Black Embodiment: A Work In Progress Blog

Tackling the Text – 4/15/17

In reading these texts, I have come to find that putting these specific works together will require much more than a standard text setting. There is a specific way I believe these words – dissimilar in genre, form, and time-period – can speak with and to each other regarding Black bodies.

The portions of the text I want to really focus on are:

  • The end of “Whispers in the Dark”
  • The dream/partial consciousness sequences of “Voices”
  • Stanzas 7 and 8 of “I Sing the Body Electric”

As it stands, it seems as thought the joint text I have in mind must be more of a project of generation and construction rather than just scansion, stanza, and setting in order to tease out of these texts a critique of Black (dis)embodiment.

Musical Inspirations – 4/24/17

I’ve done some listening to current and past works of music that are considered to be Afrofuturist and have come across pieces, some of which I know and some of which are new to me, that I would like to draw upon as I start writing the music for this piece. I’ve annotated a couple of the videos to highlight certain aspects of their significance to my project, however all of the following videos are musical markers that I feel will inform the composition of the piece.

“Mothership Connection” – Parliament

See 2:19 for a reference to the Biblical object of a “sweet chariot,” which is used in other historically Black significant music such as “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” as a metaphor for the transitional state between life and death. It uses a chariot or carriage to symbolize the liminal space that extracts the soul from the physical world and connects or transports it to the purely spiritual. That this image seems to be present in the Black artistic consciousness across generations suggests the relevance of narratives that acknowledge being in a constant state of mortal transition. This directly ties into the issue of embodiment that I am interested in as Futureland suggests that as the body becomes the Black body and is therefore racialized, there exists a threshold between the Black body and soul.

“Interstellar Universe” – Josef Leimberg

Images of outer-space and cosmic symbology (stars, spaceships, “aliens,” astrological signage, etc) are quite prevalent in work that is deemed Afrofuturist. Josef Leimberg is a contemporary jazz artist that evokes these symbols (the same that were used by Parliament, Sun Ra, and other older Afrofuturist groups) in his newest album “Astral Progressions.” This particular track makes use of extensive vocal sounds in the background texture of the piece – something that I intend to draw heavily upon as I detailed in my project proposal.

“Them Changes” – Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, Flying Lotus

“Stretchin’ Out (In A Rubber Band)” – Bootsy Collins

“Change of the Guard” – Kamasi Washington

Constructing the Text: Sleep, Dreams – 4/28/17

I have started using Twine to help assemble my composite reading of these two texts. The limitation of this software is that it requires that any story – or lyric – have a starting place. The software is constructed in a way that gives special weight to the starting words, as those are the words from which a series of intertwined narratives can build upon. Though this might be seen as creatively limiting, it has forced me to think about just where I want this journey though these texts to start. In doing so I came across a passage from “Voices” that reads:

“‘Wake up, Leon,’ a girl’s voice said.

It was Tracie. But she had aged at least six months, taller now and wearing the same blue jeans that her mother had worn. Her face was just that much longer, and the happiness in her eyes was leavened with the awareness of Leon’s fear.

‘Where am I?’ he asked.

‘I don’t know,” she said. “I can’t see what you see right away.’

‘Are they operating?’

‘No.’

‘How can you be sure?’

‘I heard something,” she said. “They arrested my daddy for taking you away.’

‘When?’

‘I don’t know. I don’t hear things right away, either. And you’ve been sleeping so it takes even longer.’

Daddy?’

Leon opened his eyes…” (Mosley “Voices”).

This passage has given me the point of inception from which these stories can interact. The usage of sleep and dreams in this passage provides the reader with a tangible, real-life experience that highlights the threshold between our physical and non-physical selves. This exact point of transition – this liminal space – is what encapsulates the dialogue that I am fostering between Whitman and Mosely, as it demonstrates the state of being in-between states. This paradox of embodiment for those born in a Black body is the nexus of the dialogue between the Whitman and Mosely texts.

Vocoders and the Perils of Disembodiment – 4/30/17

For one of my other classes – an instrument building music and science class – I am building a software instrument called a Vocoder. These instruments have been around since the middle of the 20th century in some form or another and have found their way into mainstream and Black music across the years.

Now that I have finished assembling my version of these joint texts, I am beginning to compose the music for the rest of this project and I believe that using as an instrument in the piece will heighten the story that I am teasing out of these texts. The basic sound of a vocoder is one that we are familiar with as they served as the sounds of early robot voices. As they evolved, they’ve become expressive musical instruments that allow a single person to sing with themselves in harmony by re-pitching the human voice.

This instrument takes something as distinct and soulful as the human voice and attempts to replicate it. As it does this, and it does this imperfectly, the listener is left listening to what sounds like something that is almost human but could be something else entirely. This instrument sonifies the uncertainty of existence that I have been discussing in my earlier posts. It accentuates the voices of those who feel disembodied due to racialization and parallels the struggle of the Black soul as straddles the canyon between humanity’s boundless creativity and the emotional limitations of existing in a socially unaccepted body.

I am unbelievably excited to be creating my own version of the vocoder instrument and incorporating it into the music for this project. However, as I start to delve into the writing process, I am discovering that the text that I have compiled as my lyric is extremely dense, meaning what I had planned as a 2 -3 minute setting of these texts now seems as if it deserves to be more on the order of 10 minutes – an undertaking I don’t know if I can complete with our class’ time constraints.

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Early April update

Scheduled another visit to the Beineke to take a look at the Toomer archives, this time with a focus on his letters. Many of which are included in the Norton Critical Edition of Cane, but I want to see if there are any gaps.

Picked up a number of biographies to set down the exact time frame for both the composition of Cane and for his brief yet eventful stay in Georgia. All this for the Dramaturgical packet I am putting together.

Also gathering all the secondary sources on Cane I’ve looked through. I don’t think I will have anything essay-wise to say about these sources, so instead an annotated bibliography should suffice.

Beginning to format the raw text from the Black Drama archive into Celtx for proper script format, which is painfully time-consuming.

I see there are going to be these main sections of the final project to provide by the end of the month:

  • Introduction
  • Annotated Bibliography
  • Dramaturgy Packet
    • This will include a summary, author’s biography and timeline, historical background, the geographic and political details of the setting, images relating to the characters and setting, considerations about the dialect, the themes, the manner of composition, an overview of other theatrical works by Toomer, as well as a rundown of the characters and a glossary
    • This is not intended to be complete: the dialect portion especially deserves more study than I have time to give
  • Production Diary
    • This will include first day speech, rough schedule, and rehearsal considerations
    • Notes on rehearsal exercises
  • Formatted script of several of the vignettes
  • Partial formatted script of Kabnis, with annotations
  • Drafts of syntheses of Kabnis and the vignettes, to work from
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Emmet’s Blog

Thoughts on Birds in Open City (April 12)

Posting here about a thought on Open City that I’d love to talk more about: the importance of birds in the novel.

One of my thoughts is that birds work as a powerful symbol because they are both unbounded by physical and terrestrial barriers but also (especially in the case of migratory birds) grounded to specific homelands or nesting sites. In the same way that Julius crosses boundaries throughout the novel but continues to return home (in his memories) to his childhood far from NYC and Brussels, birds find themselves free to travel yet bound, in some ways, to their place of birth.

Birds also provide the final image of the book. Interestingly, it’s the Statue of Liberty (NYC’s most famous memorial) that brings death to the birds that appear throughout the piece. Maybe Cole, through Julius, is commenting on the danger in memorializing that which cannot be grounded. This would require an assumption that the birds symbolize many of the people who flit between cities and landscapes simply because their lives have demanded it of them. I don’t think that’s too much of a stretch, but I could be wrong. Regardless, the fact that it’s a monument to cross-Atlantic relationships that brings the unwitting (and misled) birds to their deaths must mean something.

Anyone have thoughts on this specific moment, or on birds in the book in general?

 

Whitman and Mary Oliver (April 19)

Reading Whitman and Bishop over the last two weeks has made me think a great deal of Mary Oliver’s poetry. Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese,” in particular, struck me as a poem whose concern with the body as a space for a close relationship with nature resembles Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” Here’s the text of “Wild Geese”:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

The first line strikes me as deeply connected to Whitman. Whitman writes about reality and his observations of the world with much less judgement than many others we’ve read in the course so far, and his philosophy of observation lends itself to a worldview in which no one must be anything other than the essence of themselves. “You do not have to be good” implies that you can be anything.

Whitman also connects the authentic self to a close relationship with nature much like Oliver does. The former understands both the wilderness and the everyday natural world to be an essential part of flourishing, and in “Wild Geese” Oliver suggests the same. The person – “You” – she addresses in the poem can find solace in the rhythms of the world around her because the human is also in the family of all things.

I’m not sure exactly why this connection occurred to me, but I think some of it has got to do with the fact that both Whitman and Oliver write about the American landscape as a natural and concomitant force with the American identity. Whereas Oliver focuses less explicitly on America, she does offer a space for collective identity to form through identification with the beauty around us; this is an element of Whitman that rings particularly true in “Leaves of Grass.”

 

Moving forward on First Lines this summer (May 5)

I’m using this post as a way to think through the next steps on my final project, which is a collaborative group game called First Lines. The game is fully playable right now (in fact I’ve played a number of times both during the testing stages and now that I’ve finalized the form), but like I mentioned in my Final Reflection, there are some steps that I will take this summer to bring the game to a place where I can copyright it and perhaps move forward with production and distribution on a small scale.

The first and most important element of the game that I must consider in this process is the graphic design. As it stands, the game’s graphic design employs cursive script and solid colored cardstock. I like the box’s lid; it is simple and elegant, an aesthetic that I believe will appeal to players interested in a game whose structure is simple yet whose theme is more complex. A good friend of mine, Dante DeGrazia, works a lot on illustration and design and I think that his work, which explores themes of loosely distorted reality, will be able to design a number of good graphics for the backs of the cards. I envision these cards as abstractions of the words on each respective card. In other words, if the “Character” card is one with Cormac McCarthey, then the illustration on the back of the card might involve a bloodred sunset that fades into the image of a distorted road leading to nowhere. As I move forward with Dante, it will be important to give him artistic leeway to produce the designs as he envisions them.

The next step will be to find funding for the initial production of the first 50 copies of the game once Dante and I have finalized the graphic design. Right now, my plan is to ask for $5 donations on a crowdfunding website like GoFundMe. I imagine that I will have enough family and friends willing to donate that I can raise $200. With the initial $200, combined with $300 of my own personal funds, I will be able to order the first 30-50 copies of the final game on Board Game Maker.com. I’ll distribute these copies among friends and ask them to play with other game players they know well. And I will bring a copy in to Pipe Dream Toys in Winona and ask the owner to sponsor an investment in copies that he can sell in his store.

These are the two concrete steps that I can take this summer to move forward on this project which has excited me for all of the semester. I’m excited to see how they turn out!

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Mikayla’s Blog

Gilgamesh Performance

I first read Gilgamesh in my 9th grade English class back in high school. I do not recall which translation we read of the text, but I do remember that we had an assignment to develop a creative interpretation of the piece. My friend and I decided to create a song titled “Where is Enkidu” (to the tune of the Black Eyed Peas’s song “Where is the Love?”) for our project. We envisioned the song to serve as a eulogy following the death of Enkidu. In the song, my friend vocalized Shamhat’s role in the epic and shared her pain over losing her lover. For my role, we created the fictional character of “Menkidu” who we imagined to be the love child of Enkidu and Shamhat’s lovemaking.

I will likely regret sharing this, but I found the music video we made to record the song. But since this class is titled “Performing American Literature”, I feel as though I must share this (very mediocre) performance. It is quite possibly the most cringe-worthy video of me available on the Internet, so I hope you get a good laugh. Please keep in mind that I am 14 years old in this video and am only now aware of how incredibly off-pitch I sound. Enjoy!

Link (Links to an external site.)

Reading Children’s Books–Update April 22, 2017

I have found it pretty challenging to determine what age group I am addressing in writing my children’s book. Writing for a 4-6 year old age bracket is a very different situation than writing for children 6-8 or 8-10. In trying to learn more about the language, I have spent time reading a range of children’s books to discover the language those authors used in their work.

Some of my favorite books that I have read (which I highly recommend to adults of any age) are: Where the Wild Things Are, Goodnight Moon, Blueberries for SalHappy to be Nappy, and If I Ran for President.

Children’s books are a performative medium because they are often read aloud to young children who cannot read yet. To learn more about this performative aspect, I plan to watch videos of authors reading children’s books aloud. I believe that will aid me in trying to discover my “voice” for this project.

Stereotypical Images–Update April 27, 2017

Last year, I was enrolled in Professor David Blight’s course “Problems with American Historical Memory: The Civil War”. For my final paper, I analyzed the “Uncle Remus” stories published by Joel Chandler Harris. Harris was a Southern newspaper columnist in the 1860s-80s. In 1877, he published his first “Uncle Remus” tale in the Atlanta Constitution. Harris, a white man, employed the fictional Uncle Remus to tell moralistic children’s stories like the Brer Rabbit tales.

Uncle Remus mirrors the Uncle Tom stereotype created by Harriet Beech Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The stereotype perpetuates the a view of a happy, subservient black man content with his inferior position in American society. This figure plays out in countless popular media narratives from books, plays, to movies. In my paper for Professor Blight’s class, I investigated the role of Uncle Remus in Disney’s 1946 animated film Song of the South. Today, few copies of the film exist as it is recognized as being a very racist depiction of the antebellum South.

The children’s book I am writing for this class is my attempt to rectify some of the damage done by the proliferation of the “Uncle Tom” stereotype. That will be tricky, though, seeing as how pervasive it is in the popular imagination.

Below are some images from Song of the South and a clip of the film’s infamous song Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.

 

 

 

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Laurence’s Blog

Narrowing Scope

10th April 2017

After receiving feedback on the initial proposal I suggested, I have decided to move forward with my primary goal for this project being to create an interactive annotated set of Langston Hughes’ poems, that allows for flow of reading across literary and critical sources to accompany the primary texts. In particular, I will be setting out to highlight the influence of Walt Whitman’s poetry (Leaves of Grass), and even to track the presence of allusions and parallels between the two poets on a line-by-line level.

Consequently, I’ve made the decision not to pursue a more performative or creative interpretation of placing these two poets in dialogue, but rather to favour the production of an innovative resource to enhance the reading experience of those approaching Hughes’ work, whether this is from an academic background, or any other. This should not only allow for a higher quality of final product given the time constraints of the research project’s due date, but also allow for a more coherent scope and focus within the confines of the aspirational outcome.

What’s left for me to ascertain now is, which poems will I be including? Given that Langston Hughes is the active poet in creating the bridge between his own oeuvre and that of Walt Whitman from a century prior, I intend to base the project around a core selection of Hughes’ poems that showcase the full range of his thematic and technical concerns, and how this relates to the specific parts of Leaves of Grass that correspond thus. My plan of action then is to take my own reading, and use the critical works of scholars such as Ed Folsom and George B. Hutchison (since their critiques will similarly feature as source text to be included in the interactive product) in order to identify a sensible selection, ideally featuring poems from across the breadth of the anthology, and its composite “clusters” (a structural format favoured by both Whitman and Hughes alike, and grounds to assume an overarching literary kinship, not to mention a degree of shared preoccupation.)

Comparing Software & Technology Options:

This week I consulted with the Digital Humanities Lab at Sterling Memorial Library, and with our Digital Humanities Fellow for the class, Bo Li, in the hopes of identifying specific software packages or computer programs that I could use as the basis for producing the textual platform of my project. The program would ideally be flexible, allowing for smooth transitions between different bodies of texts, and multiple ways of formatting texts with images, colours, and margins that would allow an array of critical information and sources to be viewed in conjunction with primary literary sources.

To my somewhat surprise, it seems that there does not currently exist a wealth of facilities publicly available for the production of interactive literary analysis and annotated readings. While to some extent this probably does make sense to me given the niche nature of the academic industry and profession, at the same time I do wonder that a more adaptable platform has not been created or commercialised whereby writers and scholars could more freely arrange their written thoughts.

However, given the time constraints of this project, and the severe limitations on my own technical abilities, there is certainly no hope of building a new program to serve such a purpose from scratch in the given time frame of this calendar year–let alone the span of this semester! As such I find myself comparing the two prospective tools at my disposal to compare which of the two might prove most useful option to proceed with.

The first option, that is my instinctive choice having seen it demonstrated in class to some considerable effect in the earlier stages of this class, is an app called “Twine” (twinery.org) – that appears to be intended for the creation of multiple-path story or adventure narratives, presented on an interactive platform that allows users/readers to forge their own path through the series of texts presented, with a possibility for custom coding and adaptation to produce individualised results along the way, if so desired. It seems clear to me that while this will certainly be a useful starting point, my computer vocabulary will have to expand somewhat in order to be able to steer the course of the application towards my own more academic ends.

The second possibility is another that I have seen used previously, but moreso in archival or editorial analysis – this is a program called “Juxta”. True to its name, it allows for the direct side-by-side comparison of multiple versions of literary texts, and is coded to compute reports that highlight and dissect the discrepancies and changes across multiple versions of identical texts. While such a tool could certainly be deeply useful in principle to the tracking of poetic influence across separate literary generations such as I hope to do in the case of Hughes and Whitman, my preliminary experiments with the software have shown that the texts are unfortunately not quite verbally similar enough for the program to be able to produce many meaningful results through running comparison. The stylistic and structural nuances of influence, of the kind that run deep from Whitman to Hughes’ poetry, are not the most easily analysed by a computer that can (as yet) only possess an eye for data trends and parallel word clusters. If I were to extend this project centring Whitman and the multiple editions of his poems that are accessible through resources such as the Walt Whitman Archive, and comparing the shifts in his paradigmatic thought with the developments of Hughes’ own experiences, to see if the historical events of their respective eras could be traced down to a tangible parallel impact on their poetry––then I have no doubt Juxta would be a prime tool of choice.

However, on reflection thus, I have been able to successfully identify Twine as the primary platform for my final project; and will return with further updates as to my progress in developing greater proficiency using this software for my own nefarious (literary-critical) ends.

Getting Used to Twine

I have begun the task of transcribing my collected archive of poetry and literary criticism as compiles through broad reading over the past weeks, and attempting to link it together making use of the Twinery program in a way that will ultimately give way to a coherent and accessible database of poetry and information about that poetry, or at least this is my goal.

I mentioned my lack of technical skills last week when I came to post, and this problem has by no means magically resolved itself in the last matter of days. I’ve just about figured out how exactly the program functions in terms of linking bodies of texts and creating offshoot strands of narrative or analysis through clicking on specifically-highlighted words or phrases. However, I had hoped to find some more options for specific customisation in the visual format and aesthetic themes in the public-viewable edition.

It is clear that this tool was overall intended for something slightly different than poetic annotations and marginalia. However, I’ve found that with some slight adaptations to the focus of my project, I think it should be quite functional as a tool for creating a resource that does serve its purpose, even if it looks and feels somewhat different from my original envisioning of a palimpsest-like archival supercomputer.

For instance, there is no way of overlaying or subsetting additional annotations on the same page as an original poem (at least, no way that is accessible with my knowledge of computer software codes, html, java, etc.) This means that all secondary information, including comparative links to other poems between Whitman and Hughes must be transitioned to a whole separate page. I’m reluctant to just hurl my reader directly from one poem into the next, which makes necessary the creation of intermediary slides, from which the reader can choose how to direct their subsequent reading and follow through from a Hughes’ poem of 1959 all the way back to its Whitman counterpart in 1860.

Consequently, I’ve decided that I will be using a selection of poems from Hughes’ 1959 anthology as the central basis of the database. Given the vastness of Whitman’s works, and the crucial operative fact that Hughes came second, and so is the only poet acting consciously with regards to their poetic relationship, it seems much more germaine to focus on primarily producing an annotated edition of Hughes’ works as the central focus, and then employing Whitman as another secondary source tool alongside the wealth of tertiary critical pieces, to illuminate the construction and development of Hughes’ poetic voice and preoccupations.

 

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and the Physical Production/Performance of Texts

As the textual foundation for my final projection becomes more and more solidified, I’ve started to spend increasing amounts of time toying with display functions and experimenting with new strands of coding to observe their effects on how I could choose to present the poetry selection I have assembled and curated. As mentioned previously, I want to stress that as an English major and prospective humanities graduate student, this foray into the world of technical know-how is a tentative one to say the least. But having so far avoided any permanent damage to the body of my work thus far, and being always careful to save my progress, I’ve started to be able to make some more deliberate choices in terms of text structure and format, emphasis on the page, and how text is illuminated with specific colours to link together thematic strands of meaning, as well as common connections in rhyme or structure.

This marks an exciting new phase of the project for me, that in light of our final class meeting, has got me thinking increasingly about the role which poets, editors and publishers play a crucial role in the ultimate consumption of literary texts. This week we read Citizen by Claudia Rankine, a book that as you hold it in your hands and turn the pages, you can tell has been specifically crafted to create a very deliberate reading experience for anyone who picks up a copy.

While Rankine deliberately sets her images and poetry on the stark white background of American racial discrimination, Hughes errs in favour of the opposite––he paints in the broad stroke of the African American experience, positioning himself at times as the definitive representative of his race (“The Negro Speaks of Rivers”). In a digital age that offers vastly more flexible capacity for textual production and artistic licence in the publication and arrangement of poems on a page (whether paper or web), an inevitable part of my project and its impact will be how I choose to present the poetry I have collated; and this in turn ought to be expected to have a significant impact on the effectiveness of my annotations, and highlighting besides.

See above for how I’ve decided to limit my colour coding choices to the red/white/blue of the American flag. While a subtle choice, and one that does potentially run the risk of limiting the extent to which I could discriminate particular strands of meaning, I feel that Hughes already more than compensated for this in his careful delineation of his poems by thematic cluster: a technique borrowed from the publication of Whitman’s 1860 Leaves of Grass, and one that I discuss at length in my own commentary throughout the compiled poems found in my program thus far.

Similarly, I’m pleased to now be able to incorporate deliberately the very first aesthetic specification I was able to control last week, which you can see in previous screen captures as the reverse-colouring of the text on the page; with the body of words standing out as white on a black background, as opposed to the conventional opposite. This choice was sparked in particular after reading Rankine’s Citizen, and also after examining the illustrations and frontispiece that accompanied my edition of Hughes’ Selected Poems (see below). It is my hope that thus, as the informative content of my final project continues to swell and size and complexity, the aesthetic choices of the final platform will continue to place all of this information in a coherent context that highlights the central themes of my investigation, and of the poetry of Hughes and Whitman alike. 

 

Closing Thoughts

The project is now more or less in its most complete form, and so I’m going to give one final update here before proceeding to the Reflection portion of the semester’s work.

As can be seen from the accompanying diagrams, the project has grown immensely in breadth and complexity, and thus became increasingly unwieldy over the last week or so of work as my computer physically struggled to be able to process the volume of data that was being moved around and reformatted constantly as I sought the ideal way of presenting the piece, to be most user-friendly. From the inside of Twine, shown here, it does not appear by any means to be the most aesthetically pleasing or coherent sequence of information and commentary:

However! I’m quite pleased to report that, contrary to what I had been previously told when consulting the Digital Humanities Lab, there is a way of publishing and exporting the results of a project such as this without mandating that others download and configure the same Twinery software on their own personal computers; this just exists separately from the Twinery app itself, at a free hosting website called “philome.la”. Though I have saved the archival and publishing html files from the production process, I believe that this website platform sees to be the most accessible way of disseminating my work, and so it is with this link to the project in its final stages that I leave off this work-in-progress blog.

I conducted multiple test-runs with fellow students in addition to myself to see how easy it was to access the project platform website, and was encouraged to add an answer key and more mobility buttons such as “return to table of contents” links throughout; and therefore did so. Ideally, this would be a feature that could be included more elegantly through programming icon buttons, or the inclusion of a moving tool-bar. Nonetheless, in the absence of these things in the software itself, I did my best to make the project as navigable as possible, and am happy to present the results.

See project here: http://philome.la/thelaurenceb/l-hughes-selected-poems–whitmanian-dreaming

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Ivy’s Performing American Literature Project Proposal

Proposal

Originally I had been planning to create a set of illustrations to accompany Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, but our discussion in class around Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada, the quote “Why isn’t Edgar Allan Poe recognized as the principal biographer of that strange war? Fiction, you say? Where does fact begin and fiction leave off?,” and a comment someone made about the new horror film Get Out, got me thinking about instances of African American horror stories and folktales, and how there are so many fewer than there are white American urban legends and ghost stories. If Edgar Allan Poe was a sort of ethnographer of the antebellum American South, recording racial tensions in gothic horror, where were the black writers, directly experiencing that horror and channeling it into imaginative prose? What does an African American horror tradition look like, or, at least, where did it begin?

Multiple books on our syllabus investigate what horror means to a white audience. These stories are either explicitly disturbing — The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, the chapter “An Authentic Ghost Story” in Uncle Tom’s Cabin — or satirical — Chapters 20 and 21 of Flight to Canada — but all investigate a distinctly white horror: in Gordon Pym a general distrust and fear of the savage other, and in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Flight to Canada it is a fear of the past and past indiscretions that appear as ghosts, real or imagined, to kill their perpetrator-turned-victim. I wonder if the proliferation of white horror stories is because, so often, the African American experience was, and continues to be for so many, a horror story. A slave narrative or novel like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, although eventually redemptive, depicted a brutal, horrible reality. Any slave narrative, from The History of Mary Prince, to Incidents in the Live of a Slave Girl, to The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, a true account, contains many instances of violence and abuse horrifying to get a modern slasher film an R-rating.

For my final project I’m hoping to investigate one corner of the African American folktale tradition, looking specifically at stories of ghosts or the supernatural, trying to get a sense of how a group experiencing very real every day horror of slavery, and later living under the post-war umbrella of institutionalized racism, turned their fear into fiction. I want to curate an anthology of African-American ghost stories, gathered from existing anthologies of African-American folktales. Depending on what I uncover in my research I’ll either combine and rewrite various versions of the same tales into my own “definitive” draft, or write my own, inspired by the existing tradition. This has a precedent — Patricia C. McKissack wrote The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural in 2001, which was composed of a handful of original ghost stories inspired by African American history from 19th century through the 1960s, and folktales, an inherently oral tradition, are always in a way retold when anthologized.

There are many existing collections of African-American folktales, and many of Southern ghost stories, but relatively few that look specifically at African American ghost stories, and none, as far as I’ve found, that look at African American horror through an academic or historical lens, and, as logically follows, none that compare black and white horror in the United States, and how racial and cultural histories can affect what a group finds to be horrifying.

Troubleshooting

Two potential issues are the time constraint of this project, and my own lack of knowledge regarding the large category of African-American folk lore. There simply aren’t the hours in a semester to do a comprehensive survey, and so there will always be the possibility that I’m failing to include essential stories in my research. Additionally, I am neither an anthropologist nor a folklorist nor a historian, and so it is also possible I will be unable to fully or appropriately analyze the pieces I encounter, or I’ll be unable to tell the authentic from the interpretive or fabricated. Still, by making sure to select tales that I see repeated in multiple collections, or that are vouched for by established folklorists and anthropologists, I hope to treat this project with thought and care.

Field Survey

My research thus far (and my reading list for the rest of the semester) can be divided into five categories: 1) existing collections of African-American folktales and ghost stories and 2) collections of Southern ghost stories with no reference to race — from which I will draw the bulk of stories from the anthology — 3) academic essays looking at the origins of African American folklore, 4) academic essays on American ghost stories in the past two hundred years, and 5) explorations of the horror genre generally, and as it pertains to black people, all of which will help me develop a unifying theory of African American folk horror, and organizing principles for my own anthology.

Texts from the first two categories (existing collections of African-American folktales and ghost stories and collections of Southern ghost stories with no reference to race):

Abrahams, Roger D. African-American Folktales: Stories from Black Traditions in the New World. New York (N.Y.): Pantheon, 1999. Print.

Brown, Alan. Shadows and Cypress: Southern Ghost Stories. Jackson, MS: U of Mississippi, 2000. Print.

Dorson, Richard M. American Negro Folktales: Collected with Introduction and Notes. Mineola: Dover Publications, 2015. Print.

“Folk-Tales from Students in Tuskegee Institute, Alabama.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 32, no. 125, 1919, pp. 397–401., www.jstor.org/stable/535075.

Green, Thomas A. African American Folktales. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2009. Print.

Hamilton, Virginia. Her Stories: African American Folktales, Fairy Tales and True Tales. New York: Blue Sky, 1995. Print.

Hamilton, Virginia, Leo Dillon, and Diane Dillon. The People Could Fly: The Picture Book. New York: Dragonfly , an Imprint of Random House Children’s, 2015. Print.

Haskins, James, and Felicia Marshall. Moaning Bones: African-American Ghost Stories. New York: Morrow Junior, 1999. Print.

Haskins, James, and Ben Otero. The Headless Haunt and Other African-American Ghost Stories. New York: HarperCollins, 1994. Print.

Haynes, David. Retold African-American Folktales. Logan, IA: Perfection Learning, 1997. Print.

Jones, Bessie, and Bess Lomax. Hawes. Step It Down: Games, Plays, Songs, and Stories from the Afro-American Heritage. Athens: U of Georgia, 2000. Print.

Lyons, Mary E. Raw Head, Bloody Bones: African-American Tales of the Supernatural. New York: Atheneum for Young Readers, 1991. Print.

Young, Richard, and Judy Dockrey Young. African-American Folktales for Young Readers: Including Favorite Stories from African and African-American Storytellers. Little Rock: August House, 1993. Print.

Academic essays on the origins of African American folklore:

Brooks, Wanda, and Jonda C. McNair. “‘But This Story of Mine Is Not Unique’: A Review of Research on African American Children’s Literature.” Review of Educational Research, vol. 79, no. 1, 2009, pp. 125–162., www.jstor.org/stable/40071163.

Dundes, Alan. “African and Afro-American Tales.” Research in African Literatures, vol. 7, no. 2, 1976, pp. 181–199., www.jstor.org/stable/3818715.

Hildebrand, Jennifer. “‘Dere Were No Place in Heaven for Him, an’ He Were Not Desired in Hell’: Igbo Cultural Beliefs in African American Folk Expressions.” The Journal of African American History, vol. 91, no. 2, 2006, pp. 127–152., www.jstor.org/stable/20064067.

Hobbs, Sandy. “The Folk Tale as News.” Oral History, vol. 6, no. 2, 1978, pp. 74–86., www.jstor.org/stable/40178530.

Ogunleye, Tolagbe. “African American Folklore: Its Role in Reconstructing African American History.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 27, no. 4, 1997, pp. 435–455., www.jstor.org/stable/2784725.

Piersen, William D. “An African Background for American Negro Folktales?” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 84, no. 332, 1971, pp. 204–214., www.jstor.org/stable/538990.

Academic essays on American ghost stories:

Backus, E. M. “Negro Ghost Stories.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 9, no. 34, 1896, pp. 228–230., www.jstor.org/stable/533414.

Bann, Jennifer. “Ghostly Hands and Ghostly Agency: The Changing Figure of the Nineteenth-Century Specter.” Victorian Studies, vol. 51, no. 4, 2009, pp. 663–685., www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/vic.2009.51.4.663.

Brogan, Kathleen. “American Stories of Cultural Haunting: Tales of Heirs and Ethnographers.” College English, vol. 57, no. 2, 1995, pp. 149–165., www.jstor.org/stable/378807.

Fick, Thomas H. “Authentic Ghosts and Real Bodies: Negotiating Power in Nineteenth-Century Women’s Ghost Stories.” South Atlantic Review, vol. 64, no. 2, 1999, pp. 81–97., www.jstor.org/stable/3201983.

Harlow, Ilana. “Unravelling Stories: Exploring the Juncture of Ghost Story and Local Tragedy.” Journal of Folklore Research, vol. 30, no. 2/3, 1993, pp. 177–200., www.jstor.org/stable/3814315.

Redding, Arthur. “‘Haints’: American Ghosts, Ethnic Memory, and Contemporary Fiction.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, vol. 34, no. 4, 2001, pp. 163–182., www.jstor.org/stable/44029928.

Schur, Richard. “Dream or Nightmare? Roth, Morrison, and America.” Philip Roth Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, 2005, pp. 19–36., www.jstor.org/stable/42922095.

On horror:

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage , a Division of Random House, 2015. Print.

R., Means Coleman Robin. Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present  London: Routledge, 2011. Print.

 

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Tracking Death

As mentioned in class, my project aims to track the frequencies at which death appears in late nineteenth-century American literature. For the purposes of this project, the American Civil War will act as a pivot point from which I will examine works of literature published prior to and post 1861. This is all in an effort to see if American writers were engaging with death differently after the Civil War than they were before. I am not arguing that the Civil War caused a shift (if there even is one) in American’s writers’ perception of death. However,   I am interested in taking a look at how works of fiction that explicitly deal with slavery and black life engage with death during this time period. To that end, the first book I will be examining is Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Below is a graph depicting the frequency with which the words death (including all its tense variants) and die (including all its tense variants) appear in the text. There are obvious shortcomings to this approach. Examining the frequency of the word death is not the same as examining scenes of death in the novel (which may be considered a more accurate in terms of reading the text). However, I do think there is something to be gained from an examination of the word frequency, especially given the results of the graph. Though, I will say that I don’t view this project as replacing a conventional close reading of the text. Rather, I view this project as productively supplementing a close reading of late nineteenth century American lit.

 

 

The blue and purple lines represent the frequency with which the words death and die appear in the text. For this graph, the text was split into ten sections and as you can probably tell, the general trend for both words is upward. This becomes clearer if you divide the text into two sections like I did in the graph below.

Not only are both words ascending, but, despite beginning at different points on the graph, the both appear with about the same frequency by the end of the text. An argument can be made that, based on these graphs, Uncle Tom’s Cabin becomes more concerned with death as you move through the book. This makes sense when we consider the events of the novel. We may be able to attribute this to conventional narrative style where major themes of any given text usually comes to a head at the end of the narrative. This might be due to the nature of slavery and black life as a subject. There are any number of reasons as to why the graph is trending upward. I am curious to see if this trend continues in novels about slavery and black life published before the Civil War.

 

 

Tracking Death Pt.2

 

 

The above screen shot is a graph of William Wells Brown’s Clotel (A text published before the Civil War). Interestingly it follows the trend of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (another pre Civil War text) in that as you move further into the narrative, the story becomes more concerned with death. The other two terms mostly remain the same.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The above screen shot is a graph of Iola Leroy (a text published after the Civil War), and interestingly, Iola Leroy seems to follow the same trend as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

 

These two graphs help validate my early thoughts going into this project. There does seem to be an empirical difference in the way writers are engaging with the theme of death before and after the Civil War.

Tracking Death pt. 3

Here is, more or less, what my final graph will look like

 

All four novels are graphed on the above chart and they are charted in chronological order. The word that’s being tracked is “death.” Interestingly, the graph takes the shape of two, more or less, symmetrical hyperbolas. The finished product will include a few more terms, but this stand-alone graph makes me want to rethink the initial question that prompted this entire project. I’ll delve into this in my final write up for the class.

 

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Agnes’ Project

AMST 475 project proposal-28jk55f

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Shelby’s Final Paper

“Inner Truth”: Revealing the Essence of a City and a World
In the worlds of both Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle and Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon, a mysterious object either disrupts the normal rhythm of life or exerts a strong influence over the paths of the majority of the characters—or both. There are two of these objects in the world of High Castle— the I Ching and the novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. In The Maltese Falcon, there is one—the eponymous falcon. The importance of these three objects cannot be understated. The falcon, of course, has claimed the title of the novel it features in, while the I Ching and The Grasshopper Lies Heavy are constant presences throughout all of the multiple plots of High Castle. In the eyes of the characters, these objects have almost fantastic elements. The I Ching is considered a mystical source of oracular knowledge, The Grasshopper is a forbidden picture of a world that is hoped for but considered impossible, and the falcon is comprised of gems more precious than crown jewels. Despite their fantastic natures, these objects are a reflection of how their respective versions of San Francisco, and the world beyond the city, function. All three objects share characteristics that illustrate just why and how they control and reveal the basic principles of the worlds they occupy. Characters develop an obsession with their respective objects, which shows how much they tap into the inner nature of both the people and the world around them. The objects are all foreign, providing an illustration through contrast of the worlds of the characters whose hands they fall into. They have an intimate tie with history and the significance of the past, and put into motion a pivotal final scene that contains an ultimate revelation. When it comes to the ultimate revelation, however, the objects do not unveil the same truths. The two objects of High Castle reveal a world built on a false premise and unable to progress, the object in The Maltese Falcon reveals a world where almost everything is corrupted, and nothing can be trusted because nothing is as it seems.
Even without considering specific characters’ interaction with the three objects, each object’s very nature hints at the principles underpinning the ways of their worlds. The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is considered to be a work of fiction by its readers. Therefore, it is not a part of actual reality. Yet in the end it is discovered that the Axis-run world is not the true reality—that it is, in its own way, a kind of fiction. The Grasshopper, being a more accurate reality, is therefore both a reflection and an inversion of the world. Meanwhile, the I Ching is used for advice and guidance, a service that lends itself particularly to those who are unable to make the choices themselves to achieve the ends they desire. Such an object would be particularly at home in a world where there is a severe sense of stagnation and lack of independent progress. The falcon, promised throughout its novel to contain dazzling gems underneath its plain black exterior, is in the end revealed to be worthless—at least, that is the case for the one that is physically seen in the novel. The assumption that despite being covered in enamel, the falcon would be the genuine article, turns out to be false. In much the same way, nothing any of the main characters say to each are guaranteed to be true, and it is a rare occasion when one of them lives up to a promise. One of the core building blocks of that world, therefore, is deception.
The fantastic objects cause a significant level of obsession among many of the characters who come in contact with one of them. The nature of this obsession in turn reveals an underlying characteristic of the world of the respective novel. In The Man in the High Castle, three characters in particular are portrayed as almost addicted to the novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. In their preoccupation with the events it describes, they show their preference for the world they are reading about over the one they live in, no matter who they are. Rita, an American woman who is Wyndam-Matson’s mistress, in describing the novel’s alternate course of events, is almost feverish with her belief that everything would have happened exactly as Abendsen describes if Roosevelt had really been able to escape his assassination. She comes across as a strident devotee of Abendsen’s theories as “her eyes had become large and she gestured as she talked” (Dick, 69). She is almost desperate to convince Wyndam-Matson of the truth of the novel’s suppositions as she “grab[s] his shoulder with intensity” (Dick, 69). When he is derisive, she asserts, “It really would have been like that” (Dick, 69), indicating how much the book has become a substitute for her reality—despite knowing the book is fiction, she believes the alternate history could not have happened any other way. Consul Hugo Reiss displays similar, though more secretive, level of addiction to the world of The Grasshopper. Reiss repeatedly gets upset whenever his reading is interrupted by the necessity to do his actual duties as Consul. Although he is on the opposite side of the issue as Rita, being German, he still finds himself enthralled with the reality it portrays, despite the defeat of Germany, because “it all was somehow grander, more in the old spirit than the actual world” (Dick, 133). The dramatic nature of the fall of the Third Reich is put into direct contrast with the tedious nature of his own job, such as signing the papers of nondescript seamen. The obsession of both Rita and Reiss with the alternate world hints at the characters’ instinctive yet subconscious knowledge that it is more right than the one they occupy.
Other characters of The Man in the High Castle demonstrate an addiction to the I Ching instead. They are repeatedly shown to use it when faced with difficult situations, to the point of seeming unable to take initiative on their own. As Juliana Frink openly admits, “I use it all the time to decide. I never let it out of my sight” (Dick, 87). Nobusuke Tagomi has such a firm belief in the wisdom of the oracle that he preemptively dismisses the value of Robert Childan’s new gift for Mr. Baynes without even seeing it. His reliance upon its advice is so strong that at one point upon awaking he “start[s] toward the bathroom, then change[s] his mind and [goes] directly to the oracle” (Dick, 174). Frank Frink, perhaps the most addicted of the three, is explicitly told by Ed McCarthy that he “rel[ies] on that thing too much” (Dick, 106). He consults it with regard to every major event in his life during the time covered by the novel—from asking for his job back to starting a jewelry business to getting funding from his former employer, as well as the possibility of reuniting with Juliana. Despite his and the other characters’ dedication to the oracle, however, its first appearance is not particularly impressive. Upon asking the best way to approach his former employer in order to be rehired, Frink receives the hexagram indicating modesty. He is somewhat disappointed, reflecting that “[t]here was something fatuous about Hexagram Fifteen…Naturally he should be modest” (Dick, 11). Frink could have decided on that course of action for himself, yet he felt the need to consult the oracle. This incident indicates a lack of ability on Frink’s part to move forward on his own. While the I Ching proves to be more remarkable later on, having its first pronouncement be so unnecessary raises the question of why the characters are so dependent upon it. The fact that they are indicates the stagnation that has seeped into the wills of the characters—they are unable to take initiative on their own. This immobilization is a byproduct of their existing in an essentially backward world.
Though characters such as Frink and Tagomi are somewhat crippled in their initiative due to their dependence on the oracle, a side effect of that addiction seems to be a more intimate understanding of the I Ching. This in turn has allowed them a greater ability to muse over its awareness of hidden circumstances, much as those obsessed with The Grasshopper sense the appropriateness of the reality they read about. While they cannot quite perceive what it is that is hidden, they do know that the I Ching can sense it. Both Tagomi and Frink know of the oracle’s ability to see beneath the surface, and they believe at times that a second message is contained in their hexagrams. Having received judgement regarding Mr. Baynes’s future reaction to the gift, Tagomi realizes that he “had a deeper query in the back of his mind” as well, and the oracle “while answering the other [question], had taken it upon itself to answer the subliminal one, too” (Dick, 19). Frink asks about the possible success of his new business, but his one moving line makes him suspect that his answer was a double prophecy, and that the second meaning of that prophecy “refers to something deeper, some future catastrophe probably not even connected with the jewelry business” (Dick, 52). The oracle may provide answers for small, almost petty concerns, but it ultimately addresses the core problems. While everyone else is concerned with their everyday lives and perhaps on a larger scale how the growing conflict between the Japanese and the Germans will progress, the I Ching looks underneath the surface and sees that there is another problem altogether—that the world itself is faulty.
While virtually all of the main characters, and even some of the minor ones, are obsessed with either The Grasshopper or the I Ching in The Man in the High Castle, only a select number of characters are obsessed with the Maltese Falcon in the eponymous novel. Yet the phenomenon of the characters’ addiction is linked to a larger aspect of the world of this novel as well— in this case, the prevalence of duplicity and pretense. Gutman is the only character who can truly be said to be consumed with his desire for the falcon. He is the most determined of everyone else to obtain it. As Gutman concludes his explanation of his pursuit of the falcon, he states, “I wanted it and I found it. I want it and I’m going to have it” (Hammett, 127). The bluntness and simplicity of this declaration, in contrast with the sophisticated nature of his usual language and demeanor, shows that his outward presentation of a refined gentleman hides his singleminded greed. Spade, in contrast, exhibits little to no desire to obtain the falcon other than to ensure that he finds it before the others and thus gains an advantage. He also demonstrates the least disparity between his outer presentation and his actual persona. He may pretend to know more than he does in order to get information, but his personality is relatively the same no matter what the subject matter or audience. Joel Cairo and Brigid O’Shaughnessy occupy a middle ground of obsession. They have pursued the falcon and even attempted to keep it for themselves, but are willing to relinquish any claim to it if necessary—Cairo is willing to go back to working to secure it for someone else, and Brigid decides it is not worth keeping if her life is in danger. They, in turn, do not have as jarring a division between their presentation and their inner motivation, but they do occasionally conceal certain aspects of themselves or pretend to be something they are not. Brigid at first feigns innocence and then puts on the persona of a tortured rather than merciless manipulator, while Cairo hides a violent streak. The level of obsession with the falcon, therefore, correlates to how opposite a character’s true self is from how they present themselves.
In addition to inducing obsession, all three fantastic objects also share the characteristic of foreignness. Within The Man in the High Castle, this foreignness is what allows the two objects to evade the rules of the world that apply to everything else, and in doing so comment on the condition of that world. While Japanese and some German influence form an integral part of the novel’s version of San Francisco, the I Ching lies outside that dichotomy in being from China—therefore it truly is foreign. The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, having been written in land once considered the United States, now a separate territory from the Pacific States, is from a foreign location according to the perspective of San Francisco residents such as obsessed readers Rita and Reiss. Its foreignness is further solidified when it is revealed at the end that it was authored by the I Ching, which is from China. The foreignness of the I Ching and The Grasshopper is necessary to illustrate the way in which they are somewhat removed from the novel’s reality and are able to illustrate the fundamentally flawed nature of the characters’ world. Their separation is apparent in the text itself. Both the lines of the I Ching and the selections from The Grasshopper are set apart with a different format from the rest of the text in High Castle. Their style and cadence is also distinct from the regular narration or the speech of the characters. With their detachment comes a clearer view of the world than can be obtained by those who occupy it. As General Tedeki comments to Baynes as they observe Tagomi manipulating the yellow stalks of the oracle, “it provides an external frame of reference” (Dick, 212). They are not part of the stagnation that has permeated this warped version of the world, but are positioned to recognize it. It blatantly states that fact when Tagomi asks for a description of the “Moment for us all” and receives a static version of the Oppression—Exhaustion hexagram (Dick, 105-6). The pronouncement illustrates that the others are trapped in this world, and the static nature of the hexagram underscores the level of stagnation. The importance of foreignness in being able to rise above the reality is confirmed with the case of Juliana, the only main character to live outside of San Francisco and the only main character to discover the truth about both The Grasshopper’s connection to the I Ching and the truth that her reality is incorrect.
The power and advantage of being foreign for the I Ching and The Grasshopper is further confirmed through their connection to creative forces. Creation indicates progress and initiative, which is largely lacking in this version of San Francisco. The I Ching, as a result of guiding the decisions of addicted individuals, is largely responsible for what little advancement is made among the characters in San Francisco. Frink, one of the addicted characters, acts on the oracle’s advice to pursue jewelry-making, which is a departure from his previous job of making replicas—an inherently stagnant action, where each item should be the same as that which came before. Through Frink’s efforts to create something new, the I Ching is also indirectly responsible for the change in Childan’s shop. The sale and collection of American artifacts looks backward rather than forward, and can never include something truly new. Therefore, it is a radical sign of change—an anomaly in this version of San Francisco—when Childan eventually begins marketing Frink’s jewelry, looking toward the future rather than the past. Yet the push toward a break from the accepted state of affairs would not have been possible from within. The foreign oracle was necessary. The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is the only example of a creative art form from the present until Frink and McCarthy begin their jewelry business. As it was written outside of the Pacific States, it seems to further illustrate the way in which a remove of some sort is necessary in order to inject something new into the world. That the novel is eventually revealed to not entirely be the product of a creative mind of a human in Colorado, but rather the I Ching from China, doubly indicates the stagnation of society—the creative force truly must come from outside.
The Maltese falcon’s foreignness also sets it apart from the San Francisco portrayed in its novel. It highlights the corrupt morals that are taken for granted among the main characters. As explained by Gutman, the statue’s original purpose was to augment the Knights’ display of thanks to Emperor Charles. As Gutman puts it when describing their decision to craft a jewel-encrusted bird rather than simply send the live bird that was required, “What could be more natural than for these immeasurably wealthy Knights to look around for some way of expressing their gratitude?” (Hammett, 124). The falcon, as a result, is valuable in ways not able to be calculated, due to two factors. Created by a group with “immeasurable” wealth, its objective worth cannot truly be calculated. It is also a symbol of gratitude, a sentiment that is by its very nature intangible. Yet these abstract values inherent in the statue are not upheld in San Francisco, revealing the lack of virtue in this version of the city, and its preoccupation only with material concerns. Any possible exchange regarding the bird is very quantifiable, as it is always a question of money—such as Cairo’s initial offer of ten thousand dollars for the statue. Not only do the characters impose a discrete value on the bird, but the falcon is also turned into the driving reason for betrayal and murder—a far cry from the more noble and amicable sentiments it was initially crafted to express. The main characters’ interaction and arrangements with regard to the bird, therefore, reveals their corruption.
The importance of history is linked to the power of the three objects. This is quite obvious in The Man in the High Castle, where the occupants of the world presented show an extreme preoccupation with history and the past. The I Ching is the oldest item the characters come across, far older than any piece of Americana sold at Childan’s shop. The fact that it has existed for thousands of years places it in a position of authority within the novel. For people whose typical reaction to items of the past is one of awe and respect, an object that can harness the power of a past too far back to conceive of is regarded as most remarkable. When Tagomi is psychologically disturbed after shooting the invading Germans in his office building, he immediately goes to the oracle, reasoning that faced with a “situation confusing and anomalous…[n]o human intelligence could decipher it; only five-thousand-year-old joint mind applicable” (Dick, 211). Just as the collectors’ items are considered to be the most authentic view of America, the I Ching presents the clearest view of the world. Yet although the I Ching originated so far into the past, the novel never really concerns itself with the oracle’s own history. The most insight provided into its past is its definition as “the divine Fifth Book of Confucian wisdom, the Taoist oracle called for centuries the I Ching or Book of Changes” (Dick, 15). While tokens infused with history such as a Mickey Mouse watch or Horrors of War cards had an original purpose and have been reclaimed as artifacts and mementos of bygone eras, the I Ching’s function has not changed, and it is still actively used rather than collected. Therefore the I Ching avoids being part of the standard fate of historical items in this novel, bought and learned about, but ultimately out of place. It is not reduced to a curiosity. In originating so far in the past, it actually transcends time, allowing it to not be subject to the tides of recent history. Therefore it is able to navigate situations too perplexing for someone so tightly tied to their small, limited place in time.
The Grasshopper novel’s connection to history is a part of its very nature, in presenting an alternate history to the one the characters know. Yet it is not a historical object itself, having been recently published—in fact, it may be considered the newest item in comparison to the I Ching being the oldest, until the Edfrank jewelry is made. The characters who read it are not only enthralled by the alternate life it depicts, but the way in which it is reasoned out to justify its chain of events. The use of history makes it seem that much more plausible. Describing the basis of Abendsen’s theory to Wyndam-Matson, Rita asserts that Roosevelt would indeed be a strong president because “he showed it in the year he was [in office]…all those measures he introduced” (Dick, 68). The fact that the book spends so much time explaining the past that leads up to the alternate equivalent of the present illustrates that its readers are still preoccupied with the past. The history element clearly takes precedence, as the actual plot of the book is not considered important. In describing it, Rita says, “[i]t’s in fiction form…it’s got to be entertaining or people wouldn’t read it…there’s these two young people, the boy is in the American Army. The girl—well, anyhow” and returns to outlining the historical policies and actions (Dick, 69). The story is not nearly as interesting as the history.
In The Maltese Falcon, Gutman takes special care to impress upon Spade the historical nature of the falcon artifact. An entire chapter is dedicated to his narrative. This historical background has a twofold importance. First, it indicates the disparity between the world it came from and Spade’s world. The grand names of Emperor Charles and the Order of the Hospital, as well as the exotic ones of Victor Amadeus II or Count of Floridablanca, are out of place when compared to the simple American names of Tom or Sam or Effie. With all of these Old World names squeezed into one chapter, it is clear that they are set apart from and incompatible with the dark, brutal, and decidedly unglamorous world of 1920s San Francisco. Second, it allows Spade the hard facts he needs in order to overcome the disparity. Describing to Spade just how wealthy the Knights of Rhodes were at the time they settled on Malta, Gutman states that they “had taken nobody knows what spoils of gems, precious metals, silks, ivories…That is history, sir. We all know that the Holy Wars to them…were largely a matter of loot” (Hammett, 124). Gutman goes on to mention more historical sources to illustrate how he has traced the falcon through history, and the way in which he continually asserts the truth of the history illustrates how important it is for him that he do so. After having described the rich construction of the falcon, and being met with Spade’s noncommittal reaction, Gutman affirms that “[t]hese are facts, historical facts, not schoolbook history…but history nonetheless” (Hammett, 124). The rest of his explanation of how the falcon travelled around Europe is riddled with historical references—archives, memoirs, and historians’ papers. Gutman is not mistaken in assuming that Spade needs historical verification of the falcon’s existence. As a detective, Spade requires evidence and proof that he can trace. Having distinct sources to follow up on makes the fantastic and exotic scenes painted by Gutman digestible—at least somewhat, as when Spade recounts these sources for Effie, he “stumble[s] over the names of authors and their works” (Hammett, 133-4). The falcon, therefore, must have a history in order to translate it into Spade’s world. Gutman’s addressing this necessity illustrates a core aspect of this novel’s San Francisco—its grim reality of city life. Accustomed to duplicity and faced with a story that is not in keeping with the down-to-earth nature of his usual cases, Spade is naturally cynical and requires additional confirmation of the veracity of Gutman’s story.
While each object hints at some core aspect of their respective worlds over the course of the novels, they are also all directly responsible for a final scene in which a major truth that the characters themselves need to resolve is revealed. The aftermath of the discovery of that truth confirms for the last time the core quality of that particular world. In the case of High Castle, the ultimate unveiling takes place when Juliana confronts Hawthorne Abendsen at his house. Juliana, the only character shown to have an addiction to both The Grasshopper and the I Ching, and able to consciously rather than subconsciously feel that there is a reason for the allure of the world of The Grasshopper, is the one to ask the question that ends up informing Abendsen’s party that the Axis powers, not the Allies, really lost the war. The fact that this revelation is labelled by the I Ching as “Inner Truth” (Dick, 272) emphasizes the connection the object has with the fundamental nature of its world. Yet even this scene, which has technically changed a few characters’ perception of their world, illustrates the consequence of a world that is intrinsically wrong, even when the characters are aware of their situation. Juliana remarks to Abendsen that his book made her realize that “there’s nothing to be afraid of, nothing to want or hate or avoid, here, or run from. Or pursue” (Dick, 269). This is the ultimate definition of this world’s stagnation, which both The Grasshopper and the I Ching have illustrated throughout the novel. Despite having gained such extraordinary insight, no one does anything in particular in response. Granted, it is not clear exactly what there is to do, but it would seem the situation calls for some sort of reaction. Instead, Abendsen and his friends return to their party, and Juliana considers going back to Frank—not simply continuing with her life as it was, but regressing to what it involved before the beginning of the novel. Ultimately, the characters in this world cannot progress.
In The Maltese Falcon, the statue does not induce answers about the world in general, but does reveal the truth that is most important for a detective—the details of unsolved crimes. The falcon forces all of these mysteries to be accounted for in the final confrontation in Spade’s apartment. The fallout from the falcon’s arrival—only possible due to the falcon being revealed as a fake, allows Spade to finally piece together the full story of Brigid’s involvement in both stealing the bird and killing Miles Archer. Gutman leaves the bird in Spade’s apartment where Brigid is finally forced to admit everything, signifying its revealing power. With the core element of this version of San Francisco being the duplicity and unexpected nature of individuals, it is in keeping with this quality for Spade to not entirely be who he purported to be either. Spade’s morals and motivation for solving the case, having been in question throughout the novel, are finally laid bare. Much as the falcon’s value—or lack thereof—is obscured by the black enamel, Spade has maintained a facade that has obscured his most pressing concerns. Although he insults Miles Archer at every opportunity, he really is dedicated to clearing up the mystery of his partner’s death and identifying the perpetrator responsible. When he finally accuses Brigid, he derides her as “[y]ou who knocked off Miles, a man you had nothing against, in cold blood, just like swatting a fly” (Hammett, 212). Spade’s outrage, never before seen, is now apparent. In contrast with the other instances of pulling back facades, where a more corrupt nature was uncovered, Spade’s true nature in this instance actually has some degree of honor in that he is upset by a meaningless, unprovoked murder. As he remarks to Brigid, “Don’t be too sure I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be” (Hammett, 215). While in most instances the truth underneath the act had been even more corrupt, for Spade the deception works in reverse—a final reminder that no one is as they are expected to be in this San Francisco.
Both The Man in the High Castle and The Maltese Falcon use fantastic objects as central driving forces of the plots and characters of the novels. These objects in turn reflect or make apparent some core qualities of their respective versions of San Francisco and the broader world. The strategies by which they do this in each novel are remarkably similar. Their forms inherently echo the ways in which their worlds operate. All three of the objects induce some form of obsession in a significant number of characters, and those most obsessed are also the strongest examples of their worlds’ basic qualities. They are foreign, allowing some remove from the rules and qualities of each San Francisco, which makes the flawed nature of those characteristics of the city more apparent. Their historical elements add to the authority of the narratives surrounding them. In the end, the objects’ roles in revealing the truth about the world are solidified in a climactic final scene that resolves questions most concerning to the characters. All of these aspects illustrate the nature of the objects’ worlds throughout their novels. The I Ching and The Grasshopper Lies Heavy bring to light the fact that the world in which the Axis powers won World War II, the very world the characters occupy, is incorrect—and as a byproduct of having such a warped reality, the world wavers between stagnation and looking backward. The advancement and progress that should be occurring does not exist because it does not have the means to do so. The falcon statue reveals that in San Francisco, nothing is as it seems, and the truth, when discovered, will most likely be of a corrupted nature. This is true for both people and objects. Though the basic features of each San Francisco are quite different, it should be noted that a common component of these features is that reality is not readily apparent to the characters—it must be uncovered, and assumptions are proven to be false. The similarities in this ultimate conclusion, when added to the similarities of the objects’ strategies of revealing truth, may hint that there is something that remains intrinsic to San Francisco, no matter how a version of itself is constructed.

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Mohit’s Long Paper Outline

Mumbo Jumbo Outline

 

This history of Jes Grew and its relationship to Jes Grew carry with them a long history that conveniently explains an aspect of the world that is hard to swallow. Racism.

 

The Mutafikah’s fight against racism. The VooDoo practitioners fight against it. And they both carry with them an ideology – a long way of explaining racism’s history. And Ishmael Reed asks us – he dares us to doubt their history. When we read his conspiracy theory, we become the Gainese art collector. We embody the university educated Atonists that we are and we say, it’s fiction.

 

But at the end of the day it’s an explanation that works. It makes sense why all the racism exists. It serves a function. Racism towards non-white arts and values exists because denying others their true form of expression gives them power. Set wants to stay in power over Osiris because he is jealous and he enlists the western world and its prophets to help him. Thus Jes Grew is degraded as an ideal – as a complete whole.

 

Similarly, Winnie explains her life in terms of luck. These terms of luck help Winnie understand her life that was unjustly uncharitable at times. Just as Atonicism and it’s origins explain why the west is so good at unjustly keeping people down, the artbitrary rules of luck and respect help Winnie make sense of her world. Things happen to her because of bad luck.

 

“No, I’m not being superstitious. I am only saying that’s how it happened.”

 

Again, we are dared with our Western values to doubt a different way of rationalizing the world. But with closer examination, we can’t do it. Winnie’s understanding of the world is sound. She has made it through incredible hardships in tact because of her way of seeing the world.

 

Both these novels present characters that must face their world with a unique understanding of their world. It helps them understand their world. Triumphant or not, they live as beacons of light in a life that could otherwise be bleak and without hope.

 

Mumbo Jumbo Examples:
Examples of the LaBas understanding of the world:
Mumbo Jumbo page 160-200 – the full history of the Book of Thoth

Page 50: LaBas prepares dishes for the loas

The Epilogue: LaBas shrewdly acknowledges his hold on the truth despite others’ non-belief

Conversation with Abdul – page 33-41

62 – Jung Quote – Gods of the East vs. Gods of the West

LaBas’ conversation with his daughter – clearly different opinions on openness regarding sex

Page 28 – explanation of feeding the loa

 

Examples of Racism:

Page 110-115 Thor being convinced by Biff Musclewhite

Page 22: the men speak of Haiti having no valuable art – Absurd.

Uses of the word primitive on pages 57, 83, 97, 99, and 111

Page 16 – obsession with seeing black hands come in contact with white crop

Page 17 – Harding – “Let’s get rid of the wiggle and wobble”

 

Kitchen God’s Wife Examples:

 

123 – Winnie explains the difference between luck and chance

308+252 – injustices on her friends’ and Wen Fu’s part

312, 257 – self-awareness of tendency to blame women

247 – scissors fall – “If you think I am only being superstitious… why did it happen?”

29-30 – Pearl’s explanation of her mother’s superstitions

41 – Winnie looks for the ghost in Pearl’s room

341 – Winnie and Jimmy disagree on the luck/fate of their meeting once again

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