Monday March 29th, 2010

The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter

nell-painterPainter, a professor of American History at Princeton, has written a sprawling book that considers the changing definitions of whiteness from ancient times to the present day. Robert Birnbaum says the book addresses race as “a human contrivance, made malleable by shifting historical circumstances and forces,” and quotes Painter’s preface: “American history offers up a large bounty of commentary on what it means to be non-white. . . . But little attention has been paid to history’s equally confused and flexible discourses on the white races and the old, old slave trade from eastern Europe.”

Reviewing the book for the New York Times, Linda Gordon writes that Painter

has written an unusual study: an intellectual history, with occasional excursions to examine vernacular usage, for popular audiences. It has much to teach everyone, including whiteness experts, but it is accessible and breezy, its coverage broad and therefore necessarily superficial. . . . But I cannot fault Nell Painter’s choices — omissions to keep a book widely readable. Often, scholarly interpretation is transmitted through textbooks that oversimplify and even bore their readers with vague generalities. Far better for a large audience to learn about whiteness from a distinguished scholar in an insightful and lively exposition.

In the San Francisco Chronicle, Paul Devlin agrees:

[The History of White People] is a scholarly, non-polemical masterpiece of broad historical synthesis, combining political, scientific, economic and cultural history. . . . [Painter] ranges far and wide with authority. . . . Trying to cover all bases, [she] presents detailed readings of a wide array of scientific and literary texts, offering deeply researched context and making connections with a clear and engaging style.

The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter
Norton, 496 pp., $27.95