Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Joanna Zylinska: Evolution is not all that.

Professor of new media and communications at Goldsmiths, University of London

How do things emerge in the world?

What is the relationship between an organism and its environment?

In recent years both the humanities and the sciences have embraced a more process-based, relational way of thinking about these questions, with matter seen as stabilizing into organisms which always remain intertwined with their environment. If the process of organismic differentiation is continuous, the organism needs to be perceived not as an entity but as multiple processes of entanglement, a temporally unfolding set of relations that keep making and unmaking the topological boundaries. This brings us to a view of life as creative potential. Such a mode of thinking was already at work in Darwin’s theory of evolution but, in its later incarnations, such as Spencer’s theory of “natural selection,” it became translated into a linear force with a set of predesigned tasks to accomplish. Henri Bergson’s 1907 book, Creative Evolution, was an attempt to counter such a teleological and instrumentalist reading of evolution.

Bergson’s argument in Creative Evolution is premised on the critique of the human intellect. Rather than seeing it as a pinnacle of evolutionary development, he positions the intellect as a fossilised product of evolution that is structurally incapable “of presenting the true nature of life, the full meaning of the evolutionary movement in the course of its way,” and thus a regression as much as a progression. Bergson justifies his conclusion by explaining that the intellect deals only with “solids,” temporarily stabilized images and concepts of the world which we take for the latter’s true representations. He encourages us to resort to intuition, a mode of apprehending the world which bridges instinctual actions and reactions with our habits of thought in order to recapture what the intellect has banned us from experiencing. Reconnecting the intellect back to intuition can help us experience the vibrant vitality of matter, its ongoing dynamism and productivity. Bergson goes on to argue that “[t]he universe endures”, which means that by studying the nature of time we shall comprehend that “duration means invention, the creation of forms, the continual elaboration of the absolutely new.” It is in this sense that evolution for Bergson is creative rather than pre-planned and mechanistic. If evolution occurs across different scales and at different speeds – and if, on a human scale, we call it “culture” or “history,” while on the scale of the geological epochs we refer to it as “biology” – then the argument about the supposed purposefulness of its unfolding is not really sustainable, especially when we consider multiple evolutionary blind alleys and false starts.

The latter line of thinking is developed most powerfully by the Polish author Stanislaw Lem, who is best known to English readers as a science fiction writer but who also penned a number of philosophical commentaries on science, technology and evolution – the most accomplished of which is his 1964 treatise on futurology, technology, and science called Summa Technologiae. Serving as a perhaps unwitting counterpoint to the idealism that underpins the French philosopher’s Creative Evolution, with its notion of vital impetus (élan vital), Lem’s Summa offers a much more sober, even ironic view of evolution, one that is rooted in scepticism and in the scientific method. Lem’s investigation into the parallel processes involved in biological and technical evolution provides an important philosophical and empirical foundation for concepts that humanities scholars use somewhat loosely today, such as “life,” “entanglement,” and “relationality,” while also stripping these concepts of any vitalist hubris. For Lem, evolution “just happened,” we might say.

This way of thinking is no doubt a blow to anthropocentrism, which positions the human, and human consciousness, as the pinnacle of all creation. For Lem, not only did evolution not have any “plan” or “overarching idea” behind its actions, it also seems to have moved in a series of jumps which were full of mistakes, false starts, repetitions, and blind alleys. He argues that any attempt to delineate a straight genealogical line of man would be completely futile, given that attempts to descend to earth and walk on two feet had been made by living beings over and over again in the course of the evolutionary process. Lem also draws a distinction between biological evolution and the evolution of reason, rejecting the assumption that an increase in the latter automatically means improved design capacity. Predating Richard Dawkins’ idea of evolution as a blind watchmaker by over two decades, Lem’s view of evolution is not just non-romantic; it is also rather ironic – as manifested in the closing chapter of Summa, “A Lampoon of Evolution.” Evolution is described there as opportunistic, short-sighted, miserly, extravagant, chaotic, and illogical in its design solutions.

The product of evolution that is of most interest to us – i.e., the human himself – is seen by Lem as the last relic of nature, which is itself in the process of being transformed beyond recognition by the invasion of technology. There is no mourning of this impending change on the part of Lem though, no attempt to defend nature’s ways and preserve the essential organic unity of the human, since the latter is seen to be both transient and to some extent fictitious.

And yet, even though none of the entities in the universe are pre-planned or necessary, and even though the human functions as a fictitious point of unity in the non-purposeful unfolding of evolution, one that in time will no doubt will be overcome by other forms of matter’s stabilisation, its temporary presence in the duration of things arguably poses him or her with a unique responsibility.


Joanna Zylinska is translator of Summa Technologiae by Stanislaw Lem. She is professor of new media and communications at Goldsmiths, University of London, and author of Bioethics in the Age of New Media and The Ethics of Cultural Studies.

"At the end of the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas wrote the Summa Theologiae, an ambitious compendium of all orthodox philosophical and theological knowledge about the world. Seven hundred years later, science fiction author Stanisław Lem writes his Summa Technologiae, an equally ambitious but unorthodox investigation into the perplexities and enigmas of humanity and its relationship to an equally enigmatic world in which it finds itself embedded. In this work Lem shows us science fiction as a method of inquiry, one that renders the future as tenuous as the past, with a wavering, ‘phantomatic’ present always at hand."
—Eugene Thacker, author of After Life

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

On star stuff, 'Science's Unruly Earth Mother,' and the scientific art of empirical rebellion

Award-winning science writer, editor, and theorist

“Every scientific idea passes through three stages,” wrote William Whewell in his 1840 Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences:

First, it is ridiculed.
Second, it is violently opposed or claimed to be of only minor importance.
Third, it is accepted as self-evident. 

Other versions and variations have appeared since, with the emergency rider that as a last resort a great new idea, to get itself properly noticed, may have to wait for the deaths of its most authoritative, and threatened, belittlers. (Noteworthy here is Arthur C. Clarke's first law, “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”) Such is one of the aporias in the history and philosophy of science, which is, after all, practiced by highly creative, highly fallible humans—that big-headed species whose members are wont to attribute near 100% correctness to their own beliefs. It is not seemly for authorities, including scientists, to wallow in a miasma of maybes. And yet this is a significant irony, as it is precisely the institutionalization of getting it wrong, of doing experiments that set up the possibility of making mistakes, and then of recognizing and correcting those mistakes, that has made science the most effective and pragmatic engine of knowledge acquisition on the planet, and given it its authority.

Cosmic Apprentice is dedicated to my parents, the pioneering biologist Lynn Margulis and the famous astronomer Carl Sagan. Although they divorced when I was three, and I heard gossip in 2002 China that my mother somehow sabotaged my father’s career, and more recently, on new atheist evolutionist Jerry Coyne’s blog that my father would be embarrassed by my mother’s ideas, the truth is that she more than he was ahead of her time. Not only have I fulfilled the maudlin fantasy of a child of divorce by putting them together again in my book but I would argue that certain tribal but anti-science forces have worked to marginalize my mother’s work relative to my father’s. One is a fundamental conservativism in the face of new ideas, whether testable and tested or not. My father was a prolific scientific and popular author, whose media presence essentially democratized enlightenment scientific knowledge using the powerful medium of television. Like certain other cultural figures his visage is displayed above quotes in sight-bite memes on Facebook. The most famous of these snippets (and it is enough to make some theologians apoplectic) is that we are “star stuff”—the materialist realization that the most numerous atoms in our bodies, hydrogen, is also the most numerous atom in the universe, a glittering panorama whose celebrity status will be written in lights long after earthbound luminaries have expired and their names have been forgotten.

My father’s advocacy of the possibility of life on other planets would have gotten him into a heap of trouble in another time. Giordano Bruno was lured to Rome by the papacy, then detained, then sentenced to death, a spike driven through his palate and one through his tongue, after which he was burnt at the stake (the crowd threatening to boycott such future public conflagrations if they were to be thoughtlessly deprived of the enjoyment of hearing the impenitent’s screams), for prematurely espousing such sentiments. But by the time of the space race, NASA Moon landings, American technology and popularization of science via the excitement of science fiction, my father’s idée fixe (as my mother termed it) of the probability of extraterrestrial life was no longer an invitation to state murder. It was informed speculation, not heresy. What once drove a stake through Bruno’s tongue, was now used to draw attention to global science education and planetary connectedness. Even the Vatican, which has its own retinue of astronomers, is interested in the possibility of life in outer space, perhaps in part because, as I recently read in a science fiction story, aliens and robots could increase the numbers of the Catholic devout. (See: "Habemus Papam" by Helmuth W. Mommers, included in the anthology The Black Mirror and Other Stories.)

Lynn Margulis, mother of Dorion Sagan,
was dubbed "Science's Unruly
Earth Mother" by Nature magazine.
My mother’s contributions, while overlapping with those of my father (she helped found the Planetary Biology Internship and the Planetary Biology and Microbial Ecology programs at NASA), were more untimely. She thus required more of Brunian and Galilean fortitude to make her case. Fortunately, she was fearless. She worked doggedly for decades, and compiled striking and multifarious evidence for the theory, now genetically proven, that our mitochondria derive from free-living bacteria. With James E. Lovelock, who once shared an office with my father, she focused attention on the deep biological contribution to processes that had previously been considered solely geological. However, this second contribution, colorfully named Gaia, after the Greek term for mother Earth, attracted a hippie following, echoed Native American views, and emboldened feminists fed up with patriarchy and Christianity—associations that led to an initial knee-jerk dismissal by mainstream scientists. Yet it is now taught on college campuses all over the world under a different name: Earth systems science—the study of the cybernetic loops and links, some hundreds of millions of years in the making, between life and the environment. For her trailblazing trouble she was tagged in the top science magazine Nature as “Science’s Unruly Earth Mother.”

But that was then. In the weeks and months since she died in 2011, the public has been inundated with a spate of articles on the microbial constitution of our biological, physiological, and psychological identity—often without mentioning her. On Whewell’s amusing scale her world-scientific insights are caught between stages two and three, which we may paraphrase as “You’re right, but the idea is trivial” and “You’re right, the idea is important, but yes we knew this all along.”


Dorion Sagan is author of numerous books that have been translated into thirteen languages. In Cosmic Apprentice, a volume of essays that challenge scientific and philosophical dogma, he discusses his mother’s ideas in "The Human is More than Human," and explores the reticence to new ideas in "Priests of the Modern Age."

"Profound, elegant, and funny, Cosmic Apprentice is a treat for anyone who likes to think—that is, for any true member of the Craniata, equipped with both brains and backbones!"
Greg Bear

"As if to define what science is and what philosophy is weren’t hard enough, to delineate how the two fit together appears a formidable task, one that has spurred rather intense opinions. But that’s precisely what Dorion Sagan, who has previously examined the prehistoric history of sex, braves in the introduction to Cosmic Apprentice: Dispatches from the Edges of Science. The essays in Cosmic Apprentice go on to explore such inevitably captivating subjects as our sense of identity, the nonlinearity of time, and the ethical dilemmas of biopolitics."
—Brain Pickings

Monday, May 20, 2013

Railroad wars and the St. Paul Union Depot

The St. Paul Union Depot was among the busiest and best-known places in the city—one of the largest depots in the nation and St. Paul's link to the world. Here, John W. Diers, author of St. Paul Union Depot, recounts a piece of that history, illustrated with images that appear in the book. Look to this space on occasional Mondays in May for more of St. Paul Union Depot's story.

In 1915 the Union Depot Company revealed plans for a depot so large that it
would have required diverting the channel of the Mississippi River to make
room for it. This artist's rendering shows architect Charles Frost's
conceptual design. The building would have faced Third Street with the
main entrance on Sibley Street. Images from St. Paul Union Depot
by John W. Diers.


Railroad wars and the depot that was never built

Firefighters were summoned to the St. Paul Union Depot late on the evening of October 3, 1913. A small fire smoldering in the second-floor restaurant kitchen, undetected for perhaps an hour, had burned its way through an inside wall, found a draft, and exploded, enveloping the entire upper half of the building. It was the second fire in the depot in thirty years, and it left St. Paul and more than two hundred daily passenger trains without a rail station.

The railroads responded to the emergency with their usual efficiency, clearing away rubble and transforming an adjoining warehouse into a temporary depot. There was no interruption to passenger service, but it would take five years before construction started on the new facility, a situation that led to much complaint from city leaders and the traveling public.

Planning for a new depot was already under way when the old depot burned. The board of directors had formed an engineering committee and appointed W.C. Armstrong, then chief engineer of the Union Depot Company, as engineer for the project. However, there was mixed enthusiasm, especially over the size and the cost of the new facility. The Great Northern, Northern Pacific, Burlington, Milwaukee and Omaha were enthusiastic backers of a grand new passenger station as was the City of St. Paul. The Soo Line, the Rock Island, and the Minneapolis & St. Louis ran fewer passenger trains but were persuaded of the need for a new terminal and were sensitive to the public interest.

Chicago Great Western president Samuel Felton held a different view. Much of the public frustration over delays would rest squarely on his shoulders. Felton was a difficult man with an even more difficult task, rescuing the Chicago Great Western, a weak railroad recovering from a 1909 receivership. The Great Western was in no position to fund what Felton considered an extravagant project, and he resolutely opposed the plans of the other railroads arguing for a much smaller facility, possibly and prophetically in St. Paul’s Midway District. Said Felton, “If the City of St. Paul wants a civic monument, they should pay for it.”

The ground floor of the 1915 proposal.

The board responded to Felton’s charges and directed depot company president Edmund Pennington to secure a second opinion. Pennington hired John F. Wallace, former chief engineer for the Panama Canal project. Wallace came to St. Paul on June 2, 1914 to review the proposed plans and inspect the site. He also considered the area between Minneapolis and St. Paul and the possibility and desirability of building a union station in St. Paul’s Midway.

Wallace agreed with Felton’s concerns over costs, recommending a $15 million as opposed to the $18 million budget then under consideration. However, he rejected the Midway site, recommending, “That the extension and development of the union passenger terminal on the site of the old station will best serve the railroads and the City of St. Paul.”

The proposed station would grow the terminal property from 17.2 to 54.2 acres enough room for twenty-six tracks. Total track mileage would go from 9.2 to 24.9. A three level station building would rest on the corner of Sibley and Third Street. More land would be needed and to avoid taking developed property north of Third Street two plans called for diverting the channel of the Mississippi River. One would direct the river just below Raspberry Island to a new channel over the river flats. The other more ambitious plan would return it to an ancient channel from Harriet Island around the West Side Bluffs reclaiming six hundred to seven hundred acres of land for commercial development.

Felton objected, pointing to declining passenger revenues and the loss of short haul, local business due to increased automobile competition. He was, also, alarmed by the sharp increase in construction costs due to the outbreak of war in Europe. His concerns were valid but irrelevant, because early in 1915 the War Department rejected plans to relocate the river channel and the entire project had to begin all over again. Two more years would go by before construction started. There was much complaint, but this time it wasn’t the railroads’ fault.

Chicago Great Western president Samuel Felton (front row, far left)
joined other railroad executives at a 1921 White House meeting.
Felton thought plans for the new depot were far too ambitious and
expensive. He argued for a smaller facility, possibly in St. Paul's
Midway District. History would prove him right.

Building the depot, 1917-1926

Starting over meant tearing up the old plans and turning away from the river to a strip of land north of the existing depot along Third Street, an area then occupied by warehouses, the temporary depot and freight facilities owned by the Great Northern.

Providing adequate capacity for moving trains, people, and mail and express was fundamental to the planning. The final design that emerged was a terminal encompassing some 21 acres of land, 21 tracks, nine passenger boarding platforms, engine servicing facilities, and a yard office. Great Northern and Northern Pacific coach yards were located off site. Space, was also needed for baggage, mail, and express. In 1916 the depot received and forwarded 1,285,262 pieces of baggage. Approximately 445 tons of mail passed through each day along with 5 million items of express handled annually. The final design was projected to handle up to 1.1 million passengers per year and reach capacity in 1955. Ironically, it never did because, by the time it was completed in 1924-25, the passenger train was already in decline.

Charles Sumner Frost was selected as project architect. Frost was one of the most productive architects of the Gilded Age. With his business partner, Alfred Granger, their firm, Frost and Granger, is credited with some 200-railroad passenger stations, not to mention dozens of office buildings, schools, and private residences. Besides St. Paul Union Depot, Frost was the architect for the Great Northern and Milwaukee depots in Minneapolis.

Frost proposed several designs. One sketch shows a grand esplanade, reminiscent of Washington Union station and the City Beautiful, stretching from Sixth Street to the depot’s entrance on Fourth. It pleased city fathers but the railroads had little enthusiasm for such grandeur and expense, and it was never built. The terminal that emerged was less opulent than others of that era and was given mixed praise. Railway Age in 1920 called it “a structure of monumental proportions and classic design”; some sixty years later, in its 1974 inventory form, the National Register of Historic Places saw it as a “severe and rather sober example of Neo-classical architecture.” Frank Lloyd Wright thought it “a beautifully spacious building, even if they did dog ear the tops of the columns.”

There were several components in Frost’s design: a head house and business lobby, a concourse leading to the waiting room, the waiting room itself, platforms, the track structure and approaches, and the undertrack rooms for the handling of mail and express. St. Paul Union Depot was the largest construction project in downtown St. Paul in the twentieth century, and like today’s freeways, it was built while traffic continued to move around the construction. There was nowhere to detour the approximately two hundred trains that called every day, so construction proceeded in four stages with contractors working around a steady stream of trains, people, and mail and express. Although work began in 1917 with the demolition of a number of old warehouses along Third Street, the First World War and financing issues delayed completion of the new head house until April of 1920. This first phase also involved construction of a temporary concourse, or passageway to the old train shed.

The second phase opened with the demolition of the temporary facilities and adjoining structures and construction of the first six elevated tracks, platforms and train sheds. At the same time, the concourse and the waiting room were extended over Third Street. This was completed in 1921. Phases three and four involved extending the waiting room and completing the remaining elevated tracks. Phase three was completed in February 1924. Phase four was finished in February 1925. With the exception of miscellaneous finishing work that extended into 1926, February 1925 marked the end of construction. At last it was done. Now would come the challenge of making it work.

The head house was completed in 1920 with the concourse and waiting rooms finished between 1922 and 1924.


John W. Diers, author of St. Paul Union Depot, has worked in management in the transit industry for thirty-five years, including twenty-five years at the Twin Cities Metropolitan Transit Commission, where he started as a bus driver–dispatcher, then moved on to administrative assistant to the general manager, division superintendent, chief of radio communications, and manager of maintenance administration. He also worked with ATE Management and Services as general manager of the transit system in Racine, Wisconsin. He is now an independent consultant on transit operations and a writer and researcher on transportation history. He has written for Trains magazine and is coauthor, with Aaron Isaacs, of Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul (Minnesota, 2007). He has served on the board of the Minnesota Transportation Museum and on the editorial board of the Ramsey County Historical Society. He is president of the Scott County (Minnesota) Historical Society.

"The story of the Union Depot is St. Paul’s story. By chronicling the history of this magnificent building from the vantage point of its current renewal, John Diers gives us an insight into how we became the city we are today."
—St. Paul Mayor Christopher B. Coleman

"The Union Depot was the heart of St. Paul in its glory days when the railroad was king. John Diers captures the energy and excitement of that era, but his narrative tells a larger story as well—an American story of creative destruction, progress, and its costs. Meticulously researched and written, lavishly illustrated, and a delight to read, St. Paul Union Depot educates, captivates, and makes one yearn to hear again the echoing call, ‘now leaving on Track 7.’"
—Mary Lethert Wingerd, author of North Country

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

'So few Nates, so many, many Davids': Six Feet Under and the return of death to the home

Writer, university administrator, former journalist

In the not-so-distant past, death and life co-existed in the home. Home was where people were born, and home was where people died. Upon death, the family prepped the body for burial, carefully washing it and clothing it. The body was then laid out in the parlor, and friends and neighbors paid their respects. My mom vividly recalls seeing her first dead body: the in-home viewing of her uncle in the late 1940s in rural Minnesota. In my book, I write about the Zimmerman family of Waseca, Minnesota, a mother and six children killed in a train-car accident in 1959. The family was waked at home for practical reasons: the funeral home simply did not have room for seven caskets.

At that time, the practice of in-home wakes had all but disappeared. The death industry had taken firm hold and convinced Americans to let professionals handle the death and post-death process. You died in a hospital or nursing home, were taken to a funeral home, embalmed, clothed, placed in a fancy casket, and put in a room that was conveniently labeled a funeral “parlor.” The language changed: “Casket,” not “coffin.” “Funeral director,” not “mortician.” “Interment,” not “burial.” Death became big business. Jessica Mitford critiqued this shift in her seminal 1963 book, The American Way of Death.

What’s been lost with this change? When you remove something from the home, from a place where it’s impossible to miss, you run the risk of removing it from consciousness. Death can be neatly tucked away, handed off to strangers, and thoughts of it pushed down—“out of sight, out of mind.”

But death is so entwined with life that it will always rise up, take us by the shoulders, and force us to look.

A television show like Six Feet Under dared to bring death back into the home. Debuting in the first year of the 21st century, Six Feet Under forced us to examine ideas about death that were common at the turn of the 20th century.

The HBO series, which aired from 2001–2005, took place in a family-run funeral home in Los Angeles. In the series premiere, the family patriarch, a funeral director, is killed in a car accident. Through the entirety of the series, viewers watch the Fisher family—mother, two sons, and daughter—stumble through life, trying to figure out their individual identities and negotiate new family dynamics in the midst of grief.

The tension of the series revolves around society’s need to formalize death and the rejection of that formality. The tension is personified in buttoned-up David, the middle child and funeral director, and free-wheeling Nate, the prodigal son who returns home after the father dies.

In the pilot episode, the family takes turns gently sprinkling dirt over the casket at the graveside service for Mr. Fisher. They use a large shaker to dispense the dirt as a way to keep their hands clean. But when it’s Nate’s turn, he rebels against the ritual. Instead, he grabs grave dirt from underneath the plastic tarp that’s supposed to look like grass in an effort to “hide” it.

David is upset and confronts Nate. Nate explains: “I refuse to sanitize this anymore. It’s like surgery—clean, antiseptic, a business. It’s a part of life, and you can’t really accept it without getting your hands dirty.”

Nate gives voice to the silence that often surrounds the death ritual. In We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down, I try to capture the Midwestern stoicism I have witnessed at funerals and wakes. I saw little raw emotion. So few Nates, so many, many Davids.

I thought Six Feet Under vibrated with realism. The insular, isolated way in which the Fisher family members grieved mirrored what happened in my own family after my father died. A lifetime of working around death cannot prepare one for the experience of grief. I had to discover this on my own, as did each of the fictional Fishers. In the pilot episode, Nate recounts a Sicilian funeral he once witnessed, the old Sicilian women clad in black, keening and wailing over the casket. He recounts that memory to his sister as they sit in the stuffy, quiet funeral home during their father’s wake. Nate says: “I had been around funerals my entire life, but I had never seen such grief.”

Since Six Feet Under, other networks have trotted out shows about the death industry. During the run of Six Feet Under, the A&E network aired “Family Plots,” a reality show about a funeral-home family in Poway, California. Lately, TLC has been showing episodes of Best Funeral Ever, which documents the funeral-preparation process at a Dallas funeral home.

If the days of in-home preparation and wakes are never to return, then at least TV can encourage living-room conversations about death. We have managed to remove death from our everyday lives, to corral it into neat ceremony and ritual. But like wild animals penned up in cramped quarters, it will always look for a way to escape, to go back home where it belongs.


Rachael Hanel is author of We'll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger's Daughter. She has written more than twenty nonfiction books for children, and her essays have been published in the Bellingham Review and New Delta Review. She lives in Minnesota.

—Alison Bechdel, author of Fun Home

"We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down gently untucks dying, death, and mourning from the dark recesses of the drawer we Midwesterners, descendants of the stoic and neat, have kept it. Choice passages of Hanel’s story so affected me that my throat went sore swallowing grief."
—Nicole Helget, author of The Turtle Catcher

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Disenchanted: On Budd Schulberg's Hollywood writing assignment with F. Scott Fitzgerald.

A Q&A with Benn Schulberg, who is the son of Budd Schulberg, author of The Disenchanted, which was reissued in a University of Minnesota Press edition in September 2012. The moving, controversial novel captured both the dazzling spirit and the bitter disenchantment of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jazz Age. It centers around an ill-fated screenplay writing gig between the fictional Manley Halliday and young writer Shep Stearns, with events directly inspired by a real-life Hollywood screenplay writing assignment between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Budd Schulberg.

F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1937.
Image from Creative Commons; photographer
is Carl Van Vechten.

How big of an F. Scott Fitzgerald fan was Budd Schulberg before he met him?

My father was a huge admirer of FSF and you could go so far as to say he was one of his literary heroes. Of course, as many others did, my father didn't even know he was still alive. That's how far FSF had fallen since his golden years during the 1920s.

My father was completely shocked when Walter Wanger told him FSF was in the next room reading his script for Winter Carnival.

My dad waited anxiously for FSF to finish reading the script and when they met he told Budd it wasn't very good. My father said, "I agree with you," and their endearing friendship began from that moment forth.  

You are currently in possession of FSF's social security card. Could you explain the events that led you to obtain it?

My father told this story many times and it still remains one of my favorites. They were en route via train to their destination at Dartmouth, along with Wanger, who was anticipating a brilliant script to be ready in time for production there. FSF had fallen off the wagon ever since my grandfather, B.P. Schulberg, gave Budd bottles of champagne to take on the flight from Los Angeles to NYC. He was equally ecstatic that Budd was working with FSF, but neither was aware of his delicate sobriety at the time.

Long story short, Scott, as my father always called him, got off the train during an extended stopover when he saw the opportunity of a bar nearby. Budd followed and they lost track of time. When they heard the call from the conductor and tried to run for it, FSF fell off his stool with his wallet and other papers came out. My dad snatched them up and they made a run for it as the train sped away. They ended up tracking the train down in cab at the next stop and somehow my father kept FSF's social security card in his pocket.  

How did your father feel about the Roaring Twenties after his encounter with Fitzgerald?

I wouldn’t say Fitzgerald changed his perspective of the era, but it did make him realize how quickly success can vanish, even for the most gifted of artists. Yet, growing up as the son of an early film pioneer made my father an expert in the pitfalls of the entertainment business and how quickly careers can change. For Budd, the Twenties were important for his own development as a writer and represented the golden years for the Schulberg family, with B.P. on his way to running Paramount Pictures and his marriage to Ad still intact while settling down in Hancock Park.  

Did your father talk much about his time with Fitzgerald?

I was always very curious about my father’s life and fascinated that he knew FSF. I spent hours asking questions about their relationship and vividly remember staying up late listening to my father tell me about his experiences with FSF. The beautiful aspect of my father’s storytelling is that once you got him on a subject he’d take you on a detailed and quite magical ride. He always enjoyed talking about FSF and had only positive memories of him. He found him endearing and supportive of his career.

One thing that shocked my father was FSF’s physical condition. He was a relatively young man who looked so old and worn that my father couldn’t believe it was him.

As for favorite anecdote, I’d have to go back to their train ride together to Dartmouth. Since leaving Los Angeles together and holing up in a NYC hotel to re-write the script, nothing had been accomplished except excessive drinking and late night reminisces. My father tried to get FSF working, to no avail. At one point in their NYC hotel suite, FSF told Budd to go in one room and write the first half, and he would write the second, and later they’d reconvene and put it together. My dad knew they were in trouble but went along with FSF’s plan. One night in NYC, my dad returned to the suite to find FSF gone with only a drunken note left behind. My father spent hours scouring the bars near the hotel and eventually found him basically passed out in a booth.

Walter Wanger kept asking Budd how things were going and my father would cover for the pair to satisfy their producer’s concerns. The truth was, though, that they ultimately had the train ride up to Dartmouth to prove their worth to Wanger and FSF’s drinking had gotten out of control. The story goes that during the early morning hours on the train, FSF came up with a new pitch idea for Winter Carnival and told it to my father in a drunken stupor. Budd didn’t think it was very good and was horrified when FSF said he wanted to go to Wanger’s room at that moment and tell him. They knocked in the middle of the night and Wanger opened the door in his bathrobe and said, “This better be good.” My father wasn’t exactly sober himself and had quite a bad stutter in those days, especially when nervous. He figured FSF would pitch the new idea to Wanger, but instead, FSF said, “Well Budd why don’t you tell it?” It was disastrous as my father stuttered his way through this cockamamie story that FSF just came up with. Wanger was furious and kicked them out of his room and it was clear to my father that the end was near for the FSF-Budd Schulberg dream partnership.  

One particularly compelling line I took from the book is from Anne (a character modeled after gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, with whom FSF had a relationship toward the end of his life): "An athlete's career is just the opposite of an artist's. The athlete matures faster, loses his reflexes through his twenties and is washed up in his thirties. But an artist should build slowly through his twenties, start maturing in his thirties and reach his peak in his fifties or sixties. Maybe that's the trouble with you American writers, you think of yourselves as athletic stars." This quote seems to speak rather poetically to Fitzgerald's career. What does it tell you with regard to your father's own career? 

Interesting question, and sadly for Fitzgerald, alcohol was ultimately his downfall. My father always said that FSF was maybe the most talented writer he’d ever come across and he found him incredibly insightful and obviously a master of prose. Ironically, my father often compared writers to boxers (a sport he followed and wrote about throughout his life) in the sense that both were exposed for all to see and had to hone their craft alone with all the doubters and critics trying to cast them down. My father’s resilience was one of his greatest attributes and allowed him his remarkable longevity. FSF lived only 44 years and to think my dad made it to 95 is just amazing. He never thought of himself as a star and had the ability to move from project to project in a very compartmentalized way, which enabled him to stay in the moment and not concern himself with topping his last hit or worry what people will think of his next work. That was such a key for him, and thankfully for me, he outlived all the other great writers of his day.  

How does this particular line from The Disenchanted strike you, as Budd's son? "You feel an absurd pride when your son turns out to look like you. And another savage shot-in-the-arm when he begins to emulate you." 

That’s a helluva line. I think it speaks to the perils of the entertainment industry and growing up as Budd’s son, similar to how he felt with his father, your understanding of the dangers of the business are magnified because of your experience inside that world.

You've got a film, Hollywood Renegade, forthcoming about your father's life and "the many lives of Budd Schulberg." Can you tell us a bit about it?

We hope to have it ready for my father’s centennial in March. We began filming when he was 91 and the film evolved into a story about a young son who went back into his father’s life to find out who he really was. He was in his late 60s when I was born, and so his great works such as On the Waterfront and What Makes Sammy Run? were obviously before my time. We went back to Hollywood and filmed in the house he grew up in and to the Paramount lot where he used to sit on the bench with Charlie Chaplin, joke with the Marx brothers, and play pranks on various stars. We also went back to Hoboken, where On the Waterfront was filmed, and many other places. The film, though, is more than just a nostalgic journey into the past. It’s a political story that centers on the McCarthy Era and the price one pays for his beliefs, and ultimately the sacrifice one makes for freedom of speech and protecting a nation from the dangers of communism.  

More information:  

Also of interest: A video by the Robert H. Jackson Center of Budd Schulberg on F. Scott Fitzgerald.


Benn Schulberg is writer, producer and director of Hollywood Renegade: The Many Lives of Budd Schulberg. He is the son of Budd Schulberg, whose many novels include The Disenchanted, What Makes Sammy Run? and The Harder They Fall.

"[Manley Halliday] will haunt the imagination of all who have the good fortune to be coming, for the first time, to this remarkable novel." 
Anthony Burgess  

"As Fitzgeraldian as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Halliday is the very essence of ‘the lost generation.’" 
—Library Journal

Fitzgerald's past and the writing of The Great Gatsby

Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald in September 1921
in Dellwood, Minnesota, about a month before their daughter,
Scottie, was born. Image from Creative Commons;
originates with Minnesota Historical Society.

Literary biographer and author of Fool for Love: F. Scott Fitzgerald

Toward the end of 1923, F. Scott Fitzgerald underwent one of his periods of remorse for the reckless style of life he and Zelda were pursuing in and around New York. They’d lived in Westport for a time, and he embedded some of that experience in his second novel, The Beautiful and Damned (1922) – a book that sold well but that lacked the passionate authorial involvement of This Side of Paradise (1920), the youthful first novel that won him a wife and began to forge his reputation as a chronicler of the Jazz Age. The Fitzgeralds next came to St. Paul for the birth of their daughter Scottie and returned east to a house in Great Neck, Long Island (or West Egg, in Gatsby).

In Great Neck they became involved with people from the news and entertainment fields – producer Gene Buck and his actress wife Helen, the talented and alcoholic writer Ring Lardner, and eminent journalist Herbert Bayard Swope, among others. They partied away their nights and Fitzgerald, hungover, wasted many of his days. So he excoriated himself in confessions to his editor Max Perkins. He promised Perkins – and himself – to change the way he was living. He needed to buy time for a new novel that was beginning to take shape in his subconscious, and he needed a place, far from the revels of Great Neck, where he could write it.

But he was also nearly broke: he and Zelda were careless about money. So he buckled down early in 1924, went on the wagon, and turned out some of his most forgettable but still salable short stories. By April he was $7,000 ahead, and ready to escape to the French Riviera, where favorable exchange rates drove down the cost of living. It was there, in an elegant rented villa above St. Raphäel, that Scott Fitzgerald wrote his masterpiece. “Living in the book” as never before, he abandoned the riotous diversions that had become habitual in his marriage. He may also have neglected his husbandly duties. Zelda found new companions on the beach – three young French aviators – and paired off with one of them, Edouard Jozan, in a serious relationship. Jozan, who later became an admiral in the navy, gallantly denied that he and Zelda slept together. We do not know what did or did not happen between them. Female critics and commentators on the Fitzgeralds are generally inclined to doubt that the affair became adulterous. Most of their male counterparts assume that it did.

There is no question, though, that Zelda felt a strong physical attraction to Jozan – for evidence, readers might look at her novel, Save Me the Waltz – and that Scott was undone when he looked up from his desk to discover what was going on. The incident caused a rift in their marriage, and it may well have given Fitzgerald the emotional jolt to create scenes of confrontation between husband, wife, wife’s lover, not only in Gatsby but again, a decade later, in Tender Is the Night.

I don’t mean to suggest that Daisy Fay Buchanan is modeled on Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald. No, it was Ginevra King who sat for his portrait of Daisy: Ginevra, the beautiful girl from wealthy exurban Lake Forest he’d fallen in love with during his years at Princeton; Ginevra, who casually jilted him to marry one of her own sort; Ginevra, whose father once remarked in his hearing that “poor boys shouldn’t think of marrying rich girls.”

That was the story Fitzgerald was telling in the great “Winter Dreams,” a run-up to The Great Gatsby set in St. Paul, and “Black Bear Lake.” As in most of his best writing, the power derived from a sense of loss. Fitzgerald was a romantic, and loss was his great theme: loss of the golden girl, and still more the loss of illusions. It’s in this sense that Nick Carraway can conclude that Jay Gatsby was worth more than whole damned bunch of East Eggers – Tom Buchanan, Jordan Baker – put together. At the end Nick still disapproves of Gatsby for his pink suits and circus wagon of a car, his materialistic display of many-colored shirts, his ridiculously ostentatious parties, his criminally gotten gains. Yet Nick values above all Gatsby’s unwillingness to give up his dreams or allow himself to be disillusioned. When the inevitable ending comes, Jimmy Gatz is still waiting for the telephone call from Daisy that was never going to come. When she rang him, he still believed, they could continue repeating the past together.


Scott Donaldson, author of Fool for Love: F. Scott Fitzgerald, is one of the nation’s leading literary biographers. Among his many books are By Force of Will: The Life and Art of Ernest Hemingway; Archibald MacLeish: An American Life, winner of the Ambassador Book Award for Biography; and Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship.

"The most penetrating psychological examination of the author ever written."
—James L. W. West III, editor of The Cambridge Edition of the Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald

"A stunning portrait. Full of intriguing insights. Donaldson comes close to what the inner man must have been."
—Publishers Weekly

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Ready for farmers market season? Find out when your favorite produce is in season and how to use it with tips from Beth Dooley.

Photographs by Mette Nielsen, from Minnesota's Bounty.

Has covered the local food scene in the Northern Heartland for 25 years; author of, most recently, Minnesota's Bounty: The Farmers Market Cookbook

Opening days at local farmers markets are the most exciting of the year! Here’s our payoff for winter’s patience. Cooks can kick back a bit, because food this fresh practically cooks itself, needing little more than a sprinkle of this or drizzle of that and a lot of aromatic herbs. The markets are living calendars as brilliant flavorful vegetables appear, all different and at their peak, week after week.

Here’s a guide to what you may find each month with tips on how best to use it. Of course, there’s no accounting for the weather, and not everything arrives on schedule. All of these recipes are highly adaptable. Feel free to substitute one for another. Shop, cook, and eat!

(Recipes from Minnesota's Bounty by Beth Dooley. Click each one for a full-screen version.)

What you'll find in season: Lettuces, watercress, and asparagus.
Recommended recipe: Grilled Asparagus with Shallots and Orange Slices

What you'll find in season: Most definitely PEAS! Also radishes and rhubarb.
Recommended recipe: Radish and Pea Salad

What you'll find in season: Peppers! Corn! Green Beans! Eggplant! Strawberries!
Recommended recipe: Eggplant and Tomato Sandwiches

What you'll find in season: More peppers, corn, green beans, eggplant, TOMATOES, and blueberries.
Recommended recipe: Tomato Potato Gratin

What you'll find in season: Early apples, raspberries, pears, kale, collards, arugula, and late-season tomatoes.
Recommended recipe: Apple Mint Salsa


Feeling adventurous this summer? Here are some specialties you'll find at markets around the state.

-Fresh Ginger from Winona – White Water Farms (later in the season)

-Heirloom Apples – look for these at the Duluth Market

-Tomatoes – Mill City Market

-Fresh Herbs – Minneapolis Farmers Market (Lyndale)

-Cheeses – At the St. Paul Market, find Mary Falk of Love Tree Farms (sheeps milk, goats, milk and cows milk cheeses)

-Fresh shell beans at the Fulton Market


Beth Dooley has covered the local food scene in the Northern Heartland for twenty-five years: she is a restaurant critic for Mpls.St.Paul Magazine, writes for the Taste section of the Minneapolis and St. Paul Star Tribune, and appears regularly on KARE-11 (NBC) television in the Twin Cities area. She is author of Minnesota's Bounty: The Farmers Market Cookbook; The Northern Heartland Kitchen; and coauthor with Lucia Watson of Savoring the Seasons of the Northern Heartland. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and three sons.

"Beth Dooley has written much more than a cookbook. This valuable resource and guide to Minnesota’s farmers markets is sure to inspire and nourish you with connection to your food, your farmers, and Minnesota’s rich sustainable-agriculture tradition."
—Terry Walters, author of Clean Food

"Beth’s love for farmers markets and delicious food go hand in hand. She will inspire you to shop the markets in the Heartland and get into your kitchen to cook scrumptious meals that nourish bodies and souls."
—Brenda Langton, author of The Spoonriver Cookbook

Monday, May 6, 2013

Mixed enthusiasm, fast growth: The early history of the St. Paul Union Depot.

The St. Paul Union Depot was among the busiest and best-known places in the city—one of the largest depots in the nation and St. Paul's link to the world. Here, John W. Diers, author of St. Paul Union Depot, recounts a piece of that history, illustrated with images that appear in the book. Look to this space on occasional Mondays in May for more of St. Paul Union Depot's story.

Designed by local architect Leroy S. Buffington, St. Paul's first union depot opened in 1881. It replaced the four separate stations then used by the railroads serving the city. The building was claimed by fire in 1913.


Why a union depot company?

Railroad depots came in many different shapes and sizes, from a simple shelter to Penn Station in all of its magnificence. Most were owned and operated by the railroad that used them, but in some instances several railroads serving a town or city came together and formed a union depot company to own and operate a single passenger station. Such was the case in St. Paul.

The 1878 edition of the Official Guide found seven railroads and thirty-eight daily passenger trains arriving and departing from four depots crowded on, or near, the Mississippi levee. None of these stations were adequate for the hundreds of people passing through them every day, not to mention the volume of baggage, mail, and express that had to be loaded and unloaded or carted from one station to another. Railroad managements at the time foresaw that a growth in traffic was inevitable once the Northern Pacific competed its line to the Pacific coast and the St. Paul & Pacific built into the Red River Valley and the Canadian border. St. Paul city fathers were enthusiastic about railroads and encouraged their development, helping to sell bonds to promote construction and giving away land to build warehouse buildings and elevators on the levee where railroads and steamboats could exchange traffic. There were around 20,000 people in St. Paul in 1870 (up from 10,000 in 1860). By 1872, St. Paul had its first horse-car line running from Lowertown to Seven Corners. The city was spreading beyond the river, reaching west toward what would be the Midway District.

The need was obvious but the solution less so. There were disputes among the seven railroads over ownership and access to terminal facilities. Should it be a union depot company, or should one railroad own the depot with the other railroads as tenant in a joint facility arrangement?

James J. Hill’s St. Paul & Pacific preferred a joint facility arrangement with it as the owner and the other railroads as tenants, but the other railroads wanted a union depot company and their interests prevailed. Thus, on January 24, 1879, all of the general managers of the railroads serving St. Paul signed the articles of incorporation of the St. Paul Union Depot Company and set its capital stock at $250,000. Six months later Alpheus B. Stickney was elected its first president.

The Union Depot Company was wholly owned by the railroads, each of them subscribing to shares of its capital stock and holding a seat on its board of directors. The board elected officers from among its members with the presidency rotated from one year to the next. The officers hired the depot managers.

An operating agreement among the owning companies governed day-to-day operations and how the costs of these operations were apportioned. With some modifications this agreement would define the relationships among the owning railroads for the life of the depot company and the three depots that were eventually constructed on the site.

The first union depot was completed and opened for business on August 21, 1881, beginning a history that would last almost 90 years until the evening of April 30, 1971, when the final passenger train departed St. Paul, and Amtrak took over what remained of the nation’s intercity passenger trains. With no trains and no business, the St. Paul Union Depot Company was dissolved.

The union depot's 1889 train shed under construction. Train sheds were a hallmark of 19th-century railroad depots.

A Tale of Two Depots

1879 found mixed enthusiasm for a new union depot on St. Paul’s Mississippi levee. The location was subject to flooding and soil conditions were not the best. Historically the area had been a bog. Much fill would be required and track approaches would have to be built on pilings, problems that would never completely go away. But more important, there was intense opposition from steamboat interests who contended a depot at the levee would obstruct access to the riverfront. When the railroads, forever seeking the easiest grade, followed the river into St. Paul they, too, occupied the levee. It was close to the commercial center of St. Paul and offered a good connection with the steamboats. However, there wasn’t enough room for both, and as railroad traffic increased, steamboat interests came under increasing pressure to yield to the railroads. The steamboat interests filed suit. When the lawsuit failed, the railroads moved quickly to begin construction.

Prominent local architect L. S. Buffington was hired to design the building. Work began on June 1, 1880, but a year was consumed improving the site. Built at a cost of $250,000, the depot building, associated yards, roundhouse and locomotive coaling and watering facilities covered nine and one-half acres. The complex could accommodate seventy-five trains a day, a number that soon proved grossly inadequate.

Mark Twain, in an 1882 visit to St. Paul, commented in his Life on the Mississippi, “There is an unusually fine railway-station; so large is it, in fact, that it seemed somewhat overdone, in the matter of size, at first; but at the end of a few months it was perceived that the mistake was distinctly the other way.”

It would take some forty years to make the correction, and by then the passenger train was in decline. But in 1882 it was about manifest destiny, the pending completion of the Northern Pacific’s line to the Pacific, and the sure and inevitable growth in passenger and freight traffic to follow as thousands of immigrants passed through St. Paul and the depot on their way to settle the Dakotas, Montana, and the Pacific Northwest.

Shortly after midnight on June 11, 1884, a fire started in the depot’s restaurant kitchen. It spread quickly. The entire building burned to the ground. It was a disaster, but the railroads responded and a new, somewhat larger, depot opened in the fall of 1884.

There would be other improvements. A huge, 120,960-square-foot train shed, covering all nine tracks and five boarding platforms, was constructed in 1889. Other additions were made in 1900–1903, but they failed to meet passenger demand. Between 1889 and 1910, passenger traffic doubled. Five railroads joined the depot company, others merged, and three completed lines to the Pacific, essentially completing the network of rail lines entering St. Paul Union Depot.

The depot’s greatest test came in the summer of 1896 with the annual encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization of Union Army Veterans. The depot and the railroads serving St. Paul had never seen such crowds. Between August 31 and September 5, 1896, 1,172 trains and 8,074 passenger and baggage cars brought 200,000 people through the depot. 29,309 passenger trains used the depot in 1898, and 37,599 in 1899—an increase of 28 percent.

The Sibley Street side of the station after the fire. The 1899-1900
addition survived and would become the baggage room. The rest
of the building would be demolished.
The depot had run out of capacity and a new facility was needed, but there was no consensus among the owning railroads, or city fathers, as to the location, size, and cost of a new depot. Individually, the railroads were in favor of a grand new station, but collectively there was no agreement. The controversy dragged on for more than ten years, but on the night of October 3, 1913, the old depot was destroyed by fire.

A decision was forced upon them.

For the next part of the story, check this space on May 20.


John W. Diers, author of St. Paul Union Depot, has worked in management in the transit industry for thirty-five years, including twenty-five years at the Twin Cities Metropolitan Transit Commission, where he started as a bus driver–dispatcher, then moved on to administrative assistant to the general manager, division superintendent, chief of radio communications, and manager of maintenance administration. He also worked with ATE Management and Services as general manager of the transit system in Racine, Wisconsin. He is now an independent consultant on transit operations and a writer and researcher on transportation history. He has written for Trains magazine and is coauthor, with Aaron Isaacs, of Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul (Minnesota, 2007). He has served on the board of the Minnesota Transportation Museum and on the editorial board of the Ramsey County Historical Society. He is president of the Scott County (Minnesota) Historical Society.

"The story of the Union Depot is St. Paul’s story. By chronicling the history of this magnificent building from the vantage point of its current renewal, John Diers gives us an insight into how we became the city we are today."
—St. Paul Mayor Christopher B. Coleman

"The Union Depot was the heart of St. Paul in its glory days when the railroad was king. John Diers captures the energy and excitement of that era, but his narrative tells a larger story as well—an American story of creative destruction, progress, and its costs. Meticulously researched and written, lavishly illustrated, and a delight to read, St. Paul Union Depot educates, captivates, and makes one yearn to hear again the echoing call, ‘now leaving on Track 7.’"
—Mary Lethert Wingerd, author of North Country

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Shona Jackson: Belonging and Native Caribbean Identity

Shona Jackson is the author of Creole Indigeneity, an investigation of how colonial descendants of colonial Guyana, collectively called Creoles, have remade themselves as Guyana’s new natives, displacing indigenous peoples in the Caribbean through an extension of colonial attitudes and policies. Here, Jackson reveals her personal connection to the content.

Guyana, where Jackson was born.

Associate professor of English at Texas A&M University

This book springs from two disavowals and a sense of deep longing. The first disavowal occurred growing up in Guyana where I was born. Many Guyanese, collectively Creoles, are mixed but we are taught to assert our black or Indian (descended) identity to the exclusion of its composite parts—so I was raised to see my self as black despite the obvious Indian and Amerindian (native) ancestry in our family.

The second disavowal occurred after I left Guyana at the age of seven. In my first diaspora home, the U.S. Virgin Islands, identity was articulated in terms of its exclusion and difference from other Caribbean identities, especially those not yoked to U.S. political economy. When I arrived in the continental U.S. in 1989, I realized that although Guyana had taught me to see myself as black, the term African American did not include this child of the Americas.

Black identity in the U.S. was asserted in terms of an African past and not in terms of its cultural multiplicity and connectedness, for example, to Caribbean and Native cultures. Additionally, blackness in the United States has been constructed in large part against whiteness, while in the contemporary Caribbean it was understood in terms of its difference from later arrivants and links to other black cultures. By age 15 I had lived on two continents and two islands and was at home neither in the Caribbean diaspora nor in the black diaspora. So few people even knew about Guyana, much less that it is a mainland country included in the Caribbean/West Indies because of its culture and history, which significantly repeats but substantially differs from those more well-known archipelagic ones such as Jamaica. And those who knew enough not to mishear “Ghana” knew nothing more than Jim Jones, El Dorado, and, the most confidently discharged response from a professor at George Mason (where I was an adjunct): “Yes, there is a species of frogs there that they lick.” I am afraid of frogs.

Jackson's family home in Guyana.
Multiethnic, multi-religious, creative, brilliant, and impoverished, where the riot of nature threatens every slab of concrete laid down against it, the Guyana I knew seemed in the United States subject to an unrelenting fiction and one that could not grant me true belonging anywhere in the world. These disavowals and fictions of identity led me to question how we as blacks, primarily in the Caribbean, come to belong: how we in other words become indigenous and why and how certain exclusions or limits become essential to this process. It led to a rethinking of indigeneity not from the perspective of native status, but from that of the techniques of settler power and how they inform the modes of belonging of those involuntarily brought to the new world, specifically enslaved and indentured peoples.

“Creole indigeneity” is the term I use to capture these modes of belonging of subalterns that refashion settler power. In the book, I demonstrate how this occurs across political, historical and literary narrative to produce a new social structure and “grammar” of being that can support and reinscribe the post-contact grammars of subaltern settlers whose mode of becoming rests now not on the time of prior origin but on the time of their labor, deeply embedded within modernity. Creole Indigeneity rethinks Enlightenment humanism, as it is adapted by subalterns for their own ontological and political sovereignty. It also achieves a rethinking of the project of postcolonial nationalism in the Caribbean as a nativizing project to institute that new “man,” or in the words of the late Guyanese president Forbes Burnham the “real man,” of the postcolonial humanist project and its inscription of labor as the new time of belonging for non-indigenous arrivants. In this dual critique, the book looks at how blacks and Indians reproduce or rewrite the labor of the formerly enslaved and indentured and utilize it as a legitimating narrative for nation building, belonging, and social being. The book therefore includes two chapters on political discourse that center on Forbes Burnham and Cheddi Jagan. It also engages the Calibanesque literary tradition, which is the site of constant articulation of this belonging in and through labor. It is in this tradition that the grammar of native being for blacks and Indians is articulated and the subaltern subject becomes the sovereign subject within western modernity. Not only have we reached the productive limit of the Caliban tradition which reproduces the conditions for bourgeois humanism—conquest, native displacement, and modern labor—but it leads to a misreading of indigenous writing because it is always viewed through the epistemological strategies of labor.

The most difficult part of this work has been confronting the way in which the reworking of indigeneity for Creole being has and continues to require the subordination and displacement of indigenous peoples in the Caribbean. In Guyanese society and politics, they are marginalized by every successive administration. Moreover, while they did not provide labor for the Caribbean Plantation to the extent of blacks and Indians, they are brought into the regime of labor of our discourse and forced to continue to work for creole being, where they serve as the limit of Creole humanity. The displacement of the region’s aboriginal peoples both in cultural discourse and in political economy has become essential for Creole being and sovereignty.


Shona Jackson is author of Creole Indigeneity: Between Myth and Nation in the Caribbean and associate professor of English at Texas A&M University.

"Shona Jackson’s Creole Indigeneity breaks open a long-standing conundrum on the relationship between diasporan blacks and the modes of indigeneity with which they are both intersected with and/or located as oppositional to by dominant discourses in the West. Simply put, it is must-reading for all scholars of blackness and the African Diaspora because she does indeed ‘illuminate those interwoven histories beneath the surface’ that inform our broad and deeply complex ancestries."
—Michelle M. Wright, Northwestern University 

This content also appears on the First Peoples: New Directions in Indigenous Studies blog.