The Massachusetts Medievalist on Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad

After a two-month hiatus in which the Massachusetts Medievalist recovered from the summer’s engagement with Homer, I’m back to the blog with some thoughts about Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Underground Railroad. Whitehead will speak at Lesley this coming Tuesday (7pm on 30 October in Washburn Auditorium). Note that I was very careful to cut any spoilers from what follows: read on with confidence whether or not you have read the novel.

Lesley University sponsored a symposium on The Underground Railroad last week, and I was thrilled to share the stage with Dr. Tatiana Cruz, who spoke on modern misconceptions and myths about the historical underground railroad, and with Dr. Clara Ronderos, who spoke about the novel’s connections to magical realism and the possibility of Whitehead having invented a new genre altogether, one we haven’t named yet.

I tried to point out connections between the novel and various literary traditions; even as Whitehead is doing something new, he’s also very aware of the ways he draws on texts and themes of the past. Many readers will see, and Whitehead has mentioned in interviews, his debts to the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Harriet Jacobs), Beloved (Toni Morrison), Gulliver’s Travels (Jonathan Swift), 100 Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez), and The Diary of Anne Frank.

Cover image of the novel

More thematically, Whitehead uses the common trope of the Journey, which happens both physically and psychologically. Cora is literally journeying away from the Randall plantation towards freedom, but she also journeys toward a knowledge of herself and her own identity, towards an intellectual and emotional freedom as well as a physical freedom.

The feminist in me applauded Cora as a female protagonist on her journey to freedom — too often, the woman’s journey is a journey to heterosexual Love, as if the masculinist author can’t imagine a woman’s goal to be anything other than a man. Whitehead, the reader, and Cora herself know that she cannot even think about romantic love until she begins to have a sense of herself as a force in the world around her.

Whitehead also draws upon the motif of the missing mother, so common in fairy tales (and Disney movies). As the only slave to have escaped from the Randall plantation, Cora’s missing mother Mabel symbolizes a myriad of ideas to many different people throughout the novel.  To most of the remaining slaves, Mabel is a beacon of hope – all of the others who attempted escape were caught.  For Ridgeway, the diabolic slave catcher, Mabel represents anger and vengeance – she eluded him and he collected no reward. Cora herself feels resentment and hopelessness and loss towards Mabel; she wonders how her mother could have left her in slavery, could have abandoned her only child in hell. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the revelation about Mabel towards the end of the novel is incredibly emotional and exhausting and beautiful.

Finally, I’m wondering about one of the minor characters in the novel. Maybe it’s just because I have Homer on the brain because of last summer’s Odyssey odyssey, but I’m still very troubled about the minor character of Homer who haunts the end of the novel. Homer is a free black teenager who works for Ridgeway, the slave catcher. Each night before he goes to sleep he chains himself to Ridgeway’s wagon; each day, he helps Ridgeway to brutalize the enslaved men and women they capture. This character is unsettling in many ways, one of which is that he’s named after the poet who wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey, the two great originary epics of western civilization. If the opportunity presents itself, I plan to ask Whitehead about his Homer, and I’ll tweet or blog about his response.

CFP: A Feminist Renaissance in Anglo-Saxon Studies

CFP: A Feminist Renaissance in Anglo-Saxon Studies
Special Sessions at the 2018 International Congress on Medieval Studies
10-13 May 2018
Western Michigan University
Kalamazoo, MI

A Feminist Renaissance in Anglo-Saxon Studies I: Interdisciplinary/Extramural

This session seeks papers focused on ways that a Feminist Renaissance in Anglo-Saxon studies can resonate inside and outside the university. Ideally, papers will combine traditional academic analysis of Anglo-Saxon artifact(s) (text, object, etc.) with reflection on ways that feminist analysis can or should function outside of traditional academia. We anticipate that some presenters will also grapple with the definition of the term “feminist” in 2017/2018, both in and out of the field.


A Feminist Renaissance in Anglo-Saxon Studies II:
Projects in Process (a roundtable)

Rather than the more usual roundtable of 6-8 short presentations, this roundtable seeks 5-6 scholars to describe feminist works-in-progress in the context of 2-3 specific questions about the state of the field and its future. Each panelist will take no more than 7 minutes, leaving time for substantial conversation after the initial, brief remarks. We plan to share these questions (over social media, listservs, etc.) before the Congress in order to give potential audience members and the presenters time to reflect on these issues and lay the groundwork for fruitful, substantive discussion that includes audience members as well as panelists. These questions could include: How does your current feminist project fit into your teaching? How does your current feminist project address the ongoing “crisis in the humanities”? How do you engage your non-medievalist colleagues in your feminist project? How do you convince your department head/dean/provost that your feminist project is worthwhile and thus worthy of institutional support? With input from digital communities, the organizers will finalize these centering questions in January of 2018.


Submit abstracts as PDF attachments to:
Mary Dockray-Miller
Humanities Dept.
Lesley University

Review of abstracts will be ongoing until the Congress deadline of 15 September 2017.

The Massachusetts Medievalist on Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

This coming week I’ll be attending Lesley University’s Cultural Literacy Curriculum Institute and l’ve spent the past few days doing the assigned reading to prepare for the workshop.  One key text is Coates’s Between the World and Me, which was a campus-wide read a couple of years ago. I read it then but wanted a refresher for this year’s discussion. Last night I poured myself a glass of nice chardonnay and settled in with Coates. My reflections here come from my English professor/medievalist side – there are many ways to discuss this important text, but I want to make some generic connections between Coates’s letter to his son and varieties of medieval literature.

The word “text” in the previous sentence is crucial. Like Virginia Woolf and many other (post)Modernist writers, Coates is playing with genre.  The Library of Congress call # for Between the World and Me begins with E185, placing it in the overall category of “History of the Americas.”  But Between the World and Me is probably not a history book. It could be classified as a memoir, or an autobiography, or a political essay, or cultural critique – or all of those things at the same time. It defies easy classification and in doing so challenges the way that we usually examine texts or apportion different readings to different disciplines or departments. I suspect that Coates is not often taught in a literature class, but he is indeed a literary artist and is also very aware of his work as part of a literary tradition (he tells us that he spent most of his sophomore year in the library, after all).  Coates is on some levels emulating the medieval genres of conduct literature and the public epistle. In this very contemporary, politically charged text, he draws on some of the oldest western literary traditions.

Conduct literature – advice from an adult to a younger person – is as old as human civilization.  The genre exploded in the European Middle Ages with conduct manuals in every European vernacular as well as Latin (Johnston’s Medieval Conduct Literature is a great introduction). Some were written by actual parents for actual children; others by spiritual or fictional or metaphorical adults.  Women as well as men wrote these advice manuals – one the earliest known medieval women writers was Dhuoda, a ninth-century Frankish aristocrat who wrote a conduct manual for her son. In providing reflection and advice for his son, Coates is treading this well-worn path. Also like these medieval authors, Coates knows that his actual audience is much broader than simply his biological child.

The public letter also has roots that go further into the past than the medieval period — the notion of the letter as a private exchange between two people is a modern idea.  In the Middle Ages, letters were understood as public documents that circulated far beyond the original writer and recipient, socially, geographically, and chronologically. Unless they specifically directed otherwise, letter writers assumed that the letter would be read aloud in a quasi-public setting in front of a group or community. Since literacy was not generally available, people of all social classes relied on literate men and women to write and read their correspondence. When Gregory the Great sent a letter to Abbot Mellitus about the conversion mission to England, he did not know specifically that Bede would copy it over one hundred years later into the Ecclesiastical History, but he did know that he was proclaiming policy that would be widely and publicly shared throughout the church community. Throughout Between the World and Me, Coates occasionally uses “you” to remind us, his general readers, of the fiction that the text is actually addressed only to his son. If he had wanted simply to write a letter to his son, he would have done so in our modern sense of composing private correspondence that is not generally shared with others (after all, it is a federal crime to open mail addressed to someone else). The epistolary form of the text thus provides a sense of intimacy, of privacy, between the modern author and his audience. The medieval, public form of the letter combines with our modern sense of the privacy of correspondence to create an effective and affective generic blend.

I suspect that my colleagues in the Cultural Literacy Curriculum Institute will have discussion focuses far from literary genre when we get to Between the World and Me next Wednesday.  Coates’s work is brilliant in many ways, and I’m looking forward to learning more about how it can affect my pedagogy and the multicultural goals of my university.  As the Massachusetts Medievalist, however, I also want to celebrate the ways that Coates deftly uses medieval traditions of genre to establish a trustful and intimate relationship with his audience.

The Massachusetts Medievalist Goes to the Schlesinger

Last Friday, I visited the Radcliffe Institute’s Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. What business, you might ask, did the Massachusetts Medievalist have at an institution dedicated to American history?

I’m at the tail end of a project I started five-plus years ago, currently titled Public Medievalists, Racism, and Suffrage (yes, I need a better title! suggestions welcome!). The Schlesinger visit was a crucial part of the “suffrage” focus, because I am investigating uses of medievalist imagery by the American suffrage movement and had hit something of a wall. The American suffrage activists were following the lead of their U.K. sisters, who used the language of crusade and Joan of Arc to describe their “quest” for voting rights.

The most famous example of the medievalist impulse in American suffrage history is Inez Milholland’s performance as the “herald” of the Women’s Suffrage Parade in Washington D.C. on 3 March 1913.

With her crown, sweeping white cape, flowing hair, white horse, and riding gloves shaped like armored gauntlets, Milholland provided a medievalist illustration of the glamour of the suffrage movement. The cover of the parade’s program, expensively printed in color, exaggerated Millholland’s medievalist costume in its extravagant trappings for the horse, the billowing purple cape, and the “Votes for Women” flag on the trumpet.

Cover of March 1913 Suffrage Parade Program

I was having trouble, however, finding less-famous medievally-inspired suffragettes, and so turned to the experts at the Schlesinger for assistance.  Ellen Shea, Head of Research Services at the Schlesinger, gave me an overview of some of their excellent finding aids and research guides. To be honest, I had looked around on their website quite a bit before making the appointment, had found the amount of information overwhelming, and had not found anything useful for my topic.  Ellen did a great job making their vast resources seem much more manageable and focused.

With Ellen’s help, I found many medievalist-suffragist primary sources, most of which will end up in the book.  Right now, I want to share two images (I’m figuring that it’s okay to post these images here, since I retrieved them from the open-access that show that the medievalist impulse in American suffrage went further than Inez’s 1913 parade outfit.

Medievally-costumed women at May 1914 Boston suffrage parade

The first shows two participants in the Boston suffrage parade of 2 May 1914; they were specifically dressed as Joan of Arc and Isabella of Spain (Ellen found that information for me too, in a contemporary Boston Globe article). Like Inez, these women ride astride, not side-saddle, and they seem to be having a good time.  They were probably inspired by Inez, at least to some extent, although they have chosen to depict specific medieval women rather than invoking the Middle Ages more generally.

The medievalist imagery extended as well to the American collegiate suffrage movement, as the Stanford University chapter of the Collegiate Woman Equal Suffrage League used the image of a questing knight to advertise the club’s meeting in “Roble Hall Saturday 2pm Sharp.”  The Stanford Knight-Lady’s horse wears a fabulous fleur-de-lis caparison; her accessories include a sword and the banner proclaiming the club’s name and featuring a crowned queen in a sunburst. Unfortunately, the Stanford suffragettes didn’t include date or year on their poster, and the Schlesinger notes it only as 1903-1926, so we have no idea if the poster could have been inspired by Inez’s 1913 performance.

Poster advertising suffrage meeting at Stanford University

All of these images draw on contemporary, popular conceptions of the European medieval world to proclaim American female strength and perseverance in the activist’s fight for full citizenship. That’s why the Massachusetts Medievalist was at the Schlesinger Library, and my trip there proves a point I make continually to my students:  When in doubt, ask a librarian!

Meet the Massachusetts Medievalist

The Massachusetts Medievalist blogs in this space on medieval studies, the humanities, higher education, and Massachusetts cultural events, especially medieval-related ones.

The Massachusetts Medievalist is Mary Dockray-Miller, professor of English in the Humanities program at Lesley University, author of The Books and the Life of Judith of Flanders, and avid fan of Massachusetts arts and culture.  Follow me on Twitter @MDockrayMiller