Suttree by Cormac McCarthy

Suttree is either a descent into hell or romp through the Garden of Eden–I can’t seem to make up mind as to which it is. It all hinges on the interpretation of Cornelius Suttree, a river rat whose edenic paradise (or lecherous underworld) is the concrete environs of Knoxville, Tennessee. Knoxville is host to a bevy of urchins. From Ab Jones, a whiskey distiller with a penchant for scuffling with law enforcement, to weird Leonard, a supposed catamite who has neglected to bury his dead father so as to not lose the extra welfare money, Suttree rubs elbows with them all. Chief among them is his former workhouse mate, Gene Harrogate. Known as the “moonlight melonmounter” and “the city mouse” for reasons made painfully evident in the book, Harrogate is dimwit, a good natured dimwit but a dimwit nonetheless. Suttree becomes somewhat of a surrogate father to him, teaching him the ways of the city and looking out for him when his circumstances become dire. Suttree, though, is of them. While his detached perspective and noticeable intelligence sets him a part from urchin population, they are, without a doubt, his epicurean comrades, his merry gang of fellow sinners –after all, what good is debauching yourself if you have to do it alone? Through the eyes of Sutree–or really his liver–McCathy pulls back the curtain on Appalachia’s largest metropolis, revealing the sadness, destitution, and resignation of its subterranean class.

Even though the story follows Suttree’s seemingly aimless meanderings, not much is revealed about him. The reader learns that he is educated, more than likely at Knoxville’s own University of Tennessee, that he had a failed marriage, and that he has eschewed his family, a family, one can only assume, of some privilege. But as to why or how, McCarthy doesn’t budge.

On one hand, Suttree seems to enjoy the life he has made for himself. He catches fish for the market and lives in a ramshackle houseboat on the river’s edge. He lives below life’s law and order, shunning any responsibility and showing no desire to find a steady, “normal” job. If Knoxville is paradise, then the fruits of his societal rejection are his alcohol induced romps, which often leave him unconscious or in the arms of a prostitute. If Suttree is interpreted to be someone running away from the restraints of society, arguably a noble endeavor, Knoxville becomes not a place full of pitfalls but a place where his disavowal of the world, or his old life, can materialize. The city, its urchins, and his wanderings, therefore, are not signs of any moral failings as some of the characters insist. Rather they are rituals by which he can project his inner code, putting his repudiation of the world into motion.

But thats too easy. Someone doesn’t bring themselves to hallucination, once from malnutrition, another time from trauma, and from drugs and illness a third and fourth time respectively, all because he searching for himself or rejecting the world. Something else has to be going on, right?  Is he not a troubled man?  Despite his his friends and their bacchanalian ways, he is alone in the world. His only intimate relationship is with the ragpicker, a hermit who wishes death would go ahead and remove him from the earth. Of his two love interests, neither last. The Suttree who is perpetually battling his demons is not the same Suttree who lives in edenic Knoxville. No. To that Sutree, Knoxville is hell. It embodies the very chaos, anarchy, and destitution he can’t seem to wrestle himself free of. It becomes not a city that he has rejected but a city that has rejected him, forcing him to roam about its perilous underworld.

In truth, Suttree probably falls in between those two interpretations, borrowing a bit of both. In rejecting the law and order of life and its various man made systems, Knoxville is in some ways an edenic paradise, but in rejection comes alienation and alienation begets suffering. In perhaps the book’s most salient passage, he reveals that he has nothing to repent of, indicating an assuredness of his ways. His rejection it seems was self imposed. But he goes on to explain that the “last and first suffer equally.” His choice of language connects his fatalism to Matthew 19 and 20, both of which employ the same trop of the “last” and the “first.” The passage explains that both Jew and Gentile will be welcomed to a post-acopalyptic feast once Judgement arrives. Suttree, though, inverts the passage, suggesting that both Jew and Gentile, first and last, urchin or non are all destined for the same miserable fate. In the end, Suttree leaves Knoxville–his destination unknown. Perhaps he has had a moment of salvation, leaving his past vices behind? Or maybe he just on to the next stop, a new city with new faces who all share in his suffering? Like the other questions posed here, the answer, very much your answer, determines what the book is about.

To quote Jerome Charyn, Suttree is a “fat one.” Characters come and go, and Suttree roams from location to location. For someone who doesn’t know Knoxville, keeping track could be challenging. Thankfully, Wes Morgan, a Psych professor at UT-Knoxville, has put together website called Searching for Suttree that features a map of Knoxville circa 1950s and photographs of some of the more notable locations in the book. He was also nice enough to label the map, showing where each picture would be.

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American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia

Edmund Morgan’s classic work, American Freedom, American Slavery: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, tries to resolve what he calls the “American paradox,” that though slavery and freedom are irreconcilable opposites, the two developed almost in tandem.

The key to such a dual ascent was tobacco. Though the initial settlers embraced a certain democratic spirit so essential to frontier settlements (And it should be pointed out that slavery was never an inevitability in the early years,) the production of tobacco introduced social fissures in the form of class division. White indentured servants, mostly poor Englishmen thought to be indolent and given to vice, were soon shipped over to work the lands. The servants contracted their labor, agreeing to work for a set number of years, in exchange for one’s basic necessities and the promise of landownership once their terms were completed.

Problems arose, Morgan asserts, when these servants became free men. A number of factors–the lack of women in Virginia, which inhibited the formation of family units, the infertility of the lands they were given, and the overall reduction of tobacco prices among other factors–produced a poor, sometimes landless, and highly mobile class of discontented men. The source of their discontent, they charged, were the “big men” of the colony, a class of established tobacco barons and officeholders. These men determined the colony’s social structure and, so the free men claimed, maintained it in a way that preserved their power and induced the free men back into servitude. With the steady stream of new servants pouring into the colony, the fractious social structure underpinning colonial Virginia only grew larger as the voices of the free men grew louder.

Bacon’s Rebellion, a 1676 uprising, provided a solution. National Bacon, the rebellion’s leader and namesake, was hardly a leveler in any sense of the word, but he and his followers drove the colonial governor, William Berkeley, back to England, an ostensible victory for the “small men,” over not just the “big men,” but the “big man.” Yet Bacon’s rebellion possessed a dark shade of racial contempt, for the source of the Bacon-Berkely dispute devolved over a response to an  indian raid where a number of Virginia frontiersmen were killed. Berkeley balked and Bacon retaliated against the Governor’s orders, brutally massacring  the inhabitants of a neighboring Susquehannock village. Morgan argues that the teaming race hatred behind the attacks, the culmination of a series of confrontations with the indians along the frontier, provided a vital lesson for the colony’s big men: the scapegoating of a minority, particularly a minority of a different race, created a common union, an in group-out group mentality amongst the people. As Morgan puts it, “Resentment of an alien race” could prove “more powerful than resentment of an upper class” (269-270).

In the years following Bacon’s rebellion, indentured labor became less rational. England’s population plateaued, reducing the amount of potential servants, and the colony’s woefully high mortality rate decreased, making temporary indentured labor less economically expedient.  Yet labor was still in great demand, thus prompting the turn to chattel slavery–servitude that had no contractual stipulations or termination date. Morgan argues that the seemingly monumental shift was not so difficult, for slavery had already proved to be highly profitable elsewhere in the Atlantic and the slaves coming into Virginia did not have to be enslaved. The work of enslavement was the work of the contemptible traders; Virginians only had to buy them, which Morgan suggests assuaged their conscious about taking part in such a deplorable enterprise. The problem, however, was that unlike indentured servants, slaves had no incentive to work. Slaves had to be “disciplined” to work,” a particularly violent process that, in effect, re-enslaved the enslaved. Brutality was therefore inherent to the institution and no amount of rationalizing or hand washing could divorce the two.

Morgan maintains that the emergence slavery, along with a series of legal measures disassociating whites and blacks, suppressed class conflict by creating a social structure similar to what scholars in the 1960s termed a herrenvolk democracy. The slaves, representing a minority ethnic group, became the antagonists of the majority group, the white Virginians. Virginian’s both “big” and “small” thus created an “in group” identity, consolidating their individual interests into a powerful, class inclusive shared set of interests based solely on their whiteness. In effect, race replaced class as a the primary source of social strife. Morgan argues that such structure created a highly stabilized society as their was no expectations that the slaves would be freed, eliminating the prospects of a discontented class of newly fee men like there was in previous years. The system was so stable, Morgan maintains that it explains the lockstep growth of slavery and freedom. American ideas of republicanism, he argues, was born out such as system as powerful Virginians and soon to be Americans like Jefferson and Madison could preach leveling and equality without fearing the “mob.” The American underclass, unlike their volatile European counterparts, were perpetually fettered, bound to a lifetime of bondage.

Of course, while American Slavery, American Freedom has become a standard history, it is not without its flaws. The biggest flaw, at least in my mind, is his rather muddied position of whether racism produced slavery or slavery produced racism. He goes to great pains to show that the initial intent of the English was to work with the Indians and reform them so that they could be incorporated into English society. The English even played the part of liberators, freeing slaves from the cruelty of the Spanish in the early battles of European supremacy that surprisingly took place, in part, in New World locations. And, of course, he points out that the shift to slavery only occurred when it was economically viable. Ostensibly, then, it would seem as if he falls into the scholarly camp maintaining racism was a product of slavery. Yet, he maintains that the English always looked at the indians with a sense of “otherness. Why else would they need reforming? African slaves were no different. To the English both the indian and the African represented a heathen people, a people, perhaps, more brute than human. Would the English enslave another European, much less another brother in Christ? No, they would not. Morgan therefore straddles the fence, refusing to align himself to one position. Nevertheless, American Slavery, American Freedom stands as the most astute explanation of how a country so synonymous with liberty was born out of a dedication to bondage.

For more about the book, follow the link below and see what the people at the Junto Blog had say about the book’s legacy:

The American Dilemma


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Saltwater Slavery by Stephanie Smallwood

“Saltwater,” Stephanie Smallwood suggests, defined the Atlantic slave experience. Metaphorically, spatially, and in terms of one’s identity, it represented a continuous but indeterminate wave of trauma inextricably bound to the experience of forced trans-Atlantic migration.

As a metaphor, Saltwater represented the market forces of the 17th and 18th century Atlantic. Inter-contenintal trade, operable only by the controlled whims of the ocean, drove the early Europeans to the West African coast. In the case of the Gold Coast, the primary subject of Smallwood’s study, the Europeans were, first, the Portuguese, in search of the valuable ore giving the region its European eponym. The turn of the 18th century, however, saw a shift–the Portuguese were replaced by the British, and the trade in Gold fell secondary to the trade in human bodies as the British feverishly sought to satisfy the labor demands of their new and increasingly profitable colonial holdings. Saltwater, in that it could be navigable and that it had to be navigable for purposes of trade, was thus the essential component of Atlantic commerce, thereby making it the origin of African commodification. To be transported across the Atlantic meant that slaves had to be brutally but systematically stripped of their ability to function as social beings, losing their humanity but retaining their physical, laboring form. Saltwater, in short, placed slaves in a deplorable middle ground between human and object, life and death.

Spatially, the open ocean, an unimaginably vast cauldron of salty liquid, presented its own form of trauma. First, the limitations of the water placed slaves in the strict confines of a sailing vessel, whose hollow interior, designed initially for European wares and goods, made for an insufferable home. Bound tightly for the duration of their journey–typically three months across–the captives struggled to not only survive but cope with the perpetual inevitability of death. As Smallwood suggests, death at sea was particularly traumatic as the watery mortuary of the open ocean did not allow for the typical African death rituals. Accordingly, then, one could never return to earth, return to home, in ones afterlife as would have been the case, so they believed, if the deceased had received a proper burial. Even in death, therefore, would remain a slave to the sea. Second, slaves from the African hinterlands, many of who probably had never seen the ocean before, struggled to make sense of what they were seeing and where they were going. The openness of the ocean, Smallwood points out, would have seemed as portal into whole other world, quite possibly a journey into the afterlife itself.

Saltwater also served as a demonstrative marker of Atlantic identity. When in the New World, “Saltwater” slaves were those non-American born slaves, those who wore the physical and emotional scares of the inter-continental trade. But the term “Saltwater” was more than an appellation. It was a window into their traumatic experience and social isolation. “Saltwater” slaves had experienced the social death of commodification, sundering them from their community, fictive or non, and brutally re-organizing them in inorganic and fragmentary collections at each point along their journey. “Saltwater” slaves, in other words, were the slaves still stuck in the social and emotional purgatory of the Atlantic.

Smallwood’s analysis has two major contributions to the larger historiography of slavery. For one, her idea that slavery equated to social death is irreconcilable with the idea of a slave expressing one’s agency, an occurrence, or better yet, an expression we know to be true to a certain degree. She does an odd thing with her book. She writes a social history, that in many ways doubles as a cultural history, while maintaining the preposition of social death. How can one be socially dead but very much culturally alive? Her methodology is tricky, but she makes it work. She also suggests that the slave experience is antithetical to the idea of a “Middle Passage.” Calling it a middle passage denotes that there is a beginning, an in between period, and an end. The actual slave experience was a series of contingent events, each with their own set of traumatic moments. And if the commodification process, a process that begun in the journey’s initial stages, signals social death, is death itself not an end point with extreme finality?

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Hello World–Digital History

Wow. What a hiatus its been. This blog started almost a year ago as a site that featured reviews of Digital History projects on the web. At that time, it was a part of a course requirement for an English course called “Writing for the Web,” a class that should have been called “Digital Theory: English and the Humanities in the Age of New Media.” Of course, I sort of hijacked the course by molding each assignment to cater to my interest in history.

The site then evolved, becoming not just a “Digital History” site but a site that reviewed history of the traditional, non-digital, medium–books, that’s right, I will say it again, books. The site functioned as a way for me to organize my thoughts on works I perceived to be a part of the supposed “historical canon.” But is there such a thing? I quickly found that my “to read” list grew almost lockstep with my “finished” list, a revelation that I took to mean that the “canon” was far too large and far too nebulous to capture in its entirety. In short, my goal proved to be a futile one. But as futile a goal as it may have been, it was an intellectually stimulating practice. Reading the books exposed me to a myriad of complex arguments and topics, which I then grappled with independently, coming to my own–most certainly sometimes faulty–conclusions. In retrospect, it was an invaluable practice in preparation for Graduate School, the next step in my academic and intellectual life.

Now, the site has come full circle–sort of. Once again its being incorporated into a class requirement, but this time, its being done for a true “Digital History” course. As a first year graduate student at Clemson University studying the 19th century U.S. South, it’s my hope that this course will: 1) Sharpen my digital scholarship’s scope. From my previous experience with “Writing for the Web,” I feel that my understanding of digital scholarship straddles the two fields of History and English, a sort of amorphous bubble labeled “Humanities.” I want to make sure that I leave the course with a more grounded understanding of Digital History and how to better incorporate Digital scholarship into my own historical research. 2) I also want to make sure I become much more proficient and skilled in creating digital projects. My previous experience in a digital course had a dual focus, leaning, unfortunately more towards theory than practice. My wish, and it is perhaps a selfish one, is to balance the scale, bringing my functional knowledge to a more even position with my theoretical or academic knowledge. 3). And lastly, I want to make sure I master Arcgis. It’s a software that may or may not have caused me to lose my temper in the past. Digital mapping, in my opinion, has such a vast, untapped potential, and I want to make sure that I am involved in the process of reaching that potential.

This blog has evolved before, and my plan is for it to evolve once again. Going forward, I would like for it to be more of a catch-all–a place to compile all of my writing and intellectual interests accessible on the web. With that being said, over the holidays I was able to read A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, the winner of this years Manbooker Prize. I don’t usually get much time to read fiction, so I made sure that I finished it before getting started with the new semester. The book certainly did not disappoint. It’s a true “tour de force” as one blurb on its back cover claims, amassing a whopping 700 pages and a cast of characters so large that a four page character list had to be included in the front of the book. James harnesses his inner Faulkner in how he experiments with point of view, but his subjects are Jamaican, not Southern. The story is, to be brief and intentionally vague, is about the politically sponsored gang violence so endemic to West Kingston’s brutal ghettos in the 1970s, the failed assassination attempt of Bob Marley, The CIA and the Cold War, and a drug ring stretching from Columbia to New York by way of Jamaica. I will let you figure out just how all of that fits together. If that summary did not tempt you to read it, maybe this interview will:

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