Thursday, February 26, 2009

Literary Blogging

What does it mean to be a public intellectual in 21st century America? And to what extent does the often intensely private work of an academic speak to larger issues in today’s world?

Aaron Bady blogs at

Two fifth-year English PhD candidates, Aaron Bady and Paul Kerschen, think often about these questions. Both Aaron and Paul are active bloggers – though with somewhat divergent styles and objectives – and they see the forum of the blog as a way to redefine the border between the private work of the academic and the public role of the intellectual.

Aaron’s blogging practices seem to exhibit this redefinition of boundaries most explicitly. He is present online in three different venues: his personal blog, the history group blog Cliopatra and the literary studies group blog The Valve. He started his personal blog during an extended trip to Tanzania –the blog’s name “zunguzungu” is a combination of the Swahili word for white person and for “dizziness,” especially the disorientation of love. From the reportage of his African travels, Aaron developed an online voice blending personal reflections with the more academic concerns which have led him to participate in more explicitly academic blogs. He reports that the practice of presenting intellectual ideas to a wide audience of educated readers has made him consider the practical terms of academic communication; the difficulties of writing between multiple audiences has forced him to rethink the assumptions and information he takes for granted that might prevent his readers (wherever they might be) from following his writing. In this sense, Aaron sees his blogging practice as an exercise in a radical interdisciplinarity – not just between discourses of History and Literature, but between the academy and the world beyond. Indeed, Aaron is particularly successful at bridging these boundaries: we are delighted to announce that his personal blog recently received Cliopatra’s “Best Writer” award for history blogging. As a result of this award, Aaron decided to “come out” as the writer of his personal blog, which he had been previously been writing under a pseudonym.

Paul Kerschen’s involvement with blogs participates in another kind of interdisciplinarity. As an English major at Stanford in the late 90s with an interest in computers and web design, Paul took a summer internship with IBM in the summer of 1998.

Paul Kerschen blogs at

He reports that he helped to maintain a number of internal websites for the company, but that his skills in writing proved even more useful when the computer scientists needed to write a technical manual or press release. He also notes that, since summer internships like this often involve long stretches of idleness, he got the chance to read and puzzle over novels like James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (Since both Joyce and Faulkner figure prominently in Paul's dissertation project, one might say that IBM is responsible for his intellectual development in more ways than one.) Paul started blogging at in 2000, when blogs were scarcer than today and often took more personal and idiosyncratic turns. He reports that his writing over the years has consistently taken advantage of the mediation provided by an online persona, which offers various sorts of protection or veiling, and therefore also a testing ground for his favorite modernists' theories of the relation between author and text. Paul's interest in veiling corresponds, in fact, to his role on this blog, since he is the technical wizard "behind the curtain" whose computer skills are responsible for the blog's elegant appearance and smooth operation.

Given the potential for new kinds of connections and sociability which blogs make possible, Paul and Aaron note the rise of the “institutionalized” blog – newspapers, university presses and magazines have all begun an online blog component – but observe that literary studies is trailing fields like history and anthropology in this respect. Yet the English Department at Berkeley, whose faculty and students often write or think about media theory as an extension of the study of literature, seems an ideal place to explore the medium of the blog more explicitly. Because the literature taught in the English department in many cases predates not only the electronic medium and blog form but also the printing press itself, the writers we teach often meditate on the changing technology and new media responsible for the dissemination of their words. (Geoffrey Chaucer, for example, wrote a poem to the scribe who copied The Canterbury Tales.) Our own blog is thus also an exercise in this kind of meditation. Aaron has agreed to join Paul on the department’s blogging team and will be posting a weekly collection of interesting and relevant literary links, so that the UC Berkeley English department’s foray into the online sphere will contribute to the fullest extent possible to the public mission of the nation’s premiere public university.
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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Worlds of Literature

Every Wednesday, we'll post a round-up of links which may be of interest to the larger Berkeley English community. Let us know if you see anything you think we should pass along!

The great Sudanese writer, Tayeb Salih, passed away late last Tuesday. He's best known for his 1966 novel Season of Migration to the North, which Edward Said called "among the six finest novels to be written in modern Arabic literature." I want to know what the other five on that list were; it's a remarkable novel, and one that only gets better and more interesting with re-readings. Obituaries in the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Sudan Tribune. And Mustapha Marrouchi writes a more personal remembrance in Arab Comment and in a lovely memorial, the editors of AllAfrica hope that Tayeb Salih went "with a heart full of song and a face awash with a huge smile."

Was Dorothy Wordsworth "one of the casualties of 19th-century femininity" or "the most distinguished of English prose writers who never wrote a line for the general public"? In the New York Times, "A Brother's Keeper: The Other Wordsworth," Dwight Garner reviews Frances Wilson's The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth: A Life.

Janet Maslin, "What Was With the Peacocks and the Gothic Fiction?" reviews Brad Gooch's Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor, noting that "this mystical, ornery, ardently admired Southern writer" has been long overdue for a major new biography like this one.

In "The myths of Gabriel García Márquez," Philip Swanson reviews Gerald Martin's Gabriel García Márquez: A Life, the culmination of seventeen years of research which he predicts will be the authoritative work on what he calls the Nobel Prize winning novelist. Swanson is the author of Latin American Fiction: A short introduction, so presumably he knows what he's talking about, but I'd love to know on what basis he judges Garcia-Marquez to be "Latin America's perhaps only truly global writer."

In the Sunday Times, "Salman's Perfect Safe House," Geoffrey Robertson remembers hiding Salman Rushdie in his home, and how it "brought many of his left-wing friends into a closer and warmer contact with officers of Special Branch than they would have ever thought likely or even healthy."

Claudia Roth Pierpont's "Another Country," in The New Yorker, explores how James Baldwin made Istanbul what she calls his "second or third not-quite-home," during a period she also notes to have been "inescapably Baldwin's American decade." The essay is essentially a very long review of Magdalena J. Zaborowska's new book, James Baldwin's Turkish Decade.

In the Times Literary Supplement, "Amos Oz and Reverie" Anthony Cummins reviews Amos Oz's new novel, Rhyming Life and Death, which Oz has called a challenge to the reader who would rather be "handed a prepared dish" than be "invited into the kitchen." Cummins notes that such "solemn metafictional musing rarely feels like anything more than ballast for the breezy draughtsmanship of the character sketches," and wonders in the end whether "the novel may in the end be too slight to survive its own scrutiny." Read full post....

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Sense of Where We Are: Two Professors Win Awards for Recent Books

In the past year, Professors Ian Duncan and C. S. Giscombe were each awarded prizes for their recent books. Duncan’s Scott’s Shadow: The Novel in Romantic Edinburgh won the The National Library of Scotland Saltire Research Book of the Year, while Giscombe’s book of poetry Prairie Style received an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. Two graduate students, third-year Alex Covalciuc and first-year Rebecca Gaydos, have put together some reflections on the significance of these books, which, though different in scope and genre, share a deep and abiding interest in the influence of place.

Taking as its subject post-Enlightenment Edinburgh (a period stretching roughly from 1802, the year the Edinburgh Review was founded, to 1832 with the passing of the first Reform Bill and the death of Sir Walter Scott), Scott's Shadow received recognition from the National Library of Scotland for the new insights it adds to the understanding of Scotland. Covalciuc, who has studied with Professor Duncan, details some of these insights:

"Duncan’s title evokes not only Walter Scott’s pervasive influence in the period but also, and more importantly, 'Scott’s own presence,' which, as Duncan notes, 'was not reducible to any of its various public, private, and secret personae' (xii). It is Duncan’s recognition of and detailed attention to Scott’s variegated 'personae'—the most successful novelist of the period; his involvement, both as an author and subject, in Edinburgh periodical culture; his patronage of future literati like James Hogg—that makes Scott’s Shadow more than just a story of influence. Indeed, Duncan’s richly textured narrative of Scott’s involvement in Romantic literary culture makes almost-forgotten figures like John Galt newly interesting, at the same time as it reorients and rethinks our conceptions of canonized figures like James Hogg and Thomas Carlyle. Although Duncan focuses primarily on the literary culture of Edinburgh, his discussion of Scott’s influence, influences, and ubiquity as a man of letters provides revised accounts of Maria Edgeworth, marginal figures like Susan Ferrier, Scottish Romanticism as a literary movement and even the novel itself as a genre. The large scope and erudition of Scott’s Shadow, coupled with its careful and meticulous argumentation, will ensure that it casts its own long shadow of influence over the future study of Scottish Romanticism in particular, and British Romanticism more generally."

Across the Atlantic, the American Booksellers Assocation recognized the way in which C. S. Giscombe’s book Prairie Style roots itself in a different kind of landscape by awarding it one of its American Book Awards. Established in 1978 by the Before Columbus Foundation, the American Book Award is unique in that there are “no categories, no nominees, and therefore no losers.” The highly unusual and unpredictable assemblage of recipients attests to the fact that the Awards “are not bestowed by an industry organization, but rather are a writers’ award given by other writers.”

Rebecca Gaydos, a student and friend of Professor Giscombe’s, describes how fitting it was for Prairie Style to receive such an award: just as the Awards aim at recognizing “literary excellence without limitations or restrictions,” Prairie Style is, for her, itself an exercise in unpredictability. She expands on this unpredictability in her account of the work:

"Hovering on the border between verse and prose, Prairie Style entertains the feeling and the fact of range. Thinking about neighborhood, location, and architecture, the book wanders from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian homes, to the Robert Taylor housing projects of Chicago, to the campsites of the multi-racial, nomadic Tribe of Ishmael. Giscombe explores the ambiguity of location, and yet, ambiguity itself is interrupted by the certain and sudden appearance of animals (foxes on the prairie, crocodiles in the Caribbean). Giscombe engages the “slang and lazy talk” of jokes and love, as well as argument’s 'formal economy.' Prairie Style is about the shape of getting horizontal. It’s also about image, exchange, property, laziness, articulation, love, Frankenstein’s nameless monster, William Carlos Williams’ Elsie, the outline of appearances, Jamaica, the American Midwest… Prairie Style, like all of Giscombe’s poetry, does not lend itself to summation. Rather, it unfolds into a poetics of breadth and ambivalence: 'I prefer going over the junctions to being part of the argument. I like two buses rocking perilously close and metaphor judging you. I’m partial to ugly. I vary about the point where pleasure’s a train of waves.'"

Please join us in congratulating Professors Duncan and Giscombe for their outstanding contributions to the arts and humanities.
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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Berkeley Poetry Review: Call for Submissions

The Berkeley Poetry Review publishes poetry by UC Berkeley faculty, students, staff, and alumni. The deadline for the 40th issue is March 1.

Those interested can submit up to four poems to berkeleypoetryreview at or leave them in our mailbox in 322 Wheeler. Detailed instructions can be found here.
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Sunday, February 8, 2009

Two English Majors Chosen for Inaugural Cohort of Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship

In what follows, second-year graduate student Monica Huerta describes the inauguration of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellows Program at Berkeley. A Mellon Fellow herself, Huerta playfully profiles two undergraduate English majors, Cecilia Caballero (who also focuses on Chicano Studies) and Teresa Jimenez, who are part of the first cohort of Berkeley Fellows.

In Arts and Humanities Graduate Diversity Program Director Josephine Moreno’s words, there is “something very special” about the five students chosen to inaugurate the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellows (MMUF) Program at Berkeley. Founded in 1988 to address the shortage of faculty of color in higher education, the MMUF “targets students with exceptional academic promise and potential for careers that will contribute to diversity and equal opportunity in the academy. The program supports Fellows by providing guidance, role models and the environment and resources to strive for the highest academic goals.” We in the English Department are particularly proud to be represented by Cecila Caballero and Teresa Jiminez, two outstanding young scholars.

Becoming a Fellow is not easy. The application process is much like applying to graduate school and involves a statement of purpose, a lengthy writing sample and an interview in which each applicant is expected to articulate not just their scholarly contribution to their chosen field, but also how they envision their academic career in relation to Mellon’s mission of promoting diversity in universities. Before all of this, however, there occurs what Mellon Fellows refer to as “the talk:” a professor pulls you aside after class, or shifts in her seat during a routine office hours visit before asking, “Have you considered going to graduate school?” Glowing compliments about your “work” follow, and you are honored (surprised) that they consider your late-nights turned into essays and ideas turned into clumsy questions something called “work.” Often, “the talk” is the first time a student considers the professoriate a viable career option. In the cases of Cecilia and Teresa, we have Professors Genaro Padilla, Laura Pérez, Gautam Premnath, and José Saldivar to thank for nudging these powerful women in the direction of MMUF and the academy.

After chatting with these two English majors over coffee, I found that Cecilia and Theresa certainly proved Moreno exactly right: there is something very special and, I would add, very exciting about these young scholars.

Cecilia Caballero
Antioch, California

About CC: She is most likely reading several books at once. The day we met, she was in the middle of at least The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest, Carla Trujillo’s Living Chicana Theory, and Ana Castillo’s The Guardians.

Caballero began her career in reading obsessed with any written material she could get her hands on, including the backs of cereal boxes. She prioritized her education even as, in high school and through her time attending community college, she became the main source of income for her family. Her father had suffered a work-related accident that left him disabled; he could no longer perform his physically demanding jobs in agriculture and construction. She repeats his cautionary words, “Use your brains, not your hands,” and it’s clear her strength is her family.

Caballero hit the ground running as soon as she transferred to Berkeley. Her eyes shone with excitement describing the transition, especially in Professor Laura Pérez’s Chicana feminism class, where she discovered an interest in Chicana performance art to compliment her study of Chicano literature.

Caballero sees her work in comparatively analyzing forms of indigeneity in Chicano culture as fulfilling both intellectual and social concerns. She envisions her role in the academy as part of the larger movement toward continuing to broaden the parameters of “American” literature and culture. Through her career as a scholar, she hopes to use her intellectual work as an exemplar so that her students might nurture their own aspirations. For her work as a Mellon Fellow, Professor Genaro Padilla of the English department will serve as her mentor.

The only one of her four siblings and the first in her family to attend college, Caballero is already changing her community’s notion that Berkeley and schools like Berkeley are “for geniuses.” The reality is that higher education draws its strength from students as committed to their curiosity as Caballero.

Book that made CC first love reading: The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

Book that made CC first love scholarship: Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America by Mae M. Ngai

Favorite Berkeley smell: incense (“…someone always seems to be burning it.”)

Favorite affective response to literature: challenged

Teresa Jimenez
Hometown: Berkeley, California; Portland, Oregon (born: Guadalajara, Mexico)

About TJ: When telling me why she worked after finishing high school before going to college, Jimenez stops to consider, “I just kept getting promoted,” and smiles. Even chatting with her briefly, it’s not hard to figure out why.

She affectionately calls her mother, whose family is from West Virginia and Pennsylvania, a “hippie Catholic,” to explain how it is her older brother and sister came to be born in Yugoslavia and Zambia, respectively. Her father preferred that she be born in Guadalajara, although she lived in Berkeley until she was eleven. Jimenez’s parents met as students at Laney College in Oakland, before they transferred to Cal to finish their undergraduate degrees. Jimenez would later move to Portland – where she attended high school – with her mother, who had by then converted to Buddhism.

Returning to Berkeley after high school, Jimenez worked in local restaurants, where promotions kept her busy and writing creatively kept her imagination fueled. Two years ago, Jimenez decided it was time to go back to school. “I knew from the get-go,” she says, “that I wanted to be an English major and that I wanted to go to school full time.” Her mother has an M.A. in education and her father completed his PhD in Berkeley’s Spanish department. Teaching, suffice to say, is in her blood. “I idolize teachers; I always have.”

She says of her aspirations for mentorship in the academy: “I want all my students to know that academia or writing are possibilities for them.” Jimenez is equally dedicated to her scholarship and to her creative writing and wants her students to feel authorized to explore all their writerly voices. Currently, Jimenez envisions working with her mentor, Professor José Saldivar of the English department, on a project that compares W.E.B. DuBois’ idea of “double-consciousness” with Gloria Anzaldúa’s “mestiza.” Jimenez is also interested in exploring representations of alienation and solidarity in the work of Sandra Cisneros and Toni Morrison.

Book that made TJ first love reading: The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkein; Greek mythology; The Yellow Fairy Tale Book by Andrew Lang; Mexican folktales

Book that made TJ first love scholarship: Collected Poems by Pablo Neruda

Favorite Berkeley smell: jasmine

Favorite affective response to literature: inspired/empowered

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Sunday, February 1, 2009

Professor Kathleen Donegan: "Finding the Story"

This past November, Professor Kathleen Donegan was asked by a student of hers who was serving as the President of the Prytanean Women's Honor Society to speak to the society on finding a balance between life and work as a female academic. Speaking at the Gender Equity Resource Center, Professor Donegan designed her talk as a continuation of the thread of the conversations she had had with the students in her course on early American women writers. Thinking about the forces that shaped the narratives which these early American women told about their lives, she contributed a story of her own, the narrative of the poignant intersection of her life as both an English professor and as a woman and mother.
When women talk about a career/life balance, we often step away from figurative language and toward a language of figuring. We are rightly skeptical about cultural messages that come wrapped in the words of “value,” “worth,” and the final “measure” of a life, and turn instead to a different model of “accounting” for ourselves: costs and benefits, sacrifices and investments, opting-in or opting-out, and always, always management. To chart our paths, we get good at making charts, and learning how to follow them.

So tonight, I am going to take a bit of a risk in turning back to the figurative. It’s not that I don’t live by lists and charts and calendars, because I do. Even if my “five-year plan” changes, there’s a part of my mind that’s always set in the future, and operating backwards. (As in: If I want to accomplish “X” by 2010, what do I need to do be working on right now?) But tonight I want to talk about what might happen if one loses confidence in the accounting and the balance sheets; loses a sense of the bottom line: loses, perhaps, the very story of one’s life.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I came across a phrase that I had no art to decipher, but that nonetheless made a little knot in my memory. In her book One Writer’s Beginnings, Eudora Welty says that the job of the writer is “to find in the thick of the tangle what clear line persists.” Maybe it was the rhythm, the way the words swerved and swayed innocently into a dark place – and then stood still. “To find in the thick of the tangle what clear line persists.”

The whole quotation is this: "Writing fiction," Welty says, "has developed in me an abiding respect for the unknown in a human lifetime and a sense of where to look for the threads, how to follow, how to connect, to find in the thick of the tangle what clear line persists. The strands are all there: to the memory nothing is lost."

Since I wanted to be a writer, I took this mystery as my charge, and knowing nothing of persistence, or clarity, or anything beyond an overwhelming desire to go deep, I threw myself into the tangle with all my heart and soul. A career path it wasn’t.

For many years, if I wasn’t actually finding a story, stories were finding me. And losing me too. Some of those stories protected me, and some surprised me. Some I clung to, and some I fought fiercely. Many were not about me. Many were not even true but, believe me, the tangle was thick with them. Getting older, one is tempted to refer to whole swatches of the complicated past by a single name. Here I’ll give in to that temptation, and call this time of remitting pursuit of the tangle: “my twenties.”

Later, in graduate school, there was a certain real thicket where two of my important life stories collided. I was at Yale in the American Studies Department, and I was working on the early periods of contact and settlement in the Americas. The “unknown in a human lifetime” long ago won my abiding respect, and I found in the archive of the New World a place where the unknown was the central experience to an extraordinary, and fascinating, degree. I was 30 year old as I finished my coursework; I’d been married for four years; and I wanted to have a baby.

Now I had this largely figured out. I’d entered graduate school late, and would probably not receive my degree until I was over 35. If I got a job right away, and received tenure as soon as possible, I could be tenured at 42. I knew I wanted three children. So, plugging those imaginary babies into this projected formula, there were a few outcomes. I could finish my dissertation quickly, get a job, and then have “the children” close together during my assistant professor years. Or, I could wait until I got tenure and then have perhaps fewer children, but as a securely employed, if older, mother. Or, I could just start now, at 30, and see what happened. That’s the one I chose.

In the third year of graduate school, my job was to study for oral examinations. My four fields were: Early American Literature, 19th Century American Literature, American Women’s History, and Colonial American History. So, my thinking was this: be pregnant while reading for orals (when most students fell out of sight anyways), take the exams, have the baby, stay home with the baby for the next few months (when most students are just recovering from their exams anyway), slide through the summer, and be ready to go again in September. The baby would be six months old, and I’d be back in action. It would be like a stealth maneuver. I’d finish coursework with my class, and emerge in a year’s time with orals passed and a baby in tow.

What I didn’t fully anticipate was that this marvelous agenda placed me sitting for my oral examinations when I was nine months pregnant. The whole plan actually hinged on this convergence, when the transition to candidacy for the PhD came at the exact time as the transition to motherhood.

My methods of accounting could not account for this: being entirely and extravagantly embodied as a woman at the very moment when my future capacity as a scholar – the depth, reach, and promise of my individual intellect – was ritually examined and evaluated. On entering the room, and lowering myself into a chair, I made a small joke – something about being glad I was supposed to sit there for two hours because I was afraid I might not be able to get back up. A titter, a laugh – enough to both acknowledge and distract from the insistent reality of my condition, and my choices. But despite this deflection there emerged, in the thick of that particular tangle, an undeniably clear line that persisted. It was me in that chair – all body, all mind, copious language pouring in and out of me, the steady galloping beat of another heart inside me – never before had I been so large, so full.

I had three children before I finished graduate school. Zeke was born in 1998, Leo in 2001, and Mercy in 2003. I received my Ph.D. in 2006, my dissertation won national recognition, and in 2007 I began as an assistant professor in Berkeley’s English Department – my first job. No doubt: I had found the story I wanted and it was incredible, and it was true.

Except that this is not really a true story. Because in my true story, the balance between my work and my life has very little to do with figuring things out, and everything to do with the unknown.

Let me approach things this way: There are moments in one’s writing when one feels the work shift its direction. The language begins leading the argument into a different territory. For me, one of these moments came in my dissertation when I was writing about the early years of the settlement of Plymouth Colony. After narrating some basic history of the settlement, I commented: “While this account is factual, it is not true.” The sentence surprised me. I could anticipate history professors and future editors making unpleasant comments in the margins of my manuscript. But in the act of writing that sentence, I knew I was committed to following out the mysteries of its claim, regardless.

Here I was, asserting that the facts about early Plymouth Colony, as we have understood and transmitted them historically, were not in dispute. But they masked a greater truth. Just a moment ago I gave you a series of dates and names and places that summed up my life/work narrative, and those were the plain facts. But those facts are different from truth, different from finding the clear line that persists. And in my experience, being willing – or being forced – to let go of the story you’re following is what brings you closer to that line. One day after my son Leo was born, he died. And I was forced to let go of my story.

I think the words “forced to let go of my story” are not right. No language is right, but maybe this: The story of my life burned hot in my hands, seared my chest, and then flew away from me like a meteor, scorching, roaring, blazing across the sky. Gone. A split-second that lasted forever. The losses involved in Leo’s death were, are, unaccountable. I know more about them than anyone, and they remain deeply unknown. But even to speak of losses implies the biggest lie of all – that somewhere, sometime, a “balance” of “gain” will be found. Where? … in wisdom, in compassion; in the sheer courage of surviving; in healing; in the miracle of another child; in places deepened by sorrow being filled with joy? Fine; but any narrative I tried to figure out missed a big truth. Learning how to be Leo’s mother – and that is a very long story – I had to stop looking for balance, or at least looking for any comfort there.

How? Just one story for tonight. Every year on the anniversary of Leo’s death, my husband David and I would go down to the ocean where we scattered his ashes, and repeat the prayers and poems we read at his memorial. Ring the chimes that we rang then, say the words that we said then, let the waves splash up onto our shins like we did then. Then we would turn around, walk back up the beach, and return (almost) to our lives. On the fourth year, it was different. Our other children, Zeke and Mercy, were with us – still very young. Walking down to the surf, I just turned to David and said, “I’m going in.” And I did, all the way in to where the waves were breaking, and beyond that to where waves broke that never reached the shore. And I fought them, and ducked them, and let them crash on me. I battled the ocean. I cursed it. I got turned around in it, and got pulled under by it, and then pushed back up and still buoyed along. Whether or not I liked it. And I floated on top of some waves and dove under others, and rode on some, and threw myself against others until I was exhausted. And I said – I yelled to no one – “I give up. You win.” Back on shore there was my family, and I swam toward them. Back at home, I had wet sand stuck to my body, like you always do after a day at the beach. I showered and put on clean clothes. That was the last time I needed to mark – in time – the day I lost Leo.

When I was asked to give this talk, I didn’t know I would share this with you. But I suggested the title “Finding the Story” because Eudora Welty’s phrase immediately leapt to mind: “to find in the thick of the tangle what clear line persists.” Revisiting the passage, other phrases led me deeper in: “an abiding respect for the unknown,” “where to look for the threads, how to follow, how to connect,” and finally this: “The strands are all there: to the memory nothing is lost." I realize that my work, the honor of my work, is to not ignore the knots, but to find and follow and connect what might be there in the tangle. Not only in my own story, but in the stories of countless, countless others. When I read, I need to ask: What if this is not the story I think it is? What else might be true? How might this story want to be told? Pursuing these questions requires going in deep – to archives, to texts, to histories, to memory itself. In order to read so that nothing is lost on me, some stories need to unravel.

How does this translate into scholarly practice? Again, just one story for tonight. In that example of Plymouth Colony, Governor William Bradford recounted that during first winter in the settlement, so many died that “the living could scarce bury the dead.” Given the numbers, it was not just a figure of speech. Bradford’s words have famously settled those first colonists’ suffering into an image of hardship and survival, but who else might have told the story differently? Native peoples, of course: the Patuxet, Wampanoags, and other groups in the eastern woodlands, but where would we find it? Where would a Native record of deaths in Plymouth exist when many of these groups themselves were suffering catastrophic mortality in response to European diseases, and contending with the social, political, cultural, and spiritual upheaval that followed? Who else told this story? Knowing that early New England court records often included long narrative depositions, I began searching there, and found a story about Plymouth told by a man named Phineas Pratt, four decades later, in 1662.

Pratt was not part of the Plymouth colony initially, but belonged to another group of Englishmen at a place called Wessagussett, whose colony had failed in a disaster of starvation and horrid violence. Pratt alone escaped to Plymouth. Much later, in a court case about land claims, Phineas Pratt was asked to narrate his earliest memories of the planting Plymouth settlement. Having barely survived Wessaguestt, Pratt remembered being shocked at the diminished population of Plymouth, and asking “where were all the people that had come over in the Ship.” He was told that they had died. And moreover, that the colony was so weakened, the people “so distressed with sickness” that, “fearing the savages should know it, [they] had set up their sick men with their muskets upon their Rests and the backs leaning against trees.”

Although Pratt’s testimony was confirmed by the court, it was completely expunged from later accounts. Other colonial writers quoted Pratt verbatim right up until the moment he talks about “men with their muskets and their backs leaning against trees,” and then cut him off. And, of course, future histories followed suit.

So: here is another image entirely that lays buried deep in old court records, one to answer and complete Bradford’s own. Those pilgrims who were scarce able to bury their dead also propped their sick men up in the forest, a ghostly sentinel, hoping that the silhouettes of the dying might look like an armed force when seen from the other side of the woods. Now suddenly, many other bodies, and many other stories, become visible. The dead men at Wessagussett, lost to history. The native scouts looking in at the English settlement, venturing out from weakened Indian villages whose strength the English still feared. The sick at Plymouth taking up this final and unlikely post, staking themselves against tree trunks in act that could only confirm they had entered a wilderness of spirit as well as form. All these hidden acts of witness and display and denial. Suddenly there is much more to read, a truth upon which factual accounting is content to cast only the merest glance, and then look away.

The point is to not look away. Sometimes not looking away comes like this, through doing more research. Sometimes it is by teasing at small threads that, when tugged, start to change the whole fabric of a text. Sometimes it means finding a story by piecing together elements of a life that have been scattered, carelessly, elsewhere. Sometimes it is simply refusing to move on from something mysterious. A woman named Mary Rowlandson, returned from Indian captivity, lies in bed at night. She is the only one awake in a house that is asleep. “I can remember the time,” she writes, “when I used to lay whole nights together without workings in my thoughts. Now it is other ways with me.” These are the sentences that started my study of early America.

After all, what if it is true? What if it is true that: “to the memory, nothing is lost.” Surely, then, a different type of accounting is necessary, because we have to chart our courses two ways at once: back, back into a past, and on into a future.

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