cover image Extreme North: A Cultural History

Extreme North: A Cultural History

Bernd Brunner, trans. from the German by Jefferson Chase. Norton, $27.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-393-88100-4

Historian Brunner (Taming Fruit) explores “the North” as a place “both real and imaginary” in this captivating and wide-ranging account. He notes that ancient Greeks and Romans viewed the North as “a realm of cold and darkness, devoid of sunlight and inimical to life,” and documents how histories of the fall of Rome and ninth-century Viking attacks on Constantinople and Paris gave rise to the image of Nordic peoples as “fearsome barbarians.” Explorers’ accounts and trade in cod, whale blubber, amber, and other commodities gradually changed the image of the North, and in the 18th- and 19th-century, many German and English poets, composers, and philosophers came to view the North as an “imagined homeland.” (William Morris, a leader of the arts and crafts movement, went so far as to teach himself Icelandic.) Brunner also delves into 18th-century Scottish poet James Macpherson’s Works of Ossian, which he falsely attributed to a “third-century Scottish bard,” and French novelist Joseph Arthur de Gobineau’s racist ideas about the “Aryan” north, which helped fuel anti-Semitism in Europe and the U.S. Erudite yet accessible, and packed with intriguing arcana, this cultural history fascinates. (Feb.)