The Sweet Life of Sidney Mintz

Sid Mintz_body

Sarah Hill in Boston Review:

Before there was salt, there was sugar. Before there was coal, ice, and bananas, there was sugar. Before there was a long list of one-word, bestselling histories about globe-shaping commodities, there was Sidney Mintz’s ur text of the ur commodity of the modern world, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. With it, Mintz’s accomplishments went far beyond launching a new mode of history writing; the book also contributed to a sea change that placed human agency at the center of anthropology and offered a profound correction to how we understand modern history. Published in 1985, Sweetness and Power accounted for New and Old World histories, the rise of Atlantic slavery and industrialism, and more than five hundred years of elite and plebian tastes, folding them into one easily digestible confection. Sweetness and Power explained how we live—how world market systems shape taste and vice versa—in ways that no previous book had managed. It became a powerful model for how to write history, not through great men or great events, but through fungible, ubiquitous commodities and the freightedness of taste. Without Mintz’s slim volume, it’s hard to imagine the careers of many other writers who have copied Mintz’s mystical formula for revealing the weight of the past on the present: all the world in a grain of sand, sugar, salt. One of the tricks of history is that extraordinary things can, in time, become commonplace; Mintz showed us how to see them as extraordinary again.

Mintz’s history of sugar also joined two academic disciplines—anthropology and history—that have long struggled for compatibility. In Sweetness and Power, he explained:

Though I do not accept uncritically the dictum that anthropology must become history or be nothing at all, I believe that without history its explanatory power is seriously compromised. Social phenomena are by their nature historical, which is to say that the relationship among events in one “moment” can never be abstracted from their past and future setting.

Trained as an anthropologist by Franz Boas’s student Ruth Benedict, Mintz’s investment in the past reflected the concerns of the historically minded Boas more than those of the culturally particularist Benedict. An early reader of Marx, Mintz’s approach to anthropology contained echoes of Marx’s famous statement about history: men make their own, but do not choose how they do so. Mintz turned that phrase into a formula for understanding how people create their own cultures, as Marx said of history, “under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

More here.