs, travelogues and travel guides, and so on. 

I also looked at images – contemporary engravings, in particular – and considered using them as a source far more than I did, but then I would have written a very different book had I done so. Instead, I preferred to produce pen sketches of the places explored, and let the reader’s imagination do its work. 

What was particularly surprising for me was the extent to which, in times of political upheaval, space and place were essential, not just in terms of the physical control of strategic and symbolic points, but also in the ways in which revolutionaries, in particular, put a great deal of effort into using the urban environment to project their messages, to make a statement that the new order was here to stay.  

I cite many examples of this, but a good American one was the development of New York’s Federal Hall for Congress when the city was briefly the capital of the young United States. A French example, more ephemerally, was the construction of a massive Phrygian bonnet (the famous “red cap of liberty”) on top of what was once the royal palace of the Tuileries. These things could also be very controversial.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Thanks for asking…I have several irons in the fire. My books in the pipeline are threefold.

Firstly, there will be an academic volume on revolutionary Paris (developing the work I’ve done for The Unruly City by exploring one city in depth, taking the themes and the detail further, and exploring different problems and theories).  

Secondly, I’m sketching out what I hope will be a fun book to write and to read, on Paris in the “Belle Époque,” so c. 1900, exploring the ways in which the period experienced the frictions between the old and the new (I’m a big fan of Eugen Weber’s wonderful book, France: Fin de Siècle). I would ground each chapter in a description of a building, a place or an object that visitors to Paris can still see and enjoy today. 

Thirdly, I’m writing a “Concise History of Europe” for Cambridge University Press (which, I hope, will be timely in the atmosphere created by “Brexit”). 

I’ve also got two collaborative writing projects on the boil. With my good friend and colleague, Dr. Ben Marsh of the University of Kent, I have co-edited a volume on “Understanding and Teaching the Age of Revolutions,” which will be published soon by the University of Wisconsin Press. It seeks to encourage teachers and students to try different approaches and to explore different places across the Atlantic world, and how they experienced revolution between the 1760s and 1830s. 

Finally, but by no means least, I’m editing a volume for Oxford University Press in its Handbook series, on Europe in the Long Nineteenth Century.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I hope you enjoy reading The Unruly City! While I hope it gets people looking at the cities in a different way (and, for those, like myself, who don’t live in any of the three, perhaps their own city, town, or village) – namely, as a physical place that bears witness, or memory, to events and people in the past – I tried to write it primarily as a book to be enjoyed. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb 

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