Golden Hill

by Henry on June 1, 2017


Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill is finally being released in the US in a couple of weeks. I’m not going to pretend for a moment to be unbiased (I read an early version, and loved it). I don’t want to talk too much about its plot, for fear of spoilers, but this, by Abigail Nussbaum is very useful in how it talks about what Spufford is up to without giving it away:

There’s another twist that Spufford performs on the familiar 18th century template, but to discuss it is more complicated, because it would involve revealing the novel’s big secret. And yet the entire point of this revelation is how mundane it turns out to be. Golden Hill is structured like a heist story, with Richard’s narrative deliberately obscuring from us some of the most important details of his identity (and, of course, his goal in coming to New York), and creating the impression that he is about to pull off an audacious con. This turns out to be both true and not true. What Richard is doing is fiendishly difficult and extremely dangerous to him. It is also—and to modern readers in particular—something of a letdown, the thoroughly legal use of the tools of commerce and trade to make a tiny, ultimately self-defeating dent in the system of slavery and oppression on which New York’s economy runs. The genius of Golden Hill is in depicting that system, as an interlocking set of legal, economic, social, and extra-legal conventions that is so impervious to harm, so clearly constructed to prevent and crush any challenge to it, that even the small wobble Richard manages to introduce into it is a major achievement. Running through the novel is Richard’s awareness of the unacknowledged community of New York, the slaves who sit in the background of every scene, and the larger numbers of them who are being transported every day to the plantations in the south and the Caribbean. It would be giving Golden Hill a little too much credit to say that it ends up being the story of these people, but its ending prioritizes their fates over those of the characters whom we’ve spent the story meeting in drawing rooms and banquet halls.

Building on this, Golden Hill is a very important book about America, in ways that may not be obvious to those who read it merely for the picaresque. Spufford’s America is the America of the mid-eighteenth (and, in a postscript, the early nineteenth) century. New York is a town with several thousand inhabitants, frightened and suspicious of cosmopolitan visitors from London (although in one wonderful set piece of writing, the sparks from a bonfire preconfigure the New York that is to be). Spufford’s American provincials are Tories to a man, rousting out Papists and toasting the King (the book’s strong implication is that ‘Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death’ patriotism arose half-by-accident, from maneuverings over taxes and who got what – see also on this Peter Andreas’ wonderful history, Smuggler Nation).

The most striking continuity between the old pre-Revolutionary America and the new is racism, which the book suggests (if I read it right) is more fundamental to American identity than independence. It may seem odd to compare an apparently light-hearted historical novel to the arguments of Ta-Nehisi Coates and the tradition he represents, but, when read through carefully and read again, Golden Hill isn’t particularly light – it’s looking to make a very serious point.



dilbert dogbert 06.01.17 at 9:47 pm

IIRMC, Gold Mountain was the Chinese name for California.


Francis Spufford 06.02.17 at 1:42 pm

And ‘der goldineh medineh’, the golden place, was the Yiddish name for the whole of the United States at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Both of those pieces of immigrant hope jumped into my mind when I came across the street in Lower Manhattan that used to be called ‘Golden Hill’. It seemed like a metaphor for America that was just waiting to be used, and when I looked into it, the resonances went on spreading in different directions across time – forward to the street’s future as part of the financial district, and to so money’s role in modernity; and back even beyond the 18th century and into the 17th when, it turned out, the name originated in the Dutch gouden, a kind of little yellow flower that grew in masses in a meadow there, giving me a line all the way to the ‘green breast of the New World’ in Gatsby, on which the city rose.

I know it’s churlish to argue with a compliment. But Henry, the colonials in the book are not ‘Tories to a man’, except in the libellous sense which the Revolutionary War turned into standard US historical usage. They’re Whigs, dammit, and most of them fairly radical Whigs at that. They believe in religious pluralism (except for Papists), representative government (as voted for by white male property-owners), individual liberty and Enlightenment self-fashioning (for white male etc), slavery (as one of the property rights of etc etc), and the illegitimacy of almost all taxation. It’s just that, with the fear-inspiring Catholic tyranny of France still locally represented up in Quebec, they see the more herbivorous kings of the House of Hanover in a protective light, for now, and even as a symbolic embodiment of their own liberty: a recognisable prototype, I think, of the ways that in later centuries, presidents will become symbolically Mr Freedom, Mr Popular Sovereignty, Mr America. Shortly, this structure of monarchic feeling will flip over, and with evil King Louis out of the picture, King George will take over the job of serving as focus for colonial fears. But for now, ‘God save the King!’ in New York City means, ‘Here’s to us!’ and not ‘I reluctantly kiss your boot, you wig-powdered British monstrosity!’


otto 06.02.17 at 3:42 pm

It’s a fantastic book and cannot be recommended enough.


William Timberman 06.02.17 at 5:34 pm

After finishing Red Plenty, which was simply magnificent, I promised myself that henceforth I’d read everything that Francis Spufford publishes. Pre-ordering the U.S. edition of Golden Hill, and counting the days until June 27, is already making me feel like a kid the week before Christmas. If the author treats the conceits of U.S. history as sensitively as he treated the equivalent conceits of Soviet history, I’ll be doubly pleased.


Chris Armstrong 06.03.17 at 8:31 am

Really lovely book. One of those books that just goes by too quickly.


Henry Farrell 06.03.17 at 2:30 pm

Not at all churlish – careless writing on my part, and an important correction. It also helps to situate the way in which Addison’s whiggish play both provides a catchphrase that will become important after, and conspicuously fails to catch the conscience of the playgoers.


Stephen 06.03.17 at 7:14 pm

May I just say that I am enormously grateful to CT for introducing me to the works of the admirable Francis Spufford.

Who may well be (I’ve not yet read the book: overcome by the curse of the drinking classes) quite right about pre-Revolutionary NY not being Tory at all.

Certainly not when compared to the arch-Tory and therefore liberty-loving Samuel Johnson: “Here’s to the next insurrection of the Negroes in the West Indies”.


Henry 06.03.17 at 8:10 pm

Francis – not churlish at all; instead quite sloppy on my part. Also, which I should have noted, the influence of Addison’s Whiggish play which both imparts an important catchphrase and manifestly fails to catch the conscience of a kingless crew of anti-taxers …


Ghost Lurker 06.03.17 at 10:05 pm

I generally lurk but I would like to second Stephen’s comment at 6. I too am very grateful. Red Plenty is one of my favorite books–rather brilliant. I have the seminar to thank for bringing it to my attention (the seminar was great too).

Thank you for your work Mr. Spufford. It has given me many joyous hours and I look forward to reading your latest.


F. Foundling 06.04.17 at 12:06 am

Francis Spufford @ 2
> And ‘der goldineh medineh’, the golden place, was the Yiddish name for the whole of the United States

Just a small correction – ‘di</b/ goldene medine (feminine gender)', 'the golden country'. It was a (nick)name, but ‘Amerike’ worked fine, too.

However, not everyone appreciated equally the opportunity to contribute to US labour market flexibility. A well-known Yiddish immigrant song, describing what a few years of work in American sweatshop conditions would usually do to a girl, concludes: “Brenen zol Kolombuses medine!”


F. Foundling 06.04.17 at 12:14 am

Sorry, bungled the formatting. A little / instead of > can have drastic effects.

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