cover image Heyday: The 1850s and the Dawn of the Global Age

Heyday: The 1850s and the Dawn of the Global Age

Ben Wilson. Basic, $32 (520p) ISBN 978-0-465-06425-0

Wilson, winner of the Somerset Maugham Award for What Price Liberty!, turns his considerable talents as a historian and raconteur to the turbulent 1850s, a decade riven by the forces of technological change, wide-scale migration, commodity booms, and, above all, an unquenchable belief in the “unstoppable force of progress.” From the gold fields of Victoria, South Africa, to the wharves of San Francisco, Wilson’s vertiginous narrative takes in vast swaths of time and space, describing nothing less than “the birth of the modern world.” The optimism Wilson argues for as characteristic of the age is perhaps best captured by the tale of a Minnesota real estate agent who walks his speculator client through the site of a proposed town, confidently pointing out trees and bogs as the spots of future neighborhoods, and a patch of dense forest as “the fashionable quarter.” Wilson doesn’t gloss over the dark side of all this energy and expansion—colonial expropriation, ecological collapse, forced labor—and the narration is lively and breakneck. The book’s conclusion hints at the parallels between the 1850s and the current age of information flows and global connectivity, making a persuasive case for the decade as both precursor and crucible of today’s world. Agent: Clare Conville, Conville and Walsh Literary. (Apr.)