In Search of the Great Divide

Last year was a hard one, during which a lot of ongoing projects ran aground and I temporarily lost the battle against the depression and anxiety that have alternately driven and threatened to derail the work through a long period of precarity. Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back has been a way of getting things back on track, this time with a much clearer sense of how the various projects fit together and a dawning sense of the key practical points I would like to have made when all is said and done.

This year was supposed to be filled with, on the one hand, the tying up of loose ends and completion of overdue tasks, and, on the other, a deep dive into the details of Proudhon’s career and at least a good start at telling the stories that will be the heart of the first volume, Sources (1837–1865). In anticipation, I got the necessary research requests out and planned the necessary travel.

But it’s clear that this is going to be a hard year, too, if in different ways.

The nice thing about a project like mine, however, is that there is always likely to be some way to move things forward. It doesn’t look like I’ll get that research travel done any time soon, but I have been making good use of some recently digitized periodicals. And it turns out that trading my coffee shop hours for another hour in the woods has been conducive to different kinds of work. So, in a year where options seem to be at a premium, I’m just going to go with the opportunities that have presented themselves.

Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back has already been reshaped by that strategy. A new archive of The Boston Investigator has allowed me to fill in some gaps in my knowledge of the earliest phases of anarchistic activity in the United States. I’ve dug up fascinating details about the interactions between Josiah Warren and Lewis Masquerier in the 1840s, traced Masquerier’s contributions to the Investigator back as far as 1834, etc. And, suddenly, the period between 1825 and 1840, which I had largely intended to address in What Mutualism Was, looks like it is considerably more relevant to a general history of anarchism than it did just a few days ago.

As a result, I’ve decided to devote a section of the project, In Search of the Great Divide, to the pre-1840 period—and specifically to the question of how and when to start a general history of anarchism, addressing some of the alternatives in the beginning and taking the opportunity to look at how various other general histories have tackled the problem. This will simplify some episodes in Sources, where it was necessary to reach back into the pre-1840 sources and precursors in order to tell post-1840 stories. It will also allow me to underline some point about the ultimate ungovernability of anarchist history that has become increasingly clear and important to me as the work has progressed.

I’ve also decided to push forward with a kind of manifesto on the anarchistic uses of anarchist history, intended to serve as an introduction to the work, summarizing what I think I have learned about those practices so far, anticipating the sorts of transformations that understanding might undergo as the “journey back” progresses, addressing the open and explicitly unfinished nature of Max Nettlau’s works, etc. A lot of what I’ve laid out already in the Mappings posts will be included, but I expect to be working out a much more explicit synthesis-anarchist historiography as well. Given all the uncertainties in life at the moment, it probably makes sense to get some of that written out sooner rather than later.

So, while I will be puttering away at the Proudhon work some as well, as the resources already on hand allow, expect the next episodes to be addressed to come from this early era of possible/false starts.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.