Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Minnesota: Midwest or North? Karen Babine on why how we talk about place matters.

Tettegouche State Park in Minnesota on the North Shore of Lake Superior; photo taken from Palisade Head (foreground) looking NE to Shovel Point (midground) and Sawtooth Mountains (distant background).

Assistant professor of English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota

When I lived in eastern Washington, I learned the place was called the Inland Northwest and it had a separate identity from the western side of the Cascades. In Nebraska, I learned what the Great Plains meant, that they were not exactly the Midwest. Minnesota: Midwest? North? How we come to talk about the places under our feet seems to be an integral part of how we understand who we are, by knowing where we are in a way that is nameable and identifiable.

I was living in Nebraska when it adopted the slogan Nebraska Nice, a move that elicited much eye-rolling from Minnesota. On one hand, I didn’t care too much, even as I wondered about Minnesota Nice™ as an ideal and identity. If we couldn’t lay claim to that phrase—what did we have left that was uniquely ours? Who were we, as a collective?

Most Minnesotans have a list of trivia at hand when anyone challenges the legitimacy—and awesomeness—of the state. The first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature? Minnesotan. I know that many of the important apples of the last several decades (Honeycrisp, SweeTango) have come out of the University of Minnesota Ag School. We have the Mayo Clinic, 3-M, Andersen Windows, Target, Best Buy. Books, music, movies, food, history—most of us have an arsenal of examples to argue that Minnesota is valuable, because it is also a state that’s easy to make fun of.

Perhaps this is where the current debate about branding ourselves the North, a separate place from the Midwest, came from. Our state’s motto is Star of the North, after all. I still miss the hockey team being the North Stars, even though I don’t watch hockey. For myself, I don’t think too much about breaking away from the Midwest and claiming ourselves as the North. I think the idea is much more complicated than simple marketing. The idea of the North, from explorers like Roald Amundsen, writers like Sigurd F. Olson and Paul Gruchow, and more, is more of an ideal than it is a place, and it can’t be invented by boosters.

Rhetoric is important—we know this. We talk about the rhetoric we used to turn the Great American Desert into the Breadbasket of the World, while still referring to it as Flyover Country, we acknowledge that we who live in the mid-section of the country are relying on outside voices to give us the geographical identity we feel we deserve. Naturally, we know that this place is important, even if Nobody Important thinks so. But this provokes a necessary question: who are we depending on to validate our geographical and state identity?

Kent C. Ryden, in "Writing the Midwest: History, Literature, and Regional Identity," considers that regional identity, as practiced by writers (though the idea is more widely applicable), is based in “[distilling] felt and known local experience into words in order to replace insignificance with significance, vagueness with precision and meaning” (512). Geographical identity, by its very nature, is arbitrary, without clear definitions. Except for, perhaps, the exception of the Mason-Dixon line, where one region bleeds into another is always unclear. I like it this way—it makes us think, asks us to actively consider why identity and place matter. If Minnesota doesn’t feel like the Midwest, what does that mean?

I tend to think that the idea of North almost by definition obscures, rather than clarifies—and I like that idea. In the introduction to the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho’s classic Narrow Road to the Deep North, his translator, Nobuyuki Yuasa, writes that “In the imagination of the people at least, the North was largely an unexplored territory, and it represented for Basho all the mystery there was in the universe.” Is the idea of the North a search for a place where mystery and wildness still exist? The idea is problematic under scrutiny, but I wonder if this is the root.

My grandparents’ cabin in Hubbard County is still too far out for cable—in 2015—and I can still drive up the North Shore of Lake Superior and marvel that not only do I lose cell coverage for a significant portion of the drive, but also that there are still places in this country to be considered so remote, so untamed, so much unknown. But I live on the Red River Valley and my sunsets light the prairies in a show of space so immense as to be equally unknowable.

Last weekend, I was in Park Rapids and among the essential updates on my home and friends, I got the information on the benefit pancake breakfast and silent auction for a high school friend who just had surgery, she who was my first friend when we moved to Nevis nearly thirty years ago. While we might like the unknowable mysteries from our landscapes, we seek the knowable from our communities. When we do not know the next step, when tomorrow is fogged to our view, we take care of what we can: we throw pancake breakfasts, we raise money for expenses, we organize meals and rides.

Whatever the North or the Midwest is—whatever Minnesota is—it is grounded in the realities of life and love that retains what it means to be wild.

Karen Babine is assistant professor of English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota and the author of Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life. Her essays have appeared in River Teeth, Sycamore Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Ascent, and elsewhere. She is the editor of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies.

"What is the effect of place on character?  Of our birth landscape on how we see the world?  This wonderful, meditative book asks all the right questions."—Will Weaver

Friday, February 27, 2015

How early aviation inspired American utopianism

Frank Paul, "Flying Man," on the cover of Amazing Stories 3, no. 5 (August 1928).

Associate professor of architecture and architectural history at the Catholic University of America

A hundred years have passed since the world’s first scheduled passenger airline service. In Florida, on January 1, 1914, a Benoist XIV airboat flew from St. Petersburg to Tampa with one paid passenger. The distance was a mere 23 miles across the bay, but it was an epoch-making event, ushering in the age of commercial flight.

Today, air travel has become so mundane a part of our lives that it is difficult to imagine just how extraordinary this experience was in the early twentieth century.

As much as human flight was about conquering gravity and going to distant places without the travails of earthbound journeys, it was also about seeing the world anew from a privileged position in the sky. To many early passengers, viewing the geographic composition of the Earth from an airplane was like being god. This peculiar hubris in many ways foreshadowed the omnipotence with which today’s drone warfare is carried out with surgical precision, or how a satellite’s panoptic surveillance of the Earth is used to create a vast body of data on an unwitting people.

As aviation matured, a hyped cultural consciousness came into focus in America after World War I. The rapid proliferation of aerial photography of cities and landscapes during the 1920s often fused the airplane view with a Promethean seer to whom the Earth promised full disclosure. The mobile “eye” of the airplane seemed to distinguish the twentieth century from earlier times by virtue of its promise to transform fragmentary earthbound experiences into the “mingling lines of Picasso,” as noted art collector Gertrude Stein recalled her first flight over America in the 1930s.

The captivating image of an airplane flying over the rising metropolis led many Americans to believe that a new civilization had dawned. Part popular fascination and part corporate promotion, the airplane was viewed as the harbinger of the “world of tomorrow,” and the aviator was its heroic builder. It was a time of spectacular faith in a shapeable future, when technology, as the American literary critic Leo Marx suggested, seemed to have replaced political will to bring about utopia.

In all of these exuberant visions of the future, aviation presented a peculiar American twist. A new, purported vertical frontier counterbalanced the mythology of the western frontier’s horizontality. It was not surprising that when the twenty-five-year-old former Minnesota farm boy Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic solo in his monoplane on May 21, 1927, many observers assumed that his heroic flight had rekindled the American mythos of the pioneer. “Lucky Lindy” was, as one author suggested in the wake of the sensational flight, “a Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett of the air,” a twentieth-century reincarnation of the frontiersman of the Wild West.

The cover of the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Popular Aviation 3, no. 6 (December 1928).

As the American historian John Ward argued, the America of the 1920s—ambivalent about its national destiny—needed an occasion like Lindbergh’s to deliberate on what it meant to be an American. (This was, of course, before the aviator’s fall from grace due to his reactionary politics.) Aviation and the aviator seemed like an alluring new chapter on American exceptionalism.

In the 1930s, no other protagonist exemplified the populist anticipation of an ideal American character more poignantly than the pop superhero Superman, the human-shaped flying machine. Superman presented a masculine amalgamation of two Americas: The horizontal one was epitomized by the superhero’s Kansas upbringing, rooted in Jeffersonian pastoral sensibilities. The vertical one was exemplified by the rising urban theater called Metropolis, where he policed the boundaries of good and evil from the sky.

Superman may have been America’s most iconic global export, a Hollywood safe bet, a corporate brand name, and a T-shirt logo. But, at his core, he embodied how many Americans negotiated their impulse to create a suitable future. At the site of Superman’s public debut—the 1939 New York World’s Fair—President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, triumphantly, during the fair’s inauguration speech that “the eyes of the United States are fixed on the future.”

If early aviation prompted a culture of technological utopianism, it also presented a paradox. On the one hand, many thought that the solo aviator symbolized the power of the everyman; on the other hand, only a privileged few actually could get on an airplane. The corporate executives of General Motors understood this paradoxical elitist stratification of society and sought its inchoate reversal as a shrewd marketing tool. Visitors to Futurama, the auto giant’s most popular show at that same 1939 World’s Fair, sat in a virtual cockpit to embark on a simulated flight over a future America of 1960. The idea was that if the fairgoers saw the world of tomorrow from the same lofty perspective of corporate bigwigs, then they would be seduced to feel that they were co-builders of the shining world they had just witnessed below. In the end, though, their momentary feeling of empowerment was an illusion that served as a robust corporate advertisement.

Technology and utopianism have a long, shared history in America. From the Wright brothers to Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg, the narrative has always transcended the physicality of technology to reveal a powerful nation-driving myth. That is, the idea of America has always been about the future. In The American Scene, Henry James wrote: “It’s all very well for you to look as if, since you’ve had no past, you’re going in, as the next best thing, for a magnificent contemporary future.”

Technology today seems to have embraced a new politics of mass mobilization. Yes, the cult of the likes of Gates, Jobs, Bezos, and Zuckerberg endures. But the global power of social media stems from the very participation of the masses for which these technologies were conceived. There is no Facebook without the people. There is no YouTube if people don’t upload their videos—some of which, indeed, can be life changing, resulting in fame or, at least, notoriety. The promise of individual empowerment by accessing the technologies of information dissemination has become a potent modern political driver. It seems that supermen of our times don’t have to be Superman at all.

Yet, as technology continues to evolve, its potential to create a more dehumanized future cannot be ignored. Is the tech-savvy global citizen with universal online access merely a reinvented consumer of free-market economy in the digital age? Or, will technology become a self-perpetuating end in itself, while human agency diminishes? How does technology’s democratizing power intersect with the specter of governmental online surveillance? All of these remain open questions.


Adnan Morshed is associate professor of architecture and architectural history at the Catholic University of America, and is the author of Impossible Heights: Skyscrapers, Flight, and the Master Builder.

"Impossible Heights is an original account of the American fascination with the skyscraper and the airplane and the enthusiasm for the new perspective on high from which people surveyed the city and landscape. Adnan Morshed examines the intersections between intellectual biography, visuality, and cultural history and brings together the ‘art of architecture’ with mass culture and spectatorship. In doing so, he illuminates ‘the aesthetics of ascension’ as a widely shared cultural phenomenon that characterized the interwar period." —Gail Fenske, author of The Skyscraper and the City: The Woolworth Building and the Making of Modern New York

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The effect of Civil Rights photobooks in transforming the social consciousness of young people

Children sit together on a tree limb in an uncredited Seventh-Day Adventist image. From Louis B. Reynolds and Charles L. Paddock, Little Journeys into Storyland: Stories That Will Live and Lift (Nashville: Southern Publishing Association, 1947).

Associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut

2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, legislation that responded to repressive practices in the South severely limiting black enfranchisement, such as literacy tests and poll taxes. When we think about the Civil Rights Movement, we tend to think through such landmark events, those marshalled by prominent leaders and located in the public record. Considering the events of fifty years ago, in the spring and summer of 1965, the marches in Selma spring to mind, especially given the 2014 film that dramatized “Bloody Sunday” on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Young people were deeply invested in the movement, of course, and while we remember the losses of individuals like Emmett Till and the four little girls, other accounts of children’s participation in the movement often focus on numbers – hundreds of children jailed with King in Birmingham, scores of children marching in protests, groups of teenagers in Freedom Schools in Mississippi. When I think about how to access the stories of young people, individuals who worked with great forethought and commitment on behalf of social justice, I think about the public terrain of childhood, which for me is children’s books.

In charting the contours of children’s investment in the Civil Rights Movement, I was excited to read a newspaper clipping located in the Langston Hughes papers at Yale’s Beinecke library. This article was sent to Hughes by Ezell A. Blair, one of the four teenagers who started the 1960 Woolworth counter sit-ins, and described Blair’s friend, Joseph McNeil, in these terms:

 “The youth credited with starting the Southern sit-in demonstrations said today a picture book gave him the courage to do it.” 

The book that inspired McNeil was Hughes’s and Milton Meltzer’s Pictorial History of the Negro in America (1956), a compendium of historical commentary, documentation, illustration, and photographs. The article described McNeil’s sense of connection to protest children: “‘I’d read how other fellows had made sacrifices,’ he said, ‘I remembered the kids at Little Rock, and I realized I hadn’t made my contribution.’” Young people’s social action allowed McNeil to see himself and his possibilities differently, as did the photographs within Pictorial History, especially the image of Emmett Till, a boy presented there in an iconic photograph taken sometime before his lynching. The image closes up on his generous smile, his poise emphasized by a dress shirt and tie. I interviewed McNeil about his response to the book, and he reflected particularly about the relationship of racial violence to black childhood:

 “This kind of violence could happen to our parents, could happen to us, and if we did not do something, it would happen to our children.” 

In truth, McNeil saw himself in the photographs within Pictorial History, both in the possibility of a shattered childhood offered by Till and in the courage of young people working towards integration. That identification moved McNeil to take action. The photographs were particularly transformative to McNeil, as he told me:

“Pictures are a powerful way to communicate. . . . Resistance was how I saw it, and in order to understand how we resisted in the past, Hughes captured all of that, smiling on the outside but crying on the inside.” 

Four teenagers in a college dorm looked at the photographs in a history book and decided to change the world. This was something different than witnessing photographs within a newspaper or periodical, though certainly the September 1955 Jet magazine coverage of Till’s lynching galvanized a generation of young activists. The fact was that McNeil and his friends engaged the historical continuity outlined in the book – that black communities had been resisting oppression for centuries – and then saw themselves as the next chapter in that story. The book form and the photographic document made change seem possible.

Other Civil Rights activists saw the potential of the photobook for transforming the social consciousness of young people. The same spring that King marched in Selma, and the same summer that the Voting Rights Act passed, Doris Derby was preparing for her work with the very young through the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM). This grass-roots early education program, which was organized by movement activists, recruited and trained African Americans from the south to build schools and begin teaching. Derby, a black New Yorker who had studied elementary education and cultural anthropology at Hunter College, had been living in Mississippi since 1963, developing adult literacy materials to support the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s voter registration efforts. She joined the CDGM as head teacher at Newell Chapel in Holly Springs, Mississippi. One of the first things she did was to create a photographic picture book based on the school and the experience of her students. She told me in an interview:

“I wanted photographs of the children themselves so they could look, and they could say, ‘This is me. I’m seeing my image written. I’m seeing my images in a book.’ They don’t care whether it’s a book published by some well-known publisher. They want to see their images. And they can say, ‘these are my words,’ and they’ll recognize them.” 

The beautiful photobook Derby created, Today, offered a local community the kind of validation that textual representation can provide. And for the children reading Today, photographs of themselves enabled a psychologically transformative experience—of recognition of their own beauty and value, and of their ability to place off-frame the white violence that shadowed the world of their preschool. Today permitted children to claim the process of bookmaking, the authority of authorship, and the control rendered through self-articulation. Psychological freedom, that precursor to social action, was the goal of Derby’s collaborative book. McNeil of the Woolworth counter protests may have imagined himself enacting a future chapter in Hughes’s book; Derby’s students could see themselves safe, happy, and free, within the pages of Today. Derby said of her work with the preschool:

“As you did more, as it became successful, as it was good, as it made strides, resistance! And so people who were willing to participate in it knew that they were resisting, they were fighting for something that was their right, their future as American citizens.” 

In one potent image within Today, children make a tower of blocks in the foreground while women organize for a meeting at the edge of the page. As a community, children and adults were building a new sense of themselves and their future, claiming the power of representation in word and image.

Children play with blocks while adults gather in the background. From Today, Child Development Group of Mississippi, 1965. McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi.

Legibility and cultural memory are contests of power. As we recall the landmark events of 1965—the victories of the Voting Rights Act and the Immigration Act, as well as the losses of Malcolm X and the riots in Watts—we can also seek out stories of Civil Rights mobilization that are, perhaps, more local and intimate. We can also consider the idea that books can be social, that a reading experience can draw children into conversation with adults and into conversation with the ideas the books explore. For civil rights photobooks, a form that seeks to inspire a child’s participatory response, images can spur reflection on the possibility and value of a young person’s life.

Katharine Capshaw is associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut, Storrs and the author of Civil Rights Childhood: Picturing Liberation in African American Photobooks.

"Katharine Capshaw’s new study—intersecting photography, children’s literature, and the civil rights movement—is a rich and strikingly original addition to the growing scholarship on African American childhood. Many scholars will appreciate and be indebted to this important work."—Gerald Early, Washington University in St. Louis

"Capshaw’s analysis and contextualization of the works in question break entirely new ground, offering original ways of thinking about how the photographic book operated as a medium particularly suited to African-American authors, child readers, and messages about civil rights."—Julia Mickenberg, University of Texas at Austin

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

#INeedDiverseGames and why representation in games matters

Image copyright of Sylvie Reuter

Assistant professor of media studies and production at Temple University 

After years of trying to explain my book, Gaming at the Edge, in a sound byte, I eventually boiled it down to the following: 1) players don’t care that much about representation in games, and 2) that’s a good argument for more diversity in games. In truth, this was actually a bit of a lie on my part. In my research I have found not so much that people don't care about representation, but rather they don’t always care in the way they are often expected to care. It is expected, for example, that people who are members of marginalized groups should care about how people “like them” are represented in media texts. My interviewees, however, spoke of representation as “nice when it happens.” They pointed to the many ways representation doesn’t matter in games and described the nuanced ways it came to matter. By focusing on when representation of social groups matters, we gain better insight into precisely where contemporary games are lacking diversity.

A perfect example of focusing on when and how representation matters can be found in posts to the hashtag #INeedDiverseGames (INDG). The hashtag and subsequent Tumblr community were started in October 2014 by Tanya DePass because, as she puts it, “I am tired of not seeing myself in the games I have spent many years playing.” DePass’s point might seem counter to the ambivalence expressed by many of my interviewees, as her view on representation is more politicized than many people I spoke to. However, what subsequent interviews with her represent is that DePass feels emboldened to demand things from video games that many people I interviewed did not because they felt like the industry wasn’t “for them” or “targeting them.” As I’ve said in the past, game content alone will not ameliorate the representational issues in video games or lure new people into game culture. Rather, people need to be in a position where they feel the right to demand representation from games. And based on the amazingly positive response to INDG, more and more people are feeling that right. Moreover, as many of my interviewees also did, members of the INDG community talk about representation that crosses axes of identity and of the importance of representation and diversity in a cumulative sense. The hashtag, if I might anthropomorphize it for a moment, assumes representation matters; it doesn’t feel the need to make a case for it. As the INDG Paetron page puts it: #INeedDiverseGames because there’s room for everyone at the table.

Of course, like any calls for diversity in games since the game industry began, almost as soon as INDG started, people began tweeting negative reactions to the hashtag. Many of these disparaging tweets included another hashtag making the news in Fall 2014, #GamerGate (GG), despite the fact that INDG began without any reference to GG. Two common refrains in these tweets: “if you don’t like the games don’t play them,” or lists and images of all the non-white, non-cisgendered male, non-heterosexual characters in games meant to demonstrate that games are already diverse. The former represents the common neoliberal logic that demand drives cultural production and that consumers should vote with their dollars if they are unhappy with the end result. The later represents a common misunderstanding of the politics of representation and insists there is some magic quota by which true representation will be achieved and the diversity badge will be unlocked. A third theme was the insistence that people “make their own games.” It is not an inherently bad thing to encourage more people to use the tools available to them to make their own games. However, to pretend that there are no structural inequalities in who gets to make games (even indie games) is very shortsighted. Troy L. Wiggins explores this in in depth in his blog afrofantasy. I, for one, would not enjoy having to make all the games I play just because I am often disappointed in what already exists (my day job keeps me a little too busy for that). We can do better, though. We can acknowledge and help alleviate those structural barriers to cultural production. We can also insist that creators look more critically at their own design decisions.

At a conference this past fall, I listened to a panel discussion about gender representation in games that included people from the games industry and academia. People brought up many of the same problems that feminists in games have been discussing for well over twenty years: the lack of diversity in the industry; the growing number and diversity of people who play any sort of digital games; the dynamics of online game culture, in particular, that make people feel unwelcomed in gaming; and the difficulty of representation and inclusion from a design stand point. These conversations have been going on for so long, in fact, it sometimes feels like being a feminist game scholar is an exercise in futility. Many of us joked, as our work became the subject of scorn by a particular subset of gaming culture, that the entire claim that we were conspiring to destroy games presumed that our work had had any effect whatsoever. Towards the end of the panel, the moderator asked when we would have to stop having these conversations. I said then, and I’ll say it again now: the goal of discussing representation in games is not to achieve perfection, it is to make us all actively reflect on the worlds we are making and consuming and acknowledge what is being left out.

Arguments for representation in games focused for a long time on demonstrating the industry was missing potential markets or by using fears of media effects to add a moral component to demands for diversity. Both arguments miss, however, a much harder to measure reason representation matters: diversity makes material a wider variety of ways of being in the world. Critique is not censorship; it is a request that you do better next time. And when we reflect on the shape of games, the industry, and game studies, we can see small ways in which the conversations started by feminists, queer activists, and racial justice activists (and the intersections between those and other movements), within and outside the industry have made an impact. But as embodied in INDG, it is clear that there is more that can be done. More than that, there are people who have very precise ideas about what can be done! They just need to be listened to and supported.


Adrienne Shaw is assistant professor of media studies and production at Temple University and the author of Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture.

"Gaming at the Edge offers a fantastic intervention into not only gaming, but media studies more broadly. Adrienne Shaw astutely argues that our approach to understanding representation in games has been far too simplistic and, through her careful fieldwork, offers a rich framework for future studies. This is an important book for not only those interested in gaming, but anyone thinking about the complexities of representation and media."—T.L. Taylor, MIT

Gaming at the Edge is the book that video game studies needs right now. Adrienne Shaw explodes the notion that video game's gender and race problems will be solved by greater representation of these groups. "—Lisa Nakamura, author of Race After the Internet

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Students on Isherwood: "Come Again, Sir. I Don't Get You," on death and dissociation in A Single Man

Christopher Freeman and James J. Berg, editors of the forthcoming volume The American Isherwood (January 2015), have compiled exemplary essays about writer Christopher Isherwood's craft from their students to share on the Press blog leading up to the publication of their book. If you are attending the 2015 Modern Language Association conference in Vancouver, stop by our booth (B327) to take a look at The American Isherwood, along with many other fantastic UMP titles.

This essay is printed with permission from the author. It has been edited from the original version. 

Student, University of Southern California

Preface: I took Chris Freeman's class on Forster and Isherwood last year, where we studied texts by and about the two men. The reading list was exhaustive, and while I had some difficulty connecting to Forster's work, Isherwood's left me breathless; I can't count the times I re-read the ending of A Single Man (which resulted in the essay below). Chris introduced us to his friend Jim Berg via Skype, whose critical work on Isherwood we'd discussed, and what resulted was a couple dozen Isherwood-crazed undergraduates and one equally enthused professor.

In "A Last Lecture," Isherwood writes, "There should be a serious art of dying just as there is an art of living." A Single Man taught me the art of dying is one as lonely as it is necessary, and this paper is my attempt at explicating George's grief, as well as Isherwood's mastery of language and the craft.


For such a slim novel, Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man is packed with more than its fair share of heartache, loneliness, and woe. As it follows George through one full day, it portrays self-destructive thought patters left in the wake of his recently deceased partner, Jim, many of which constitute one thing: dissociation. Indeed, George battles his grief by alienating himself from himself, thus precluding any possibility of residual pain—or so he believes. These defense mechanisms manifest themselves in various ways, among them perceiving his own self and body from an outside vantage point and voluntarily relegating his person to fulfill robotic, mechanical tasks. But neither of these techniques succeeds in prolonged comfort; throughout the novel, George drops his composed facade and lets loose on innocent acquaintances with explosive bursts of rambling, or on himself with indulgent fantasies. These lapses only further substantiate the internal conflict eviscerating his every waking moment, as they are peeks into the "real" George—as Isherwood asks towards the end of the novel, "But is all of George altogether present here?" (183). Examining George's auto-alienation and violent slip-ups is fascinating, but all the more so because of the internal tension they signify . . . if George's mind feels the need to create distance between him and himself, why is our first instinct to disapprove of it? Isherwood's novel portrays these three processes—dissociation, self-mechanization, and loss of composure—as different lenses through which to examine grief, and ultimately make a statement about death and its necessary beauty.

The novel's initial depiction of George is one of absolute distance from self. As he wakes up, George must reassemble his own identity, starting with the fact that he exists, then that he is in a place (his bed), as well as a time (now). His body works itself out, testing its motor functions, described as "that grim disciplinarian [who] has taken its place at the central controls . . ." (10). George's brain is immediately differentiated from his body, which immediately marks dissociation, even in terms of specific parts, which are usually considered one complete entity. But the dissociation doesn't stop there; without thinking about it, George backtracks and temporarily stops referring to himself by a gender at all, instead using the pronoun "it." Before he gets dressed, he reflects, "Its nakedness has to be covered. It must be dressed up in clothes because it is going outside, into the world of the other people, and these others must be able to identify it" (11). The final step to George's existential wake-up routine is remembering his name, which he does: "It knows its name. It is called George" (11). Isherwood plays with our conception of George by introducing him as this uncertain, self-skeptical automaton, emphasizing the dry torpidity in which he lives, and this absence-from-self continues—just a few moments later when, killing ants in the kitchen, he "has a sudden glance of himself doing this" (13). George is separated from his present experience by a buffer of auto-alienation, and by becoming a spectator of his own actions, he loses agency and the capacity to really do anything at all.

This attitude of basic dissociation permeates the novel, as George navigates from home to work and elsewhere, but it is only his first defense mechanism; the second is rendering himself a mechanical object, something to be used. When he gets to work, he is uncomfortable having nothing to do, and, as Isherwood writes, "Now he is a public utility, the property of STSC, he is impatient to be used" (49). What's disturbing about George's mentality isn't that he allows others to use him in this way, or even that he desires it—he needs it. Putting himself in someone else's hands lends George a utility, and thereby a purpose. In flight of his bereavement, George longs for something (or someone) to steer him in a direction . . . any direction, really, as long as he's going somewhere. We see him fulfill a similar, dehumanized role when he visits Doris in the hospital and she holds his hand: "[Doris'] grip tightens. There is no affection in it, no communication. She isn't gripping a fellow creature. [George's] hand is just something to grip" (100). It's no coincidence that George is continually shuffled into positions of mindless function; this second defense mechanism of relinquishing selfhood in the interest of manipulative others allows him to put off confronting his own feelings and regrets.

But neither of these practices is entirely successful; at several times in the novel, George loses possession of himself and starts on long rants loaded with misplaced aggression. At least three times he does this in public (lecturing his class, castigating the pretentious Cynthia, and talking to Kenny at his home), each more out-of-bounds than the last (70, 90, 174). These seemingly uncharacteristic verbal blasts are usually entertaining, and always thought provoking, but, more importantly, they give us a glimpse into the turmoil that Jim's death has wreaked on George's psyche. George's thoughts are a frenzy of bottled emotion, and his (at times) intentional dissociation only exacerbates this, as they repress and misdirect. In particular, George's lunchtime interaction with Cynthia reveals the turmoil within him; without warning, he cuts off her drab rambling by saying, "Honestly! Are you out of your mind? . . . My God, you sound like some dreary French intellectual who's just set foot in New York for the first time" (90). George can be a curmudgeon, that much is certain, and his private thoughts about most of his contemporaries are anything but polite, but he is usually able to censor himself and say only what is appropriate. Most of George's neighbors are spared his vitriol. Not so for Cynthia. George lashes out with displaced anger, and, when he has finished, he feels proud of himself.

In addition to releasing pent up energy on others, George also lapses out of his robotic stupor against himself. This comes in the form of long fantasies, driven by excitement or resentment. Before he goes to work, George daydreams about sabotaging a new apartment complex, which is innocuous enough, but he quickly waxes violent, dreaming up an entire vigilante organization whose chief goal is to intimidate anti-gay figures into terrified submission (37-40). For George, this is cathartic and necessary, as it provides a seemingly harmless outlet through which he can vent longstanding rage.

The terrorist fantasy seems to fulfill its purpose, but it isn't until the end of the novel that George has a daydream more firmly planted in reality, both in its inception and execution. After Kenny leaves his house, George imagines him returning with his girlfriend Lois to have sex—a whimsical thought at first, but one that turns more serious when he replaces Lois with a Mexican tennis player from earlier in the day. This seriousness is reflected by the fact that, just two paragraphs later, George thinks, "No. That won't work, either. George doesn't like Kenny's attitude. He isn't taking his lust seriously; in fact, he seems to be on the verge of giggles. Quick—we need a substitute!" (179). George swaps Kenny out for the second tennis player, and he proceeds to masturbate to the thought. But these two details—the fact that this fantasy was a) more rooted in reality, and b) acted upon (through sexual release)—leave it far more mature than the past ones, perhaps indicating that George has matured in the short twenty-something hours over which the novel has followed him.

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of A Single Man is its ending—Isherwood poses a hypothetical (a thing that is "wildly improbable") that in the exact moment when George first set eyes on Jim he began developing a lethal arterial blockage, and then, having established the hypothetical, Isherwood depicts George's death that night, organ by organ, piece by piece (185). As the life leaves our narrator, Isherwood writes:

And if some part of the nonentity we called George has indeed been absent at this moment of terminal shock, away out there on the deep waters, then it will find itself homeless. For it can associate no longer with what lies here, unsnoring, on the bed. (186)

The novel ends with violent diction describing a peaceful moment, reflecting the turmoil within George from page one, but what kind of an ending is this? George's self-alienation has been nothing but self-destructive, so why close in this way?

Maybe George's problem hasn't been succumbing to the dissociation, but rather not succumbing enough.

When George is with Kenny in the bar, he describes the future with one word: "Death" (156). The separation of soul and body (or dissolution of either entirely) marks the most perfect and complete form of dissociation. Whether or not it happens this night, it will eventually, and George is all too aware of this. His mind has been wretched and conflicted since Jim's passing, and his natural response has been to detach himself from himself to mitigate the pain, but I think this is more than just a series of defense mechanisms; rather, it is George's natural urge to follow Jim into the grave. We should have seen it coming. When George visits Doris in the hospital, he eyes a bedridden patient getting wheeled into surgery and thinks to himself, "This is the gate. . . . Must I pass through here, too?" (94). He isn't thinking of the patient. He's thinking of Jim. George's inclination to follow Jim into death is the greatest possible testament to the love and devotion of their relationship. George's mind is so set on surviving and rejecting any notion of the future ("Damn the future. Let Kenny and the kids have it") that it can only allow half-assed dissociations which result in inappropriate outbursts and inordinate fantasies, when perhaps it subconsciously longs for more (182). A Single Man is a novel racked with dissonance, conflict, and stretched parts pleading for reunion, but the real reason the hypothetical death in the end reads so beautifully is because it's exactly what George needs.


Works Cited

Isherwood, Christopher. A Single Man. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001. Print.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Holiday Recipe Roundup: Beyond Grape Salad

Saffron and Raisin Buns, known fondly in Sweden as Lussekatter buns.

With the holidays comes the usual flurry of cooking and baking: delicious casseroles and breads, tasty cookies, pies, and other sweets, and grape salad. Okay, maybe not grape salad. (#GrapeGate anyone?) But in any event, we all have our favorite dishes that we love to prepare and bring to our holiday get-togethers.

In the spirit of all things bound to contribute to our waistline this holiday season, we've compiled a few of our favorite recipes from several University of Minnesota Press cookbooks that we hope you'll give a try. Enjoy and we'll see you in the New Year!

Chocolate-Pistachio Cookie Sticks
from The Great Holiday Baking Book by Beatrice Ojakangas

These cookies are utterly irresistible, and you don't need any fancy tools to make them look pretty. The dough molds easily into smooth, fat sticks, and after they're baked they're dipped into chocolate and chopped pistachios.

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

For Decoration:
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 teaspoon corn oil
1/2 cup finely chopped pistachios

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Cover 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar together with an electric mixer until smooth. Add the vanilla and mix well. Add the flour a little at a time, beating at high speed until the dough is smooth.

Press the dough through a pastry tube with a #5 star tip or through a cookie press with a star tip directly onto the prepared cookie sheet to make 2 1/2-inch sticks, spaced about 2 inches apart.

Bake for 10 minutes, until the cookies feel firm and are just beginning to brown. Slide the cookies on the paper onto a countertop to cool.

While the cookies bake, combine the chocolate chips and oil in a small glass bowl. Heat in the microwave, for about 2 minutes, stirring every 10 seconds until the chocolate is smooth and shiny. Or place the bowl over hot water and stir until melted. Place the chopped pistachios in a small bowl.

To decorate the cookies, dip one end of each stick into the melted chocolate, then into the pistachios. Place on the parchment paper and let sit until the chocolate is firm.

Makes about 48 cookies.


Cranberry Pork Tenderloin

Pork tenderloins are delicate, tender cuts that cook in no time; in fact, the danger is that they'll quickly overcook. Cranberries bump up the flavor and color when added toward the end of the sauté.

2 pork tenderloins, about 1 1/2 pounds each
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 cup cranberries
1/4 cup dry white wine

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Season the pork with salt and pepper. Melt the butter in a large ovenproof skillet set over medium-high heat. Add the tenderloins and sear, rolling them from side to side, until all sides are browned. Remove the pork from the pan and set it aside.

Reduce the heat to medium, and add the onions and cranberries to the pan. Cook until the onions are wilted and the cranberries pop, about 3 minutes. Stir in the white wine, and scrape to loosen the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Return the tenderloins to the pan, and baste them with the sauce. Put the pan in the oven, and bake until the pork registers 145°F on an instant-read thermometer, about 5 to 10 minutes. Allow the pork to stand 5 minutes before slicing the tenderloins into medallions. Serve with the pan juices and cranberries.

Serves 4-6.


Maple-Ginger Red Beans
from The Spoonriver Cookbook by Brenda Langton and Margaret Stuart

Better than any baked beans, these red beans are sweet and savory. If you want to add some diced carrots, onions, and celery, simply sauté 1/2 cup of each in a tablespoon of olive oil for 5 minutes and add the sauté to the beans when you add the rest of the ingredients.

1 cup dried small red beans (3 cups cooked) or 2 (15-ounce) cans, drained and rinsed
2 tablespoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons grated ginger root
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sea salt

Soak dried beans for at least two hours, or longer. Drain and rinse the beans.

Put the beans and 3 cups of water in a pot. Cover the pot and bring the water to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer the beans for 1 hour or until tender. If there is excess liquid, drain off all but 1/2 cup.

If you are using canned beans or beans cooked earlier, place the beans in a pot and warm them over medium heat for about 10 minutes.

Add the maple syrup, ginger, soy sauce, and salt to the beans. Cook for a couple of minutes longer and serve.

Serves 4-6.


Saffron and Raisin Buns (Santa Lucia Buns or Lussekatter Buns)
from The Swedish Table by Helene Henderson

These delicious golden buns begin the magical time of Christmas, a glorious celebration of lights, family, and home. Bake a tray full for an early morning breakfast treat for your own Santa Lucia celebration.

1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 cup warm water
1 package dry yeast (1/4 ounce or 2 1/4 teaspoons)
1/2 cup salted butter
3/4 cup milk
1 teaspoon saffron threads, chopped fine and soaked in a few drops of water
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons vegetable oil (to grease bowl)
2 egg yolks, beaten with 1 tablespoon water
2 tablespoons raisins

Preheat oven to 400°F. In the bowl of an electric mixer combine 1 tablespoon sugar, warm water, and yeast. Let sit for 10 minutes or until yeast begins to bubble and foam.

In a small saucepan combine butter, milk, and saffron. Heat until warm and butter is melted, but do not let boil. Let sit for 8 minutes or until temperature falls below 110 degrees. Add milk mixture to yeast in the mixer bowl. Add flour and 1/2 cup sugar and beat with a dough hook until combined and the dough is smooth and workable; if necessary, add more flour 1 tablespoon at a time, up to 3 tablespoons. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 1 minute. Transfer dough to a lightly oiled (or buttered) bowl, cover loosely with plastic food wrap, and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour. The dough will be dense and will not rise much.

Divide dough into 16 pieces. Roll each piece into 1-inch-wide, 6-inch-long strips. Coil ends in opposite directions, forming a tightly curled S-shape. Place on baking sheet covered with Silpat liner (or parchment paper) and let rise for 1 hour more. Brush buns with beaten egg yolk and place 1 raisin in the center of each curl, 2 per bun. Bake until golden brown, about 10-15 minutes.

Makes 16 rolls.


And if you are curious about that grape salad recipe, here it is, or another version here that includes cream cheese. A UMP colleague made it and claims it's actually good. I guess you'll have to make it and see (or taste) for yourself.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Goodbye, Marriage Bans. Hello, Duggars.

Two men in handshake during San Francisco Marriage March with banner,
 "We all deserve the freedom to marry." 
Photo from Creative Commons.

Assistant professor of sociology at Trinity University in San Antonio

For about six months I’ve considered writing an update to Gay Rights at the Ballot Box, my book on the history of anti-gay ballot measures from 1974 to 2009. However, I’ve been in the fortunate position of being stymied by the flurry of court cases legalizing same-sex marriage. According to Freedom to Marry, since June 2013, there have been 36 pro-marriage rulings in federal court, 15 issues in state court, and five by federal appellate court.

These rulings frequently have overturned the marriage bans written into state constitutions by anti-gay initiatives that have spread across the country since the late 1990s. The most infamous of these initiatives was the California Proposition 8 in 2008. When I published my book in 2012, these marriage bans were the main form of ballot measure used by the Religious Right to restrict LGBT rights. I had a suspicion that the marriage bans would be overturned by court rulings, although there was the possibility that LGBT campaigns would have to repeal these marriage bans with additional initiatives (and organizers in states like Florida and Oregon were preparing to do so).

Now I can declare that it’s official. The marriage ban ballot measure is dead. I think that these ballot measures, which have happened in over thirty states and have consumed millions of dollars and innumerable other resources from the LGBT community, are never going to be effective again.

However, anti-gay ballot measures are not over. The Religious Right has continued in its longstanding use of referendums on municipal non-discrimination laws that include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. Similar to votes this year in Pocatello, Idaho, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, this month voters in Fayetteville, Arkansas, considered whether to repeal the city’s non-discrimination laws. The voters elected to repeal the law by a narrow margin.

When Fayetteville voters considered whether to repeal the law, they were persuaded by the support of nearby conservative reality television stars Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar. Michelle Duggar participated in a robocall that reminded me of the first major anti-gay referendum, the Dade County referendum of 1977, which was supported by conservative star Anita Bryant. In her robocall Duggar proclaimed that the law allows “males with past child predator convictions that claim they are female to have a legal right to enter private areas that are reserved for women and girls.”

In my book, I document the beginning of this claim that transgender-inclusive laws would allow men to come into women’s bathrooms, and the way Religious Right campaigns use it to create hysteria around LGBT rights. This message about the dangers of transgender-inclusive laws is frighteningly similar to Anita Bryant’s claim from the late 1970s that gay men were trying to recruit and molest children. I’ve been tracking these messages created by the Religious Right during anti-gay campaigns, and increasingly the Right is using fear tactics around transgender women (who they almost always describe as “men” or “men in dresses”) using the bathroom. These messages have been deployed all over the United States during these municipal battles about LGBT rights, including in Miami Dade and my own city of San Antonio. Although marriage bans are dead and gone, anti-gay ballot measures still persist.

As much as some things change, others seem to stay the same.


Amy L. Stone is assistant professor of sociology at Trinity University in San Antonio and the author of Gay Rights at the Ballot Box.

"Amy L. Stone crafts a compelling, deeply textured portrayal of the more than 200 anti-gay ballot campaigns in the U.S. since 1974. Through interviews with movement leaders and other sources, Stone deftly analyzes the tension between winning campaigns and building a sustainable movement, between national, urban activists and local, rural communities, as well as debates over tactics and messaging. Gay Rights at the Ballot Box is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the central, disturbing role anti-gay politics has played in contemporary U.S. politics."—Sean Cahill, Ph.D., Fenway Institute and New York University 

"The chapters on the history of right-wing attacks, the extended Michigan cases, and conservatives’ racist and transphobic smear tactics are especially enlightening, but throughout, Stone writes accessibly about big ideas and everyday actions increasingly central to US politics." —Choice 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The continuing influence of the Mexico ’68 Olympics brand

Lance Wyman, designer, Mexico '68 logo, 1968

Assistant professor of art history at Syracuse University

A recent analysis of financial data provided by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) attempted to quantify how much the Olympic brand is worth today. The analysis, in many ways a problematic one, found it to be worth $47.5 billion dollars, which positions it above Google and second only to Apple, the corporate giants with which it shares the first three spots of the ranking. A question that arises about precisely what kind of value this analysis measures involves the urban dimension of the Olympics: the dilapidated remains of many Olympic sites, many of which become little more than ruins just after the temporary event is over, indicate that the value of the brand tends not to translate into financial gain for host Olympic cities.

Already a powerful corporation by the mid-twentieth-century, at that time the IOC did not quite possess the unified brand identity it possesses today. It is hard to imagine that it would have acquired it without drawing upon branding efforts associated with specific Olympics like Mexico 1968. While Tokyo 1964, its immediate predecessor, had featured ambitious design campaigns, the total design logic of the Mexican campaign—premised on the integration and translatability of consistent formal elements across a wide range of media—was unique.

An international team headed by Beatrice Trueblood and Eduardo Terrazas, and which included figures like Lance Wyman, Michael C. Gross, and Peter Murdoch, among others, was responsible for the effort, which was commissioned by the Mexican Olympic Committee (MOC), headed by architect Pedro Ramírez Vázquez. Years later, this architect designed the International Olympic Committee’s headquarters in Lausanne (1986).

The generative image from which much of the campaign stems is Wyman’s Mexico ’68 logo, which combines a series of radiating patterns with the word “Mexico,” the number “68” and the central visual element of the IOC’s brand, the five Olympic rings. Painted pavements surrounding the Olympic sites replicated the same patterns in a variety of colors; postage stamps advertised Olympic events and sites of athletic competitions employing the same formal logic; even the logo itself took on monumental incarnations in a series of urban sculptures located in sites around the capital city.

What exactly was being branded? There was, of course, the ephemeral Olympic event, which lasted between October 12 and October 27, 1968. However, the campaign also advertised to the world, then experiencing a mass media revolution fueled by television—the medium that most significantly increased the profitability of the Olympics in the twentieth century—a distinctive destination, a specific city located in the first developing country to organize such an ambitious undertaking.

Like the Olympic brand itself, the value of the Mexico ‘68 brand is not easy to assess. A landscape of Olympic ruins is not found in Mexico City, whose authorities made strategic reuse of existing sports facilities and, mostly because funds were scarce, built few new ones for the Olympics. And yet, the social and economic cost of the event, which led to the selective gentrification of fragments of the city and took place in a violent environment, was high. On October 2, 1968, ten days before their inauguration, for instance, government forces infamously opened fire against student protesters who denounced the autocratic political regime that commissioned the Olympics.

In strict design terms, the Mexico ’68 brand remains influential. The rainbow pavements designed for the London Olympic Stadium, site of the 2012 summer Olympics, are direct heirs to their Mexican predecessors; Wyman’s career after Mexico ’68, currently the subject of an exhibition in Mexico City, speaks to the influence of that campaign over his wide-ranging practice. And just as the Olympic brand has gradually become tangible and increasingly valuable, a specific Olympics without a clearly identifiable brand would be difficult to even conceive today.

The memory of Mexico ‘68 becomes increasingly relevant as we approach the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the second-ever Latin American city to host such an event. The city is set to host the Olympics shortly after the 2014 soccer World Cup was celebrated in several Brazilian cities this past summer (In Mexico, the order was the reverse: the 1970 soccer World Cup took place in some of the sports facilities used for the Olympics two years earlier).

This past April, the vice-president of the IOC characterized preparations for the Rio Olympics as the ‘worst ever’ in his experience. This critique is reminiscent of the doubts cast on the Mexican authorities’ ability to successfully stage Mexico ‘68, and speak to geopolitical asymmetries that defined the 1960s as well as the present day. The irony is that the social cost of the Olympic brand seems to affect the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ worlds more evenly today than ever before: the militarized ‘pacification’ of Rio de Janeiro reminds us of the tense environment of Mexico ’68 or Beijing during the 2008 summer Olympics; yet the 2012 summer Olympics in London and the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, to name only two examples, also took place in militarized, highly divisive conditions. The aggregate of this historical experience should serve the purpose of assessing how much Olympics are worth in a holistic sense; this approach to designing and planning the events may help to bridge the seemingly expanding gap between the profitability of the brand and its concrete effects on the specific sites it visits every few years.


Luis M. Castañeda is assistant professor of art history at Syracuse University and the author of Spectacular Mexico: Design, Propaganda, and the 1968 Olympics.

"An extraordinary piece of research and, more importantly, historical imagination, this book makes its points clearly, with crystalline and imaginative intelligence, and with massive empirical backing."—Mauricio Tenorio, author of “I Speak of the City”: Mexico City, 1880–1930

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Ethical Geography: How abolitionists used spatial practice to reject their own authority

Ralph Waldo Emerson ca. 1857. 
Photograph: George Eastman House Photography Collection

Assistant professor of English at Florida International University

I. Toward a New New Abolitionism

Abolitionism, the movement formulated in the United States north to bring about an immediate end to slavery in the US south, was, in its moment, the watchword for rabble-rousing, for the unsettling of social hierarchies, for threats to the racial, religious, and economic order. In the hundred and eighty-plus years since its coalescence as a social movement circa 1830, its fortunes have fluctuated wildly. It has been used as a term of approbation or disdain, from the right and from the left, often depending on the racialized politics of assumed knowledge and posited solidarity that accompany its invocation.

Perhaps abolitionism’s most important period of post-hoc reimagining occurred in the middle 1960s, as white academic historians’ late-dawning acknowledgement of the history-making work of the civil rights movement reframed the terms of their inquiry into its clear historical precursor. This watershed in mainstream historiography brought about a new appreciation of the interracial abolitionist movement, a new focus on the pervasiveness of resistance among the enslaved, and the long-overdue granting of testimonial authority of the ex-slave narrative.

However, this important victory for abolitionist historiography—which perhaps tellingly dubbed both its own efforts and those of the civil rights movement “the new abolitionism”— served to magnify the ethical hazards of interracial advocacy, past as well as present.

As the critic Ashraf Rushdy has noted in his indispensible exploration of the emergence of the neo-slave narrative in African American literature of this period, “At precisely the time when academics were responding to the early civil rights movement by producing newly sympathetic histories of American abolitionists, white northern volunteers arrived in Mississippi and demonstrated to the African American social activists just what was problematic about certain kinds of abolitionists. Many of these white students […] were utterly insensitive to the traditions and cultural practices of the African American people of Mississippi. They also seemed to have brought with them the abolitionist belief in their presumed responsibility for the souls of those whom they would save.”

By this account, academics learned from the civil rights movement what they had forgotten about the historical agency abolitionism, even as the micropolitics of interracial cooperation in the present appeared to mark a certain limit to any purely adulatory view of the abolitionist movement. Thus, we might wish to say, as Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested in 1844, “That we are indebted mainly to this movement, and to the continuers of it, for the popular discussion of every point of practical ethics.” But, from a more suspicious angle, we could just as easily find cynicism, careerism, and an early articulation of the formation now widely known as the “white savior complex.”

We can, after all, see such a movement adumbrated in Rushdy’s own language, in which the ethical lapses of “some abolitionists” shade into a generalized “abolitionist belief” in the availability of enslaved African souls for their saving. It is this version of historical abolitionism that has become a synonym for racial discipline disguised as care.

This contemporary view of abolitionism lodges an important critique of liberalism’s tendency to equate self-determination with the acquisition of a white male political subjectivity. However, it leaves another cherished liberal fallacy largely untouched—the notion that history always discloses forward progress, and that the present always has superior critical leverage on the past. The result of this fact for contemporary cultural studies, I argue, is that we have prematurely ruled out the possibility of abolitionist self-critique precisely because we find its offenses so very familiar.

With Abolitionist Geographies, I make a claim for a new “new abolitionism.” One capable of articulating its own ethical risks, and, crucially, one inclined to use the literary imaginary’s status as the realm of the possible as the place to work them through.

Cutting against the image of the abolitionist as prefiguration of the Civil Rights movement’s bluff white college man striding into Mississippi, the literary abolitionism I examine is precisely concerned with the fight against slavery as a problem of spatial practice.

Abolitionist geography is the name I give to the literary mode in which abolitionists ponder solutions to the problem of their own spatial remove from the institution they are trying to overthrow.

II. Mapping Dissent

“I am looking into the map to see where I will go with my children when Boston & Massachusetts surrender to the slave trade.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Geography, especially understood in narrow terms as cartography, often appears to be the very essence of spatialized discipline. The fixing of borders and mapping of terrain is a technology of war, of nation building, and of conquest. Its salient visual orientation—the aerial view—belongs to the surveillance craft and the skyscraper. This angle of vision required by cartography survives in maps as perpetual reminder of the violence of conquest.

When approached from the post-civil rights-era perspective that emphasizes its compromised motives and unconscious biases, abolitionism comes to resemble mapping and map reading in the intimacy it seems to posit between knowledge gleaned from afar and designs for social reorganization imposed from without. As an aesthetic matter, the abolitionist’s angle of vision seems to assume—indeed usurp—the position of the slaveholder by observing slavery from above, the position of authority, rather from below, the position of resistance uncompromised by power and privilege.

Indeed, in contemporary literary and cultural criticism, the prevailing approach to abolitionism has been to deconstruct its claims to moral authority as too enamored of mastery-by-other-means.

Abolitionist Geographies is committed by contrast to the importance of what used to be called “outside agitators” to social protest movements, and the possibility—indeed urgency—of self-critical activism in the past and in the present. Abolitionist Geographies argues that abolitionism developed a spatial vocabulary through which to probe and conditionally resolve its own ethical contradictions.

One nicely compressed example comes from a letter Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote to his brother, William, in 1856, during the particularly fraught period around the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In this statement, “the map” is cast not as a technology for mastery at a distance, but rather as a metaphor for New England abolitionists’ increasing sense of themselves as beset on all sides by a hostile state.

Indeed, the period of the late 1850s produced a number of examples of maps and mapping represented as tools of resistance, critique, and subversion, culminating with John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859.

Other examples include:
  •  Harriet Beecher Stowe’s celebration of slave resistance and marronage in Dred (also 1856) in terms of the Great Dismal Swamp’s resistance to mapping:
“The reader who consults the map will discover that the whole eastern shore of the Southern States, with slight interruptions, is belted by an immense chain of swamps, regions of hopeless disorder, where the abundant growth and vegetation of nature, sucking up its forces from the humid soil, seems to rejoice in a savage exuberance, and bid defiance to all human efforts either to penetrate or subdue.”
  • The white antislavery militant Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s admiring biographical sketch of Nat Turner, which circulates a apocryphal story of the rebel as map-reader:
“To this day there are traditions among the Virginia slaves of the keen devices of ‘Prophet Nat.’ If he was caught with lime and lampblack in hand, conning over a half-finished county-map on the barn-door, he was always ‘planning what to do if he were blind;’ or ‘studying how to get to Mr. Francis’s house.”
  •  The Black nationalist Martin Delany’s novel of transnational slave revolt, Blake; Or, the Huts of America, which represented the enslaved person’s escape north in terms of a navigator’s ability to travel long distances by scanning the skies:
After a few minutes “busily engaged with a pencil and paper” the rebel Henry Blake composed a diagram of Ursa Major, and then instructed a group of aspiring fugitives on how to read the relative positions of the stars as the means to find “the North star, the slave’s great Guide to Freedom.”

In contrast to the master’s aerial view, that is, Delany offers a lesson in astronomy as a revolutionary bottom-up alternative, one that can start anywhere, and lead anywhere, and that can be made readily available to the enslaved.

In Abolitionist Geographies, I examine a range of such spatial expressions of abolitionist dissent. Beginning with the 1830s, I trace abolitionists’ attempts to glean lessons from the problematic imperial administration of British West Indian emancipation for their own explicitly anti-authoritarian purposes. In the1840s, I examine Garrisonian abolitionists’ efforts to spatialize the problem of their complicity with slavery, what Garrison called “the guilt of New England,” through the controversial geographic metaphor of “disunion.” Finally, for the period of intensified crisis on the eve of the Civil War, I trace abolitionists’ increasing investment in paramilitary tactics as a spatial manifestation of their ethical claims.  


Martha Schoolman is assistant professor of English at Florida International University. She is the author of Abolitionist Geographies and coeditor of the essay collection Abolitionist Places.

"Abolitionist Geographies offers exciting new ways of thinking about place, time, politics, and form in the antislavery writings of such important antebellum writers as Emerson, William Wells Brown, Martin Delany, and Stowe. Drawing on recent work in diasporic and hemispheric studies, Schoolman shows how key writers of the time made use of spatial experimentation to conceive of the nation well beyond North and South sectionalism. Abolitionist Geographies poses a fresh challenge to scholars of the period to address matters of nation and geography more complexly."—Robert S. Levine, author of Dislocating Race and Nation