During the first half of the US/North American survey I teach every fall semester, I dread the 30 minutes or so I’m forced to devote to the 16th century French colonial project along the St. Lawrence.  I dread this not because the French were, and remain, the greatest sissies on the planet as well as the enduring inspiration for generations of American wine-track sophisticates; no, that part of the story brings great shudders of joy to my feeble heart.  Indeed, I revel in cheap jokes about the dandified follies of western Gaul.*

What distresses me is that I have yet to discover a way to bring rhetorical finesse to the subject of French traders and their gargantuan appetite for beaver.  Seriously.  It’s fucking embarrassing.  I explain how the French would not have had much use for North America were it not for the beaver, which they pursued with a single-minded devotion; we read affectionate and breathy accounts of the great commerce in beaver that enriched so many; we look at French illustrations and woodcuts of beaver and discuss how Europeans — having driven the animal to ruin on their own continent — renewed their commitment to beaver in the Western Hemisphere; we consider the self-defeating complicity of the Huron and other tribes, who pandered to the undeterred French enthusiasm for castor canadensis.  After about three minutes, half of the students in the room are digging their fingernalis into their wrists to avoid laughing.  Today, a young man and woman were literally mashing their hands into their faces, eyes misty with crude and juvenile delight.  At those moments, I understand why this school had no choice.

And don’t think that I could just euphemize my way out of this dilemma.  I try referring to them as “those animals,” or “the fur-bearing nocturnal dam builders,” or “the creatures whom the French sought for their pelts.”  But the dodge always sounds conspicuous, and for some reason it seems to make the snickering worse.  When we shift focus to the English and their incompetent Chesapeake fumblings, I’m swept up by an awesome wave of relief.

I should note that I have similar troubles each spring when it’s time to chat about the Four Minute Men.

Oh, stop it.

*  Not really.