Let the Stephen Ambroses make America’s past dramatic. Internationalist Adam Hochschild has a bigger story to tell, and it has echoes of his own.
BY PAMELA FEINSILBER
Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves, by Adam Hochschild (Houghton Mifflin)
The invisible threads that bind a child to his father can be as confining as the leg or neck irons worn by convicts and slaves. Asserting oneself against such a force can take a mighty effort, as Adam Hochschild's first book made clear about his familial struggle. Hochschild's father was proud that he hadn't forced his only child to go into the family business, a multinational mining corporation, as his own father had done with him. But why did Adam have to pursue journalism? Like most powerful men, Hochschild's father believed that if you wanted to change things, you went into politics, like Nelson Rockefeller or Jack Kennedy. You never traveled so far from the mainstream that you couldn't come back, and writing was something you did after work.
"Why doesn't Adam see?" Hochschild imagines his father thinking in Half the Way Home, a moving, gracefully written memoir that has just been reissued. "He's been to the right schools. He's got the right connections. We gave him everything....He could be a congressman, senator, ambassador, work for the Ford Foundation if he doesn't like business or law, do something that counts...."
It's a little ironic, then, that after all his efforts to escape his father's world, not to mention writing six nonfiction books—including King Leopold's Ghost, a 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award finalist—and countless magazine articles, Hochschild is still widely seen as the rich dilettante who long kept muckraking Mother Jones afloat. (Few noticed that in addition to cofounding the magazine, in 1976, he was its first managing editor, or that he'd written for the San Francisco Chronicle and Ramparts before that.)
Yet Hochschild's family wealth has underpinned far more than a magazine. It is the source of the quiet fervor in his writing, the engine driving his passion for seeing social wrongs put right. The memoir makes a fine companion to his latest book, a highly readable look at the late-18th-century struggle to ban Britain's triangular slave trade—"the first time a large number of people became enraged, and stayed outraged for many years, over someone else's rights." Like the ties between father and son, all of Hochschild's books are joined like a finely wrought chain, and the first link was forged in his family's central African copper mine.
In his memoir, Hochschild describes the discomfort he felt with the lavish life his family led, with its Park Avenue apartment and idyllic Adirondack estate, its horses, limousines, skiing trips, and world travels, its governesses, cooks, and other "help." (The young Hochschild once told their cook he wouldn't have any servants when he grew up.) When he was 18, Hochschild joined his father on a business trip to Africa, then traveled alone to South Africa, where he met the prototype for the kinds of historic figures that havedrawn him ever since. Patrick Duncan, who edited an antiapartheid newspaper in Cape Town, was not only white; he came from his country's elite, his father a former governor general.
Hochschild is fascinated by this type of person, one who makes the leap out of his own circumstances to empathize with another, and then acts, often against his own interests. King Leopold's Ghost, "a story of greed, terror, and heroism in colonial Africa," opens with a scene, in the late 1800s, in which a young shipping executive realizes that while ships returning to Belgium from the Congo are packed full of ivory and rubber, the outgoing ships carry nothing to trade for it, only soldiers, guns, and ammunition. The goods in this vast colony were being gained through slave labor. "Brought face to face with evil," Edmund Morel left a comfortable position to found a weekly journal, write books, pamphlets, and hundreds of articles, and otherwise devote his life to putting the Congo on the world's front pages. Though the phrase wasn't in use then, he became, Hochschild says, the greatest British investigative journalist of his time.
In Bury the Chains, we meet another inveterate investigator: over the years, Thomas Clarkson traveled 35,000 miles, usually on horseback, up and down England seeking eyewitnesses to life on the slave ships and in Britain's slave-based colonies in the West Indies. Hochschild's research skills and ability to imagine the lives of others make such individuals live again. Reading about one trip in Clarkson's diary, "the very paper seems to smoke and burn with his outrage" as we watch him prowling "the docks and haunted taverns...this determined red-haired man, dressed in the somber black of a deacon, striding along cobblestone streets filled with drunken seamen, prostitutes, beggars, and street musicians."
Of course, Hochschild isn't captivated solely by those who collect and convey information. Others in this richly detailed drama include a slave-ship captain turned hymn-writing minister, a former slave turned best-selling author, a rich, timid member of Parliament in search of a cause, the leaders of slave revolts in Jamaica and what is now Haiti, an alcoholic doctor who ends his days in Sierra Leone, Britain's equivalent to Liberia.
Even the famed pottery maker Josiah Wedgwood makes an appearance. Hochschild contends that virtually all the important tools used by today's pressure groups (mass mailings, petitions, boycotts) emerged during this first human-rights movement. Wedgwood's workshop contributed the image of a chained and kneeling slave imploring, "Am I Not a Man and a Brother?" that was reproduced on snuffboxes and cuff links, books and bracelets. The forerunner of today's lapel buttons, it was, said Benjamin Franklin, "equal to that of the best written Pamphlet." As this dramatic and lucid history is, I say, equal to the most engrossing Novel.