Historicizing Forms and Spaces of Refuge

MLA Forum: History & Literature
January 2018 

Migration, Extinction, and the American Novel, Tony McGowan, West Point

How can the close-reading of military archives situate our historical understanding of how shifting spaces of cultural genocide become absorbed within the American novel’s treatment of migration, sanctuary, and extinction? Using rare battle-field journals, maps, officer correspondence, and other documents from West Point’s Special Collections, I first trace how 19th century military “scientists” learned to deliberately exterminate animal populations in order to “chastise” indigenous peoples. I then locate the widening implications of such slaughter as it deforms and displaces within three representative novels: Cooper’s The Pioneers (1821), Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), and Williams’ Butcher’s Crossing (1960). I close by considering how the ongoing literary deformation of the fact of extinction might speak now, within the context of our global human precarity. Turning to both Paul Kingsnorth’s Dark Mountain Movement and to Jonathan Lear’s Radical Hope: Ethics in the face of Cultural Devastation for some theoretical grounding, I ask new questions, esp.: Can our knowledge that humans are now geological agents help us resist the twin threats of: 1. Romantic complacency about the present, and 2. A “nostalgia for a future,” where that future has already become impossible?

Night as Refuge in Antebellum Slavery Narratives, Sarah Cullen, Trinity College Dublin

This paper considers how night, as illustrated in American antebellum slavery narratives, becomes a refuge for slaves due to the failures of slaveholders’ nocturnal surveillance. Drawing on Deleuze’s spatial philosophy, I argue that night in the slavery narrative is a “smooth” or nomadic space which is difficult to colonise, as opposed to the “striated” or boundary-defined space of the day. Historically, as demonstrated by the violent white response to nocturnal transgressions by slaves, night spaces posed a challenge to white society, giving slaves a measure of asylum they lacked in the day.

Night is therefore a medium by which slaves gained leisure, family time, and respite. By invoking postcolonial critics such as Valerie Smith, I demonstrate how night, like Harriet Jacob’s hiding space, becomes a “loophole of retreat:” simultaneously a place of withdrawal and an avenue of escape (212), in which they expand the possibilities of community and auto didacticism denied to them in daylight.

While slave owners maintained considerable control at night, I examine how the narrators used their nocturnal vantage point, what Simone Browne calls “dark sousveillance” (literally under-surveillance) which disrupts the accepted racialised order (18-9), to illustrate the behaviour of slave-owners in the darkness. This reveals the sordid actions masters resorted to when not being watched by white society. The night therefore becomes a refuge for the authors. Demonstrating how he temporarily reverses this act of overseeing and keeps the slaveholder “profoundly ignorant,” Frederick Douglas writes, “Let him be left to feel his way in the dark” (101).

Finally, night enables slaves like Charles Ball to become fugitives, as they establish networks of communication, escape their plantations and to emerge as free individuals in the North. The lessons learned in the sanctuary of nighttime enable them to vie for further freedom, but night itself remains a temporary asylum. As Deleuze and Guattari state, “Never believe that a smooth space will suffice to save us” (581).

“A Sea-change”: Shipboard Space, Shipboard Documents, and Interstitial Possibility, Nissa Ren Cannon, University of California, Santa Barbara

Until the popularization of overseas air migration in the late 1950s, transatlantic voyagers—whether leaving their homeland as exiles, immigrants, refugees, or tourists—had to travel via steamship. In their days, or weeks, on board, passengers were exposed to new people and new ideas, and given the possibility, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s words, of “undergoing a sea-change, a shifting about of atoms to form the essential molecule of a new people.” The traveller was ensconced in a shipboard paper ecology that included brochures, rate cards, deck plans, gangway cards, and baggage stickers. Once the ship had sailed, there were passenger lists, seating cards, activity programs, daily menus, shipboard newspapers, and stationary. These papers were essential in determining the parameters of the newly constructed society each passenger entered. No longer amongst a familiar group of friends, family, and neighbors, shipboard documents helped outline new hierarchies; told passengers when and where to eat, sleep, and socialize; and reported shipboard news, creating community where none had previously been.

This paper will argue that the interstitial space of steamship travel had three key effects on voyagers: first, the voyage separates the passenger from their familiar milieu—imposing both geographic and temporal distance between the individual and their friends, family, and familiar context. Second, it immerses passengers in a space both intensely patriotic and intrinsically cosmopolitan, demanding that they rethink national allegiances. And third, it explicitly emphasizes distinctions between travel classes, as well as passengers and crew, requiring voyagers to repeatedly name themselves in contrast to other groups. Drawing on archival documents from the UK’s National Maritime Museum and the personal collections of steamship enthusiasts, as well as interwar fiction by Fitzgerald and Katherine Mansfield depicting overseas travel, I will examine how each of these effects is facilitated and framed by the dense ecology of travel ephemera surrounding travellers.

“The War Was, Over, Except…”: Mothers as War Memorials in Mrs. Dalloway, Rebecca Chenoweth, University of California, Santa Barbara

This paper examines the paradoxical role of mothers as reminders of war and sites of psychological refuge for Great Britain during and after World War I.  While these women occupied the domestic space that needed protecting during the war, once it ended, they came to represent the horrors, sacrifices, and grief to be processed (even more so than returning veterans, who at first went practically unacknowledged).  However, the emphasis on their physical and emotional presence—from supporting the rationing kitchen and the recruitment effort, to being positioned at the front of memorial unveilings—suggests they served as more than shorthand for the “motherland.”  They became used as sites to expedite—even outsource—the remembrance and grief of a nation.

I will investigate this use of women as space for both remembrance and refuge from the war by examining the brief introduction of World War I via Lady Bexborough and Mrs. Foxcroft in Mrs. Dalloway.  Through the narrative’s simultaneously intimate and removed snapshot of their reactions to the deaths of young relatives, Woolf undermines the universal grief assigned to these women, and their role as spaces for remembering and forgetting.  The narrative claims, “The war was over, except for someone like” them; and yet their experiences are so disparate and unclear that they challenge their conflation, let alone their efficacy as substitutes who can remember and mourn on behalf of Great Britain.

I will examine the challenges this brief scene poses in the context of British women’s roles in propaganda and memorials, as well as theories of trauma and memory.  Susan Grayzel and Tammy Proctor’s historical studies of civilian life will historicize this literary analysis, and Karen Levenback’s comparison of language in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and military communications will model the reverberation of WWI’s mental burdens beyond the battlefield.

CFP: Historicizing Forms and Spaces of Refuge

The MLA History and Literature Forum invites proposals for a guaranteed panel at the 2018 MLA Convention in New York City (January 4-7, 2018).

We are seeking historically-situated papers on how literary forms construct, influence, and are influenced by spaces of refuge, asylum, sanctuary, and migration.

While recent public attention has turned toward humanitarian crises that have resulted in forced displacement, as well as debates about the legalities and moral consequences of documenting and registering immigrants, we welcome essays from a range of times and places, not limited to the United States or Britain in the present moment.

Refuge may be broadly construed as imaginary or real, temporary or permanent, bounded or unbounded, even “in transit.”

Literary forms may include, but are not limited to essays, life writing, graphic novels, historical documents, contemporary or historical performance, or traditional literary genres such as the novel and poetry.

Issues to be explored include:

  • Processes of representing, constructing, naming, or defining spaces as sanctuary, asylum, or refuge;
  • Construction of boundaries, whether real or ideological or both;
  • Questions of exclusion, inclusion, marginalization;
  • Rhetorically marking particular spaces as separate sanctuaries for the dispossessed;
  • Repurposing existing spaces (airport lounges, farms, sports stadiums);
  • Navigating social, cultural, political spaces of refuge;
  • Exploring gender, sexuality, and race in relationship to space and place;
  • Developing a national, religious or individual identity or sense of self because of space and place;
  • Creation of spaces for revolution, activism, and philanthropy,
  • Fabrication of spaces through technology, labor, transit, or education.

300 word abstracts and brief CV by March 5, 2017 to Marguerite Helen Helmers (helmers@uwosh.edu). Responses by March 22.

Should the proposal be accepted for the panel, you must be a fully-paid member of the MLA by April 1, 2017 (see https://www.mla.org/Membership/About-Membership for dues information). You need not be a current member of the MLA to submit a proposal.