Sunday, February 3, 2013

Sobel Wiki: the land without politics

This week's featured article at the Sobel Wiki is on the Confederation of Manitoba. Sobel's Manitoba includes not just our world's province of Manitoba, but also Saskatchewan, Alberta, Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, and most of Northern Ontario.

Sobel's Manitoba is one of the oddest things about For Want of a Nail. For one thing, even though Manitoba includes most of Rupert's Land, Sobel never once mentions the Hudson's Bay Company. Having gone over the chapter on the creation of the Confederation of Manitoba several times in the course of creating the Sobel Wiki, I've come to the conclusion that this was due to the fact that Sobel was unaware of the existence of the H.B.C. He seemed to think that Rupert's Land was part of Quebec. If any of my Canadian readers doubt whether such ignorance is possible, all I can do is remind you that Sobel was an American. If it didn't have any impact on American history, then it didn't exist.

Another odd thing about Manitoba is the location of its capital city, North City (named of course after Lord North, the Prime Minister who crushed the American Revolution). Sobel never says where North City is, so it's necessary to infer its location from clues in the text. Sobel mentions on page 66 that a railroad link between North City and Port Superior was established in 1855, from which it can be inferred that North City itself was not located on the shores of Lake Superior. So where was it? The FAN Cabal decided that it was on the site of our history's St. Paul, Minnesota, on the left bank of the Mississippi. (Dan McDonald reasoned further that a city on the site of Minneapolis, on the right bank, ought to be called West North City.) When I started the Sobel Wiki seven or eight years later, I thought about the matter again, and came to the conclusion that, no, North City wouldn't be on the site of St. Paul, because in the early 1780s that area had no white settlers whatsoever, and it would make absolutely no sense to establish a capital city there. Where, then? I finally decided that, if North City wasn't on Lake Superior, then it was most likely to be located at one of the factories (ie trading posts) that the H.B.C. had established on the shores of Hudson Bay. Since the company's headquarters was located at York Factory, I decided that was the logical site of North City, and so I've indicated in the Sobel Wiki.

Yet another odd thing about Sobel's Manitoba is its population growth. It's a subtle thing, and a casual reader of Nail wouldn't notice it, but the FAN Cabal were anything but casual readers. It was David Mix Barrington who noticed that Manitoba's population in 1930 was given as 31.5 million people. For comparison, the same area in our world in 1930 had a population of only 4 million people, about one eighth as many. Dave MB felt this was far too many, so in a vignette posted on 31 December 2001, he published "revised" population figures that showed Manitoba with "only" 16.1 million people in 1930.

How could Sobel think that Manitoba could support so many people? Well, thoughout the text, Sobel lays great stress upon the fertility of Manitoba's soil: "Her grain fields would soon be recognized as among the finest in the world," is how he puts it on page 66. He seemed to think that the Canadian prairie provinces were a super-sized Iowa that could support as many people as chose to settle there.

But probably the oddest thing about Sobel's Manitoba was its utter lack of political disputes, or even partisanship of any kind. It was known as "the land without politics." And this is in spite of the fact that Manitoba attracts, as Sobel puts it, "religious sects, utopians, poets, and the discontented of the other states." Putting together a collection of utopians, dreamers, religious reformers, and malcontents and expecting the result to be an apolitical rural paradise is astonishing.

Was Sobel serious? Maybe not. Sobel was not above committing the occasional act of satire, such as having rival groups of pacifists clash at an international peace conference, so Manitoba might be a satire on the back-to-the-land communalists who were active when Nail was being written. On the other hand, there are so many strange things about the Confederation of Manitoba that it's hard to say whether Sobel was being satirical or just failing to pay attention.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting - I've noticed problems with some of the Mexican states (Jefferson and Alaska in particular), but I hadn't thought about Manitoba.

This raises the question of just how serious Sobel was about counterfactual extrapolation in general. In some cases (the post-manumission Southern Confederation's industrialization and Mexico's war with Russia, for example) I get the feeling he is actually proposing ideas he takes semi-seriously, as worthy of some consideration. Other times I just think he's not even trying, and unfortunately these include some of the biggies in the history - viz., the economic development of Mexico and the whole deal with Kramer Associates. As a business historian you would think he would be at his best on these topics! It's frustrating.