Representing at the ALA

Several Western Literature Association members were present at the American Literature Association conference in Boston this weekend. The WLA sponsored two panels, one on the topic of “Home and Nation in the African American West,” with presenters Eric Gardner (“A [Black] Visitor from California’: Philip Bell’s ‘Notes’ from the Pacific Northwest”), Michael Johnson (“Performing Home in the African American West: Minstrel Shows, Brass Bands, and the Beginnings of the Blues”), and Emily Lutenski (“Not Home to Harlem: African American Women’s Writing in the 1920s West”).

The second panel was on the topic of “Western Institutions,” with presenters Nicole Tonkovich (“Big Loving Sister Wives in Nineteenth-Century Sentimental Fiction”), Victoria Lamont (“Women Writers and Western Authenticity”), Seth Horton (“Border Health Institutes During the Mexican Revolution”), and Gioia Woods (“Lawrence Ferlinghtetti, City Lights Bookstore, and the Paperback Revolution”).

Susan Kollin was also spotted among the conference goers (presenting on “Back to Nature and Other Bad Trips in T. C. Boyle’s Drop City”) on a panel on contemporary literature. And Matthew Lavin (“A Confluence of National and Literary Interests: Willa Cather, McClure’s Magazine, and The Autobiography of S. S. McClure“) was on a panel on “American Periodicals and Literary Genres.”


Immigration and Science Fiction

The Science Fiction Research Association held its annual meeting in Carefree, Arizona, on June 24 to 27, 2010. The planning of the conference predated Arizona’s passage of the anti-immigration bill, and in response, the SFRA drafted the SFRA 2010 Statement in Response to the Arizona Immigration Bill, SB 1070. The statement notes, “It is with discussion and action in mind that the Executive Committee has decided to hold a roundtable discussion at SFRA 2010 about SB 1070. Instead of standing in silence and throwing away all of the hard work that went into planning, developing, and organizing SFRA 2010, we intend to face the issues head-on at the meeting.”

I thus attended the roundtable, with statements from moderator Doug Davis, Jason Ellis, Mack Hassler, Rob Latham, Yu-Fang Lin, and Patrick Sharp. (Lisa Yaszek, listed on the program, was unable to sit on the panel.) The question addressed was, “What does SF across media have to say about immigration?” I summarize their remarks below, then note some concerns that came up during the discussion with the audience.

Sharp, who lives and teaches in California, which has its own anti-immigration fervor, provided a summary of the history of immigration in the United States, noting that English-speaking whites have held dominion for only about 160 years. Jack London (a proto-SF writer) wrote about the Yellow Peril, and the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon franchises echoed that concern in a manner that linked immigration and warfare.

Latham noted that as teachers, allegory might be used to inform issues of immigration and race/ethnicity–for example, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. In regard to this text, Latham noted that two things in particular struck him: first, the constituative ambiguity of the legal bar against androids, which appears clear-cut but in fact isn’t; and second, the assumption of bad faith, which is required before a test is made to make a declaration and apply the law, which thus questions its own motives, and whether a distinction is meaningful. Latham stressed the complex background to what appears to be an easy question.

Ellis and Lin, a married couple, both spoke of their personal fears of visiting Arizona because of Lin’s status as a legal immigrant, with a temporary green card. Both mentioned the fear inherent in being accosted, because untrained state police can stop people at any time, whereas federal agents are specially trained to work with the immigrant population. Ellis linked the experience to another text by Dick, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, where the protagonist’s life is erased and he has to negotiate a world without proper documentation. Lin divided her experience of being an immigrant other (she has been in the United States for 8 years) into the gaze and the encounter, with people staring at her like an “exotic animal,” which may then escalate to encounters, such as people throwing things at her and laughing. She noted that harassment will not make her feel any more an American, and laws like Arizona’s will make it impossible to make diversity work.

Hassler spoke of texts by Robert Heinlein that establish borders and assign citizenship: Starship Troopers and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Social Darwinism is inherent in these texts: characters compete for space and resources. By studying literature along these lines, it is possible to talk about conflict, competition, cooperation, and mutuality. Authors particularly relevant along these lines are Niven, Pournelle, Asimov, and Heinlein. Hassler concluded by noting that it may be more useful to think of people as all citizens of nature, not of competing nations and states. He also noted that legislating otherness and difference is useless; nature will impose it and will create boundaries, as in Moon.

Davis discussed Hollywood films with an immigration theme, where one social order imposes itself on another. Immigration is often conflated with invasion in these texts; invasion is a common SF theme, with the story of immigration often becoming a story of invasion. One of the few texts truly about immigration is the film Alien Nation, which was made into a TV show, and another is Brother From Another Planet. The recent film District 9 is a refugee story more than an immigration story; here, immigration is used metaphorically to represent the present and us, and to critique the inhumanity of the military-industrial complex. However, most of the texts identified are about violence and our own often violent condition, not the issues behind immigration. In many of the films, the alien is a shadowy underworld figure, perhaps a drug dealer, who must be stopped.

During discussion, we sought to list more SF texts with immigration themes. Inherent in the discussion was Latham’s point that SF uses an alien other to describe the present human condition, not to peer ahead into the future in an attempt to prophesy. Texts mentioned include Coneheads (with immigration officials suspicious of the Conehead family), Third Rock From the Sun, Sleep Dealer, Children of Men, actual documentaries, V, Starship Troopers, Independence Day, Men in Black, Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, Butler’s story “Bloodchild,” Samuel R. Delany’s Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand, C. J. Cherry’s Foreigner series, and texts that deal with colonialism, such as H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds.

Discussion also raised interesting points. Sharp noted that modern science is a product of colonialism and conquests. SF usefully reverses the power differential: in SF, we may be the colonized, not the colonizer. The relatively recent rise of ecofeminism as a cultural movement foregrounds cooperation and mutuality, which has implications for dealing with the alien other. As some texts, such as Men in Black, show, we erase aliens from our mind. We can only exist by ignoring the aliens among us, although they hold a crucial place in our economy.

In practical terms, it was pointed out that anti-immigration fervor is almost always linked to the economy. If the economy is doing well, immigrants are, if not invited, at least tolerated; but if it is doing poorly, anti-immigration laws result. Latham pointed out that the desire to create borders is to alleviate the anxiety about the lack of borders. The literary movement of cyberpunk, which rose in the mid-1980s, is about the meaninglessness of these borders. The Arizona law is attempting to preserve borders that are eroded beyond recovery.

The panel was useful in foregrounding the relevance of SF in generating a response to a contemporary cultural moment. The tenor of the panel was against the anti-immigration law, and the general consensus was that the permeability of borders is now so far advanced that attempting to police them is useless. A better response, the panel implies, might be exploring mutuality and cooperation.

Posted by Karen Hellekson

Watching Westworld (1973)

Reporting from the “Far Stars and Tin Stars: Science Fiction and the Frontier” Conference in Carefree, Arizona: at the end of two days of activities, we finished the day off with a “Dive In Movie” poolside. A big projection screen was set up at the end of the pool, and to the accompaniment of the occasional shadowy figure passing across the screen (as children loved to run between the screen and the projector on their way from one side of the pool to the other), we watched the1973  film Westworld, written and directed by Michael Crichton.

Westworld is a western sci-fi thriller. The premise is that via android technology, a somewhat nefarious corporation offers customers the thrill of full immersion into a world of their choice—like Avatar without the avatars. Rather than virtual reality, humans physically enter a medieval castle adventure or an Old West town. The saloon girls, bank robbers, and gunslingers they encounter are all robots (or androids), indistinguishable from humans (except for the palms of their hands), but programmed to respond to the fantasy scenarios of the guests. Richard Benjamin and James Brolin star as two buddies who decide to spend a few days in Westworld enjoying saloon brawls and shootouts. Yul Brynner plays an android gunslinger, dressed in black and looking quite deadly.

If you know Michael Crichton’s work, Westworld is a kind of precursor to Jurassic Park, with androids rather than dinosaurs, and like Jurassic Park, Westworld is an amusement park where things go terribly wrong, and the guests become the prey of the creatures designed to amuse them. Brynner’s gunslinger goes after Benjamin and Brolin with deadly intent.  It’s interesting to see this film again, as I hadn’t realized how much it has influenced later SF films, especially The Terminator series. In one scene, Brynner’s Gunslinger follows Benjamin down an access tunnel. Filmed slightly from above, the shots of the Gunslinger walking steadily through the tunnel are repeated almost exactly in the second Terminator movie. Westworld is also a precursor to the Joss Whedon series Dollhouse, with scenes of technicians repairing/operating on the androids repeated in Dollhouse episodes. The difference is that where Westworld programs androids, Dollhouse programs actual people.

One of the things that has struck me during this conference is how close together the science fiction and western genres are. In part, that’s because science fiction, especially film and television, has consciously (and perhaps unconsciously) borrowed from the western, recasting its conventions in futuristic terms or resetting its encounters of self and other, cowboy and indian, in terms of spaceman and alien. However, it also strikes me that the genres are congruent because the western is already science fiction, already providing a narrative means of investigating the dangers and possibilities of new technologies (trains, guns, etc.). In the genre western, the landscape is often as fantastic and alien and harsh as, say, a Martian landscape. Also, a central figure in science fiction, the cyborg, part human and part machine, is already present in the western in the form of the gunslinger, whose connection to his weapon is often described as an extension of his body, as if man and gun are both part of the same being—a cyborg, in other words. Westworld‘s android Gunslinger makes that connection apparent, but Westworld only makes explicit what is already implicit in hundreds of descriptions of western gunslingers—that the machine and the man are already as one.

Science Fiction and the Frontier (June 25)

The first day of the “Far Stars and Tin Stars: Science Fiction and the Frontier” Conference has concluded, with two more days of panels, presentations, and films to go. I will occasionally report to the blog on topics of interest to Western literature and culture.

In the context of the American West and the frontier, the most interesting presentation I attended was by guest scholar Margaret Weitekamp, who is a curator at the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, and who has the enviable position of being in charge of the cultural elements of space travel (which also means that she’s in charge of the space toy collection). Her presentation, “What Space Toys Say About the Frontier,” provided an overview of a recent exhibition of toys produced in conjunction with various science fiction franchises over the past 80 years or so, from comic book and movie serial characters Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon in the 1930s up to more recent movie and television series such as Star Trek, Star Wars, and Babylon Five, all of which included toy production and marketing as part of the franchise.

One purpose of the exhibit was to look at the connections between the western and the space adventure and to see how the borrowing of western motifs by the space adventure stories was then reflected in the toys. Along the way, Dr. Weitekamp looked at the evolution of the idea of the frontier (from the Turnerian meeting point of civilization and savagery to a more revisionist idea of the frontier as a place where different cultures meet, interact, and influence one another) affected the type of stories told in space narratives.

In terms of the toys, the key point of continuity between the western and the space story was the focus on the gun as the central object designed for play, whether it be a ray gun or a six-shooter. Stills from Flash Gordon films, for example, clearly show him in a gunslinger’s crouch with his weapon drawn.

I’m intrigued by the way Flash Gordon’s image is drawn onto the handle of the gun in this toy. Would that have been typical of western toy guns as well?

In a distant outpost in a lawless land, whether that be Dodge City or a Mars moon, the hero’s weapon is the way of bringing law and order to that land. In the early science fiction stories, there’s almost always an “enemy other” modeled on the Native American enemies of western films. For example, in a play set produced in conjunction with the television series Space Patrol, the outpost, supposedly a space station, was immediately recognizable as being based on the template of a toy western fort. The cast plastic figures that came with the set simply took the cowboys and indians of the western set and recast them as spacemen and aliens.

The conference is off to a good start, and Dr. Weitekamp’s presentation provided a lot of interesting material to think about in terms of the intersections of the horse opera and the space opera.

The narration seems familiarly western here, promising “high adventure in the wild vast region of space.”  Even the pronunciation of the phrase “wild vast” makes it sound a lot like “wild west.”

And, as far as toys go, you’ll find it hard to resist rushing out to purchase your very own “Cosmic Smoke Gun” after you see this commercial.

Visual Evidence of Lunch at the Swedish Diner

Sue Maher described our lunch event at the Swedish diner in Chicago. Here are some visuals to accompany her description:

We started out with huge sweet rolls, served atop slices of homemade bread


White sausage, Swedish meatballs, roast duck with lingonberry sauce, pickled cabbage with with caraway



We ate in the upstairs dining room, where the walls were covered with Swedish folk art

(there’s Margaret Doane at the very left hand edge of the picture. Sorry to cut you off, Margaret!)

We also had salad, coffee, strawberries and fudgy brownies. I was too overwhelmed to document the entire event. The staff did a great job getting our group of 55 in and out of the restaurant; we were running late when we arrived and had to make it back to the conference site for a plenary session.

Day Three of the Cather International Seminar

Day Three: Cather International Seminar

In the morning, 55 seminar participants boarded a tour bus to make the trip north along Lake Shore Drive to Andersonville and Uptown, neighborhoods connected with Cather’s Thea Kronborg and Lucy Gayheart as well as Cather childhood friend, Irene Miner Weisz, immortalized as Nina Harling in My Antonia. Neighbor Fannie Wiener (Mrs. Rosen in “Old Mrs. Harris”) is also connected to this part of Chicago: she is buried in Rosehill Cemetery, having died in Chicago during a visit to the 1893 World’s Fair.

Our energetic and witty tour guide, scholar Tony Millspaugh, provided commentary as our able driver, Cheryl, negotiated Lake Shore Drive and neighborhood streets. She was deft within Rosehill Cemetery as well, whose lanes were clearly not designed to carry large tour buses! First we went up Michigan Avenue, past the expensive stores and hotels–Burberry, Ralph Lauren, Saks, Tiffany’s, Chanel, The Drake, and other high, high-end places–and the Gold Coast area made famous by the Rockefeller and McCormick empires. We whizzed past many landmarks from the University Center: Frank Gheary’s bridge and “The Bean” or “Cloud Gate,” the Art Institute of Chicago, The Fountain of the Great Lakes in its courtyard, the Y (where the two branches of the Chicago River merge and head to the lake), Pioneer Park with its recreation of Grant Wood’s American Gothic, a number of Louis Sullivan buildings, and the Chicago Water Works, which was supposed to end the too-frequent cholera outbreaks that plagued 19th-century Chicago. The statues of Grant, Lincoln, and Phil Sheridan greeted us along the lake, as well as the Lincoln Park Zoo animals. We passed marinas full of boats, and the Lincoln Park Boat House which shelters various sculls for rowing. Tony regaled us with many stories of Chicago’s old mayors (two of whom were assassinated), Oprah, President Obama, sin and infamy (he recommended the book Sin in the Second City), and tales of the beer wars. Chicago has more bars, Tony told us, than any other American city. Between the German beer gardens and the Irish saloons, not to mention the Fort Dearborn Massacre in 1812 brought on by the dumping of liquor, Chicago has had a lively, colorful history connected to “the drink.” At this point in the 21st century, one can definitely say that the Carrie Nations of the USA did not win the beer wars! Tony told us about the 1871 fire, which destroyed much of Chicago along what is now Lincoln Park. He also pointed out the buildings and streets that Irene Miner Weisz lived in and that Cather visited when she came through the Windy City.

We weren’t able to go to the Chicago History Museum, but Tony highly recommends it. It is near one of Irene Miner’s homes. When she visited Chicago, Cather would use Irene’s credit at Marshall Field’s to purchase things for herself. She even held a book signing at Field’s great store, now gone and replaced by “the evil red star, Macy’s,” according to Tony. As we entered into the north ethnic neighborhoods, now the Edgewater area of town, Tony pointed out his favorite statue of Abraham Lincoln, a young man reading a book. We also passed Western Avenue, Chicago’s longest avenue. A Swede, Pers Peterson, planted most of the trees in pioneer Chicago, helping to establish its “garden in a city” culture. Chicago’s wonderful green spaces owe much to Peterson’s vision. Cheryl gingerly pulled into the Rosehill Cemetery, clearly not designed for unwieldy modern tour buses! We walked to the burial sites of Irene Miner Weisz and Fannie Wiener, who died during the 1893 Chicago Fair and had to be buried within 24 hours, the Jewish custom. She now rests in an old Jewish section of the cemetery. Irene lived a long life–1881-1971. In Andersonville, one finds the Nelson Funeral Home, where Irene and her husband, who preceded her in death, were “rested”–or is it fested?– the Swedish term for a wake. Thankfully the temperature today is tolerable; the walk around the cemetery was a bit longer than people had expected, so we had to hurry to Ann Sather’s for lunch in order to return downtown for afternoon sessions. Anne Kaufman hopes to add a photo of our meal later on. I forgot my camera this trip.

My sister and I are still recovering from the luncheon meal! While some of us ordered vegetarian–an overly ample portion of salad–most of us wanted to try the restaurant’s famed “Swedish Sampler.” It was overwhelming! Duck with lingonberry sauce, white sausage, Swedish meatballs, noodles and gravy, kraut, humongous cinnamon rolls, and strawberries and chocolate squares–way too much food to process! With just a few seconds to spare, I ran into the Swedish American Museum to purchase a “Velkommen” sign for my home, a connection to my paternal grandmother’s family, the Dahlquists and Christies, who settled in Andersonville. It’s worth Googling Ann Sather to read about this wonderful restaurant. The walls are all decorated with rosemaling paintings; we ate upstairs in a charming area overlooking the street.

We passed familiar territory on the way back, but Tony pointed out some new features we had missed: the splendidly elaborate terra cotta decorations on Uptown buildings, the ferris wheel at the old Navy Pier, the Palmolive Building with its dirigible landing pad (never used–the Hindenberg disaster happened) that became home to Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club, and all of the Mies van der Rohe skyscrapers along the lake. We passed Gheary’s fanciful Bean again, and Cheryl twisted and turned around downtown before landing us back at the university center: happy, smarter than we were before we left, and ready for the afternoon sessions. I have to chair a session on “Southwestern Modernism” in half an hour, so I’ll sign out for today. Tonight I plan on resting up, reading more of Mildred Bennet’s The World of Willa Cather, and beginning to pack up for the train trip home tomorrow afternoon. Thank you Tony for a great tour of the quintessential American city!

Day Two: Cather International Seminar

From Susan Maher:

Day Two: Cather International Seminar

This evening, participants at the seminar gathered on the 22nd floor of 200 South Michigan Avenue in the Cliff Dwellers Club, founded by writer Hamlin Garland. What a panoramic view we enjoyed! The entire day has been lovely–tolerable summer temperatures, lots of crowds attending the Taste of Chicago event at Grant Park, regattas sailing out of the marina into Lake Michigan to enjoy brisk winds and good water. From our vantage point, we could see the curve of the shore, lined with skyscrapers at the ends, with Grant and Millenium Parks front and center. Below us sat the Chicago Art Institute, a place Cather knew well. Stretching to the north for miles and miles was the lake, Godfrey St. Peter’s favored element in The Professor’s House. We sipped our drinks, gnoshed on hors d’oeuvres, and held lively conversations about all things Cather.

A memorable plenary session today focused on the two newest scholarly editions: Youth and the Bright Medusa, edited by Mark Madigan, and Sapphira and the Slave Girl, edited by WLA member Ann Romines. Mark showed a number of photographs of relevant personalities and sites connected to Cather’s urban stories set in New York, Pittsburgh, Boston, and tangentially Chicago. Mark compared Cather’s journalistic essays and short pieces to their later revisions and reworkings in Cather’s short fiction. “She liked these descriptions well enough to revise,” Mark concluded. These small revisions that fed into short stories set the stage for Cather’s larger revisions of material into her novels.

Of particular interest were Mark’s materials on “Paul’s Case,” set in Pittsburgh. He showed a contemporary photo of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, were Paul lives, for a brief time, in material luxury. Mark’s most fascinating materials, however, connected to the Denny robbery and to silent film star Tommy Meaghan, both part of Pittsburgh lore. Mark and Tim Bintrim have been tracing the boy robbers who stole $2,000 from the Denny vault and then fled–to Chicago and then Milwaukee. The mastermind, James Wilson, and his companion were arrested in Milwaukee after enjoying some high living in Chicago. Upon their return to Pittsburgh, the two boys’ parents hired good lawyers and got the boys off. Paul’s fate is much worse in Cather’s story. Mark and Tim hope to flesh out the two robbers’ stay in Chicago.

Paul is particularly taken by the juvenile lead in the story. Mark discovered that Charley is none other than silent film star Tommy Meaghan, who began his early stage career playing young heroes in Pittsburgh theater as an 18 year old. Between 1916 and 1927, Meaghan was one of Hollywood’s big stars, earning $5,000 per week–big money in those days. Mark segued into “The Sculptor’s Funeral.” Though set in Sand City, Kansas, the dead artist, Merrick, was based on Pittsburgh artist Charles Henry Reinhart, who lived from 1844-1896. Upon his death, Pittsburgh barely acknowledged this talented son, admired the world over for his artistic vision. Cather herself wrote a eulogy for the neglected Reinhart in The Home Monthly, attempting to redress the community’s rejection of this man. Mark found Reinhart’s fallen tombstone in the Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, across the river from St. Mary’s cemetery, where Tommy Meaghan is buried and acknowledged. Mark was able to help restore Reinhart’s tombstone in the Allegheny Cemetery, and he showed before and after pictures of this great artist’s final resting place.

Editor Ann Romines turned our attention to Cather’s Shenandoah Valley. Ann drew a parallel between Cather’s final journey, her return to home and family history, and Ann’s own journey across Cather’s southern geography. Ann currently lives 75 miles from Frederick County and Willow Shade. She has traced numerous maps, genealogy records, and census data to provide a fuller vision of this antebellum world. As Ann put it, “the infrastructure of the novel still exists.” The many homes in Sapphira, the millhouse, the cemeteries, and churches are mostly extant. Ann says that her journey to Frederick County was like “driving into the pages of the book itself.” By remapping Cather’s southern space, Ann notes that one can better appreciate “place, history, memory, and fiction,” as well as gain insight into “writerly practice and the trajectory of [Cather’s] career.” Ann also reminded us that the autobiographical epilogue to the novel, resisted by her publisher, “is singular in her fiction.” In Ann’s assessment, Cather spent a “lifelong negotiation with her southern connections.” In this soil lies 300 years of Cather family habitation and memory.

In opening up the world of Sapphira, Ann connected to other writers. She mentioned Ellen Douglas, contemporary author, whose family stories “Old Enough to Tell” gave Ann the title of her presentation. Ann concluded that Cather needed to be old enough to tell this complex, vexed family history. At the same time Cather was writing this final novel, published in 1940, “contending southern visions”–Mitchell’s and Faulkner’s–were published, attempting to evaluate antebellum culture and slavery. While “Cather underplayed her family’s role in slavery,” Ann suggested, the author was still trying, in a dispassionate, unsentimental, and “unvarnished” way, to reveal “something terrible under the surface.” Ann also told the audience that young Cather “may have been shielded by combustible stories” that focused unflattering light on Cather family history.

My favorite insight of Ann’s had to do with her application of Edward Said’s idea of the “late style” (the name of his final study). “Modernism,” Ann asserted, “is a movement of aging and ending.” She highlighted the “special maturity in Cather’s last novel.” Quoting Said, Ann asked “what if age and ill health don’t provide serenity?” Cather, in her last completed work, is “tampering with closure,” giving us a “perplexed and unsettled” story, which should be celebrated in Cather’s oeuvre as “a triumph of late style.”

Many other sessions were memorable today, and I hope that other participants on Westlit will add their voices to my own blog. A light-hearted moment today occurred in Steven Trout’s assessment of The Professor’s House as an academic novel that examines “homo academicus.” When Cather was drafting this novel, two other writers, Veblen and Sinclair, had already published scathing critiques of American higher education. Steve reminded us that Cather indicts a number of areas in higher education that remain topical: the problem of admission standards; the competing definitions of scholarship that often leads to the devaluing of “pure” research over pragmatic research; the onslaught against the liberal arts; the fear that university training was becoming trade school; the danger of censorship and the loss of academic freedom; and the perils of privatization and private/public collaborations on American campuses. Much of Steve’s trenchant analysis left us laughing, providing a good tonic to clarify the afternoon.

Tomorrow I tour Chicago’s ethnic north neighborhoods with my sister Kris. This tour is significant for us because our Swedish relatives first settled in Andersonville before assimilating into American society and dispersing out to other regions. I hope to have some good descriptions of our tour tomorrow for Westlit readers. Good night for now from downtown Chicago!