In his brilliantly original book Another Hungary: The Nineteenth-Century Provinces in Eight Lives, Robert Nemes invites his readers to rethink the history of Hungary (and of Eastern Europe) in the nineteenth century through the story of eight lives deeply rooted in the provinces. An aristocrat who became a best-selling author in his sixties; a merchant whose reclusive lifestyle, fabulous wealth, and philanthropy made him a subject of envy and speculation in equal measures; an engineer whose ambitious plans of easily accessible waterways were far ahead of his time; a young woman who defied all expectations related to her social status and made a career as a teacher instead of marrying; a journalist who in his private life successfully negotiated the multiethnic realities of his home town while becoming an icon for the Romanian national movement; a rabbi who devoted his life to developing and maintaining peaceful religious coexistence at a time of rising antisemitism; a tobacconist who dreamt of turning Hungary into one of the world’s leading tobacco producers; and a writer who immortalized the provinces in Hungarian literature by telling the story of her childhood may initially seem to have little in common. Their biographies span the entire long nineteenth century and represent a broad spectrum of social, religious, and ethnic backgrounds. These diverse lives are connected to each other, however, through their ties to Szatmár County, a region located in the Kingdom of Hungary’s northeastern corner. Szatmár County never developed a coherent local identity, but, as Nemes convincingly shows, it played a pivotal role in the various formulations of the national imaginaries of the Kingdom of Hungary. The provinces carried both negative and positive connotations: they embodied backwardness against which the metropole could measure itself, but were also seen as a fountain for possible national renewal. Nemes examines these various projections to understand “the myth of the provinces.” Building on the works of Edward Said and Benedict Anderson, Nemes defines “the myth of the provinces” as a collection of often incongruent but nonetheless powerful ideas about progress and history: “For these eight men and women, the northeastern counties were both the world they had left and the inspiration for a world they wanted to live in” (238). The case studies touch on larger themes of nineteenth-century European history as diverse as the individual lives themselves, ranging from religious tolerance to gender history, environmental history, the history of industrialization, higher education, everyday life in multilingual, multiethnic communities, and the history of antisemitism. Nemes, whose first monograph offered an outstanding account of the emergence of the twin cities of Buda and Pest as a metropolis in the nineteenth century, maintains his keen spatial awareness as a biographer: themes such as river regulation and proximity and distance (both literal and metaphorical) and physical as well as mental maps play central roles in the book. As Nemes puts it, “a crucial argument in this book is that a close link exists between places and people” (234). Engaging with such a remarkable diversity of themes, Another Hungary makes a major contribution to three fields of historiography. First, the individual chapters question the narrative of unredeemable backwardness often associated with the provinces. In the eight biographies, the provinces play diverse roles: they are sources of creativity, where political and ethnic conflicts could be negotiated, sites where experiments about a brighter future for Hungary as a whole could be formulated, and where local politics served as a laboratory for conflicts that later consumed national politics. Far from projecting an image of the provinces as a promised land, as József Gvadányi, the first chapter’s subject, formulated them in humorous verses, the book’s chapters “both unravel and add to” the myth of the provinces (11). Second, the eight biographies also nuance our understanding of the history of nationalism. Far away from centers of political power, both geographically and in self-understanding, the eight life stories reveal the history of the “spread of nationalism and its limits,” affording particular attention to “indifference to nationalism and … patterns of cultural exchange” (9). Provincial actors had their own agendas that may or may not have corresponded with those of the nation-builders. Third, Nemes showcases the ethnic and religious heterogeneity of this region: three of his case studies are of Jewish figures, five of them of Christians (two Roman Catholics, one Calvinist, one Lutheran, and one Greek Catholic). Engaging consistently with this heterogeneity, Nemes rightly points out: “less attention has been paid to relations between Jews and Christians in Hungary’s small towns and villages, where the bulk of the population lived” (10). Placing biographies of Jewish and Christian inhabitants of Szatmár County in a shared history of the Hungarian provinces thus not only highlights this region’s complexities and heterogeneity in the nineteenth century but also fosters a promising and much-needed conversation between otherwise separate fields of historiography. Reading this one-of-a-kind prosopography is like watching a fascinating kaleidoscope. There are two important colors missing, however, as Nemes himself points out: the landowners and the peasants. In the primarily agricultural society of nineteenth-century Hungary, it was precisely those groups that stood in the center of perceptions of provincial backwardness. Landowners’ and peasants’ perspectives would shed light on their own reflections and contributions to the imaginaries projected onto them by their fellow inhabitants of the provinces as well as by the faraway metropole. Considering that many of the individuals Nemes examines left the provinces, it would be important to include the perspective of those who stayed. Overall, Another Hungary is a brilliant and lucidly written book. Nemes builds his compelling argument about the provinces’ complexity on a broad array of primary sources, including poetry and fiction. He gives voice to the Hungarian provinces not only conceptually but also through his superb translations, which communicate an eighteenth-century Hungarian aristocrat’s quirky sense of humor in verse as effectively as they do the style of a twentieth-century writer’s autobiography. Ultimately, Nemes presents the provinces as a complex and often central place: “The Hungarian provinces were no earthly paradise. But neither were they sites of unrelenting economic crisis, social strife, political corruption, or ethnic and religious conflict” (10). © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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