Why Did We Choose to Industrialize? Montreal, 1819–1849 by Robert C.H. Sweeny (review)
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Reviewed by
Robert C.H. Sweeny. Why Did We Choose to Industrialize? Montreal, 1819–1849. McGill-Queen's University Press. xix, 436. $39.95

Readers of this fascinating and often frustrating book would be well advised to take the author's advice and read the conclusion first. It helps to know the work's major conclusions before ploughing through the collage of evidence and argument assembled here. Reading the conclusion also serves to dispel false expectations. The book does not seek to identify, as might a work of economic history, the necessary and sufficient conditions of a specific change in capitalism known as industrialization. If you want such an answer to the "why" question, read the conclusion, get over your disappointment, and read on. This book is about what happened when the many peoples of Montreal chose to adopt new understandings and new relationships in a transformed culture that the reductive word industrialization fails to encapsulate.

Here we find no narrative of the process of industrialization. There is a narrative, however: that of the author's own intellectual development, as [End Page 244] he seeks to connect changes in the discipline of history and in his political world to the changing bodies of source and evidence that he has worked with for forty years. It is a very personal and idiosyncratic voyage of discovery, a sustained act of self-reflection that wins admiration for its triangulation of historian, sources, and evidence, each of these evolving in their distinct times and places. The approach has its disadvantages: often the reader cannot see what follows, or see how an initial source will be displaced by another, or how each stage in the analysis takes us toward a concluding destination. At times, as with the discussion of Newfoundland's informal economy, the narrative has more to say about the author's expanding horizons than about industrialization in Montreal. The advantage is that we can see the evolution of both historian and subject, from their beginnings in the world of structuralism and socialist humanism in the 1970s to a recent reckoning with gender, postcolonialism, and inequality, and to the author's historical and political engagement with neoliberalism in our own time.

The reader can expect to be provoked, for this is a disputatious work in which knowledge is advanced through opposition to a range of historiographical and theoretical orientations. Many of the oppositions are cogently argued; a few at least may be overstated. I am not convinced that with the advance of neoliberalism the idea "that academic work should serve a larger political project had been lost." It is not the case in Canada that "for decades interdisciplinary social science history projects have dwarfed all other funded research in the profession." I am not convinced that neoliberalism has triumphed to the extent that the apprenticeship of an entire generation of historians has been subverted. The presumed antithesis of quantitative and qualitative, if it ever existed at all, has been superceded, and these terms refer to properties of methods, not sources. Colonial towns experiencing industrialization were sites of many new organizations and institutions responding to an intense quest for sociability; it is a surprise, therefore, to read that in the emerging individualized, patriarchal, and male-breadwinner society "there was less and less space for any recognition of the social at all." Quarrel as we may with specific claims, we learn from Sweeny's brave intellectual journey even when we may disagree.

We learn much about the dimensions of industrialization, urban growth, and the interactions of property, gender, class, family, and urban space. Occupying no single academic niche, the book is a significant contribution to urban historical geography, and specifically to the history of property and spatial segregation in the growth of Montreal from small town to city. The penultimate chapter takes us to the Montreal of 1880, when gender relations had been restructured and gendered segregation was imprinted on the urban landscape. The rich empirical base includes [End Page 245] notarial records, tax rolls, census returns, directories, fire insurance maps, ordnance surveys, and much more. The sixty-nine well-produced figures include twenty-four maps of the evolving city and its properties...


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