America in Progress

America in Progress
America in Progress

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

October 31, 2018: GhostStudying: Haunted Sites


[For this year’s installment in my annual Halloween series, I’ll be AmericanStudying ghosts in American society and popular culture. Boo (in the best sense)!]
First, no post on American haunted sites should fail to acknowledge Colin Dickey’s wonderful book Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places (2016). Dickey’s book is the gold standard for all things haunted sites and AmericanStudies, and you should check it out! Here, I just wanted to highlight briefly three examples of representative, telling such haunted American spaces:
1)      San Diego’s El Campo Santo Cemetery: No post on haunted sites should fail to include at least one cemetery, and San Diego’s El Campo Santo is a good choice, not only because it’s old (first used in 1849) and reported to be haunted, but also and especially because those hauntings, like San Diego itself, reveal the region’s and nation’s truly multiethnic history. Both Native American and Hispanic ghosts have been reported in El Campo Santo, and that would only be fitting for a city in which the multi-century multi-cultural histories that include those among other cultures are both officially minimized at times and yet ever-present and impossible to escape. Nothing scary about that, unless you find yourself in El Campo Santo after the San Diego sun has set…
2)      Savannah’s William Kehoe House: Savannah has long been known for its mysterious and supernatural sides, as illustrated by the popular 1994 John Berendt book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (and its successful 1997 film adaptation). The city has lots of supposedly haunted sites to choose from, but the 1892 William Kehoe House is certainly a good example: haunted by the apparently friendly apparitions of Irish immigrant turned iron magnate (and, yes, Confederate veteran—this is postbellum Georgia we’re talking about) William, his wife Annie, and a few of their ten children; and now turned into a popular bed and breakfast, because who wouldn’t want to spend the night amongst the ghosts? If El Campo Santo is the yin of haunted sites, the Kehoe House certainly seems like the yang.
3)      Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary: And then there’s Eastern State, which is kind of a combination of those two types: a ruined prison that’s supposedly haunted by the lost souls of many of its former inmates; and yet a commercial enterprise, one that particularly makes money come Halloween season by marketing those haunted souls as a tourist attraction. The line between history and tourism, supernatural and commerce, is always somewhat blurry when it comes to these haunted sites, but Eastern State just steps all over that line and asks us to cross back and forth freely to explore these different American histories and stories. Which, come to think of it, doesn’t sound scary at all, so much as important and fun!
Next GhostStudying tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other ghost stories or histories you’d share?

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

October 30, 2018: GhostStudying: Beloved


[For this year’s installment in my annual Halloween series, I’ll be AmericanStudying ghosts in American society and popular culture. Boo (in the best sense)!]
On the psychological and historical sides to Toni Morrison’s haunting masterpiece.
A couple weeks back I wrote about (and, fortunately if belatedly, corrected) the shame of not having covered Moby-Dick in my first eight years of blogging in this space. Well, I could certainly say the same for Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), one of the most acclaimed American novels of the 20th century and a hugely important work of historical fiction, African American literature, postmodern fiction, and more. (I did write about it in a paragraph of this post on representations of the Middle Passage, if that counts for anything!) It was largely thanks to Beloved that Morrison became in 1993 the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, a truly groundbreaking moment in world literary and cultural history (and one, to be clear, that she deserved well before Beloved’s publication, but that was likely cemented by that book and moment). I’ve also had the chance to teach excerpts from or the whole of Morrison’s novel in many different classes, and have found that it’s one of those rare works that is both tremendously dense and demanding and yet entirely rewards all effort put into it. Beloved is quite simply a magisterial novel.
It’s also, at its heart, a ghost story (sorry, NYT, but I don’t agree with that piece!). Yet without minimizing the actual horror or thriller sides to Morrison’s novel (I hope by now it’s beyond clear to any consistent reader that I have absolutely no problem with genre fiction), I would argue that Beloved’s titular ghost is at least as symbolic and thematic as she is scary. Perhaps the clearest element to that symbolism is psychological: the novel’s protagonist Sethe, like her historical inspiration Margaret Garner, has killed one of her young children rather than allow her to be captured into a state of slavery; and it stands to reason that she would be haunted by the spectral presence of that lost child (or, more exactly, of the woman she might have grown up to be, and a symbolically pregnant woman at that). The historian Kidada Williams has researched and written powerfully about the psychological effects of racial violence; while of course Sethe’s and Garner’s acts of violence are far different from those committed by the Klan against African Americans, they are inspired by the same kinds and systems of racial terrorism and would certainly produce their own forms of psychological trauma. Of course it is Schoolteacher (the novel’s hateful slaveowner) who truly deserves Beloved’s ghostly presence and wrath, but it stands to reason that a sensitive and thoughtful character like Sethe would be far more haunted than a villain like Schoolteacher.
But as Slavoj Zizek (back when he was just an edgy psychoanalytical literary critic, rather than some sort of strange post-postmodern performance artist) argues in his reading of Beloved as part of his book The Fragile Absolute (2000), both the guilt and the haunting past symbolized by Beloved are as much communal as they are individual. That is, slavery was already by the late 19th century setting of Morrison’s novel a ghost, literally past but still haunting America in the present so fully and potently; and it’s fair to say that it was no less present and haunting in the 1980s moment of Morrison’s writing, nor in the 2010s one of mine here. To frame a historical novel of slavery as a ghost story might seem to lessen the realism and perhaps the significance of the historical representations; but Morrison’s novel proves that the opposite is true, that the ghost story metaphor offers a pitch-perfect form through which to confront the legacies and effects and presence of our darkest collective (as well as individual) histories. Which, in turn, makes the ghost story all the more scary and compelling.
Next GhostStudying tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other ghost stories or histories you’d share?

Monday, October 29, 2018

October 29, 2018: GhostStudying: The Turn of the Screw


[For this year’s installment in my annual Halloween series, I’ll be AmericanStudying ghosts in American society and popular culture. Boo (in the best sense)!]
On two cultural fears lurking beneath Henry James’s gripping ghost story.
If you had told me back when my teaching career began that Henry James’s 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw would be one of the texts I would teach most frequently, I’d likely have reacted much like Mrs. Grose does when the Governess tells her about seeing the ghost of Peter Quint (inside Turn of the Screw joke, my bad—that means incredulously). But because Turn works so well as a foundation onto which to stack literary theories and critical frames, I’ve taught the ghost story/psychological thriller/potboiler/Victorian class study/metafictional masterpiece numerous times in both my undergraduate Approaches to English Studies and graduate Literary Theory: Practical Applications courses (as well as in my Major Author: Henry James course). It’s a fun and engaging book, with so many layers that I’m continually discovering new ones along with the students in each such class. But it’s also a horror story (whether the horror is supernatural or psychological, which depends on how you read it), and as I’ve argued in this space many times, horror stories almost always reveal shared cultural narratives and fears.
In the case of Turn, many of those embedded cultural fears focus on the story’s two young children, Miles and Flora, and what might be (as the governess-narrator sees it, at least) corrupting their innocent minds and souls. The more obvious (of the two I’ll highlight in this post, anyway—nothing is truly straightforward in James’s tortured text) corrupting forces have to do with sex and sexuality. The ghosts who may or may not be haunting or possessing Miles and Flora are of two former servants: Peter Quint, a manservant of whose sexual perversions we hear repeatedly but vaguely; and Miss Jessel, a nanny who was apparently pregnant (perhaps by Quint, perhaps by the children’s uncle) at the time of her mysterious death (likely a suicide). A number of Victorian fears overlap in those details, from worries about working-class influences on upper-class children to mores about sexual freedom. But I would argue that by far the most damning fears at play here have to do specifically with homosexuality, and with the possibly that Quint has corrupted young Miles in that vein (Miles finally admits, if still vaguely, that he “said things” to male friends at school that he should not have said, leading to his expulsion). In an era when Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for homosexuality, it’s fair to say that James is not overstating the cultural panic over such “perversions.”
There’s another 19th century cultural fear potentially buried within the stories of Miles and Flora, however. In the novella’s complex prologue/frame, we learn that the children had initially lived with their parents in the British colony of India; it was only after they were orphaned that they returned to England to live with their bachelor uncle. That’s the last we hear of India in any overt way in the text—neither Miles (10 years old) nor Flora (8) seems to have any memories of their childhood there, or at least none that they share with the governess. Which is, of course, an important distinction to make—the entire novella hinges on the question of what the children are hiding from the governess, and so it’s entirely fair to imagine that there might be secrets other than those of their prior servants that they do not divulge to her (and thus to us, since she’s our narrator and sole perspective). In any case, in an era when James’s home country of the United States was debating seriously the possibility of becoming an empire, and when his adopted country of Great Britain was considering whether and how its empire was worth sustaining, it’s at least important to note that James decides to include this imperial history within the children’s backstory, to make it a part of the heritage and identity of these two troubled young people.
Next GhostStudying tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other ghost stories or histories you’d share?