A World Clad in Brutality: Rachel Lebowitz’s Cottonopolis

Sprawling across four continents and multiple generations, Rachel Lebowitz’s Cottonopolis is a tour de force that unveils the beauty and atrocities of a world besieged by industrial revolution. Her rigorously researched and artfully crafted text nudges us into new understandings of the period—and reminds us of the darker sides of this foundation on which our own conflicted age is built.

Lebowitz succeeds in extracting gems from the ambitious sweep of time and geography that the narrative embraces, and her presentation of her subject matter welcomes us into a strange and brutal world. From a dense web of cotton threads strung across continents and generations, she weaves a history of the cotton industry, laying out both important historical events and small details of some of the countless individuals whose lives are almost entirely unrecorded and forgotten. Through writing that is both ruthless and tender, Lebowitz shows us what it took to produce, ship, and process cotton cloth—and how profoundly the increasing mechanization of that process changed the world.

Condensing a breadth of material that could have easily filled many books must not have been without challenge. The eleven pages of closely-spaced notes that follow the principal text hint at the difficulty. Lebowitz’s notes are fascinating in and of themselves, rife with facts and anecdotes and the worlds of meaning behind the unfamiliar names and terms spangling the text. For example, a line like “Come, bring on the crimps and sodden whores!” reads much differently when one understands that crimps were “labour agents whose job it was to trick sailors into joining a slave ship” because the work was so dangerous this was often the only means of mustering a crew. The notes left me hungry for more of these sorts of tales in Lebowitz’s own voice and wishing that more of this fine print were embedded in the main text.

The book’s themes (slavery, child labour, colonialism and the violence inherent to them) are made more vivid and/or horrific by a literary style that jostles common conceptions of poetic form. Lebowitz’s work—prose snippets stitched together with lineated found poems drawn from historical texts—straddles the middle ground between poetry and prose. Written in a variety of voices from various points of view, the pieces range from anecdotes told by the workers, children, and slaves of times past (“So we march. We petition. We break windows. We pelt the manufacturers with stones.”) to 21st century perspectives.

Above all, this is a book about people, their stories and the complex interactions and connections that make up history (“All history is story and so much of it connects”). Then, as now, everyone goes clad in cotton cloth; most sleep swaddled in it; slaves and labourers wear the products of their own exploitation against their skin. The pervasive and essential fabric is a reminder of the rapid transformation that gave rise to our modern industrialized world, what we gained—and at what cost.

Thankfully, the cruelty that built Cottonopolis—that city where “It is always night…Rain stains shirts black”—belong to a distant past. Or does it? As Lebowitz reminds us in her introduction, we live in the wake of the industrial revolution, a world in constant flux. Today “…the clothes are made in China.”

After five years of living, working and writing in the Skeena-Stikine region of northwest BC, Emily McGiffin now finds herself in Toronto pursuing a PhD in Environmental Studies. She hopes to get back up north very soon.

The Arc of history, of poetry, of people.

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