Tuesday, September 23, 2014

779 Research, Week 3

I'm going to be sharing some notes here from my research into literary utopias and dystopias for coursework I'm working on at UW-M for my PhD. Why? Because it's the 21st century, baby, and otherwise all of this will just rattle off of the inside of my head or the walls of the library as I mumble words like "exegesis" and "hegemony" between the occasional forlorn, wordless wail. So gather 'round. Trust me, there's nothing out there in the rest of the internet except cat posters and Facebook invitations to parties in cities you don't live in.

Week 3: What do Steamboat Explosions, the Mummy Craze of the 1830's, and the Hicksite-Orthodox Quaker Schism have in common?

This sort of a continuation of my thoughts on Mary Griffith's Three Hundred Years Hence. I'm not even sure really what to call the story. We would call it a "novella" today because it's 67 pages long and covers a little too much to be just a short story. Then again, it was published short-story-like in a collection called Camperdown: or News from Our Neighborhood. Then AGAIN, some of my sources call it a novel, which it clearly isn't, nor is it by itself a "book". A "story" I guess, then?

Anyway, I've already gone on at length about how it constitutes one of the earliest feminist utopias we have, and it IS the first American feminist utopia written by a woman. I've gone into great detail about how many of the female-penned utopias that follow tread the same ground, and do so with an ever-expanding body of science, sociology, and utopian literature to draw on for influences. What makes Three Hundred Years Hence so interesting is that it didn't have a whole lot of any of these things to draw on. Instead of a proto-argument about eugenics, which we'll definitely see again later this term, we get a much daintier and more tentative set of proposed social changes that are, as Vernon Parrington points out, served buffet-style.

What's striking about the story, though, is that it touches on so many cultural flash points that you'll miss if you aren't paying attention. The mummies, the steamboat explosions, the fear of dogs and "hydrophobia" (rabies), but also women's property rights and, weirdly, the state of the Quaker religion.

What's this last one about? I know almost nothing about the Quakers and a sortie to Wikipedia has left me with more questions than answers. This is one of those research moments where I feel like I've dived down a rabbit hole only to discover an equally-large and deep tributary rabbit hole. The basic sense I got, though, from what I read, was that the Hicksite-Orthodox split involved a third group (the Gurnyites) who wanted to formalize the Church and take it in a more Protestant direction. This naturally would alienate women, particularly as the shift away from a home-grown worship centered on individuality tended to situate power in the family and hearth rather than the pulpit. To say that the Hicksite (the more agrarian, rural, home-focused portion of the debate)-Orthodox split was directly detrimental to women's place in the Church is probably oversimplifying things, but Griffith dwells enough on the topic to make it stand out, and its importance shouldn't be lost on us as researchers. It's the very essence of fiction-writing that real-life debates and controversies play out among contemporary fictional characters, but I'm hesitant to let this stand only for a "pulled-from-the-headlines" narrative strategy. 

Why? Because, later on my timeline of feminist utopian fiction, which is wrapped up intimately with the birth of theories of evolution, eugenics, sociology, and the emerging movements for temperance, suffrage, and Women's rights, I discovered that the Seneca Falls Convention (maybe the single event that most significantly kicked-off these last three movements) was organized partially by Quakers. This isn't perhaps as oddly coincidental as it seems. Keep in mind that "Quaker" was originally a pejorative jeer, not the actual name of the organization, which is something closer to "Society of Friends." At worst, they were persecuted as heretical apostates, at best, they were considered an odd crackpot offshoot of Christianity, but of interest is the fact that among its founders, the "Valiant Sixty" was a woman named Margaret Fell, who not only was an actual missionary and preacher of the faith, but whose ideas helped form the core ideology of the Quakers. All of this happened in the late 1600's. There goes my "ripped-from-the-headlines" theory.

But fast-forward 200 years and the Society of Friends somehow finds itself with a hand in maybe the most important single event to mark the beginning of a series of movements that would span a century or more (and, you might argue, are still underway). So now my theory goes a little something like this: Mary Griffith, a bright, talented writer, was pulling from all sorts of source material for her utopia. She brought up contemporary issues of technology, popular imagination, and social concern, wove it together with a historicized understanding of family and feminist equality inspired by Quakerism (the most readily-available conceptual model, perhaps), and propelled it 300 years into the future, all at a time when the idea we now think of academically as metropolis was just on the horizon, and its heralds were the steam engines that promised to collapse the enormity of North America into an interconnected series of travel hubs separated by days instead of months of travel.

My Mental State:
I found researching Three Hundred Years Hence much more difficult than I expected. It wasn't just because of the general lack of information about Griffith, or the fact that I really don't know all that much about the 1830's. I'm discovering in the program as I branch out into several different vectors of inquiry spread out over several different periods of time that I see so many connections between them and Three Hundred Years Hence that it becomes very difficult to know where to start with an analysis. Even with a story that's such an obscure footnote in the history of utopias, I could have easily written 200 pages of analysis about it based on what I know of feminist utopias. That's before I ever touched on the topics I don't know about: the historical situation of the 1830's, the gigantic and storied history of the Quakers, the effects of steam technology on agriculture, travel, and commerce... This unassuming little 67 page utopia has been defying my efforts to encapsulate it. Which is especially frustrating considering my research turned up only half a dozen meaningful scholarly articles about it, most of which relegate it back to footnote status without touching on ANY of these endless connections to technology, sociology, and literature. 

So what can I even do with this story? It would take me months of research and potentially years of writing to give Three Hundred Years Hence the same scholarly treatment that texts like "Sultana's Dream" and Herland enjoy, and I had a week. A busy week, where this was only one of about fifty pressing tasks I was given. You can see my frustration: I'd love to give this story the examination it deserves, but its historical situation, and my broadening understanding of the world in the 19th century, is working against me. My initial reaction was to go after it the same way that Joe Nydahl and others have done: explain that Griffith's story is the first in a series of stories that rode on the century-long currents of social change regarding women. That these trends aren't tied as tightly to the story as I'd like for simplicity's sake, but that trying to understand the story without first understanding the bigger history and where this story stood in relation to that history is a bad approach. What I end up with, though, is an examination that doesn't (and maybe can't, barring the months and years of work I mentioned above) feel complete or very authoritative. I find myself dumped again and again back  at square one, trying to study this story and write something meaningful about it without doing the exact same thing I'm criticizing Pfaelzer, Nydahl, and others for.

No comments: