Category Archives: Humanities

From the Archives to the Bookstore: Writing the History of the American Canoe Association Encampments

Canoe and Canvasoffers a detailed portrait of the summer encampments of the American Canoe Association between 1880 and 1910, and is particularly concerned with how gender, class, and race shaped these annual events. In this post, author Jessica Dunkin discusses why the canoe is such a fascinating subject to her and why her research led her to some fascinating insights into canoeing and the colonial histories behind it.


By Jessica Dunkin

I became a historian in the basement of Bata Library at Trent University. I was enrolled in a third-year course on Canadian women’s history for which Professor Janet Miron had assigned a research paper based on primary sources. I found my way to the Trent University Archives (TUA), where Bernadine Dodge and Jodi Aoki shepherded me through the process of identifying and working with archival sources. The focus for that paper was early girls’ summer camps in Ontario – TUA is home to the records of the Ontario Camping Association – which remained a topic of interest for me as a Master’s student and which ultimately directed me towards the canoe as a subject of study for my doctoral dissertation.

Adirondack Museum (now the Adirondack Experience), 2009. Image by Jess Dunkin

The canoe is, of course, a massive topic. I had proposed to study the history of women and canoeing to the Graduate Committee in the Department of History at Carleton University. It was in the archive, specifically the Adirondack Museum Archives (now the Adirondack Experience) in Blue Mountain Lake, New York, that I came up against the impossibility of this project, but was also gifted a more manageable topic.

The Adirondack Museum, at that time, had bound copies of Forest and Stream magazine, which during the late nineteenth century enthusiastically supported and documented the activities of the American Canoe Association (ACA), a voluntary society founded in 1880 to bring together canoeing enthusiasts from across the continent; in spite of its name, it had a sizeable Canadian membership in the early years. As I turned the periodical’s large yellowed pages, I had my first glimpse of the organization’s summer encampments.

Beginning in 1880, the ACA hosted an annual gathering at out of the way, if not entirely wild places on both sides of the Canada-US border. For two to three weeks in August, canoeing enthusiasts from Toronto, Philadelphia, Montreal, Boston, and many places in between came together to sleep in tents, socialize, and sail and paddle canoes. I soon realized that these events, which usually featured a multi-day regatta, excursions, campfires, spectacles, and more, offered an opportunity to consider the social worlds that grew up around canoes and by extension the politics of sport and leisure.

From the archives in Blue Mountain Lake, I found my way to Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Connecticut, and the New York State Historical Association (now the Fenimore Museum) in Cooperstown, New York, both of which boast sizeable collections of ACA records and ephemera; the archives at Mystic Seaport have 43 boxes and 8 volumes dating from 1881 to 1987, while the Research Library at the Fenimore Museum has 5.5 cubic feet and six oversize folders of materials covering 1879–2009. These collections, which are primarily composed of official records like meeting minutes, annual reports, and correspondence, provided the scaffolding for the project. The texture of the meets came from a thorough search of newspapers local to the event sites (the ACA set up camp in 15 different locations between 1880 and 1902 before establishing a permanent encampment on Sugar Island in the Thousand Islands in 1903).

While it was a pleasure to visit small repositories on both sides of the border to look through old newspapers, you can imagine my joy when I stumbled upon New York State Historic Newspapers, a free, searchable, full-text database of upwards of 400 newspapers, dating from 1795–2014. This website, which currently has more than 9.5 million periodical pages, enabled me to cast a much wider net (sixteen of the pre-1903 meets were held in the Empire State and even when the encampment was elsewhere, New York State newspapers from communities large and small reported on the event), which in turn allowed for a more nuanced understanding of the encampments. Consider, for instance, this excerpt from an 1896 issue of the Syracuse Evening Herald: “The events in which the ladies participated excited more than usual interest. The contests though short were watched from start to finish by an eager throng, who with craning necks and shouts of encouragement for the various favorites, cheered the contestants on.” Whereas a regatta programme indicates the existence of women’s races, periodical accounts tell us something about the meaning and significance of those races.

“The Sneak-Box Mess: Camp of the Brooklyn Canoe Club,” 1887. Image by Seneca Ray Stoddard

I came to know the encampments in different ways through photographs. The ACA Collection at the Fenimore Museum includes more than 500 images gathered by C. Bowyer Vaux. Many of these photographs were taken by Seneca Ray Stoddard, a well-known nineteenth-century photographer who was a familiar face at the ACA meets from 1881 to 1896, but Vaux also collected images from other commercial and amateur photographers. Taken together, these photographs at once support and subvert dominant narratives about the ACA encampments. They played a particularly important role in revealing and reconstructing the labour that enabled the annual events, which is the subject of Chapter Eight in my book, and disrupting the notion of the meets as exclusively spaces of white, middle-class leisure. This Stoddard photograph, for instance, was the first one I saw documenting the presence of a Black person at the encampments. It inspired me to pay closer attention to other visual and textual sources.

A rich and eclectic library of secondary literature helped me to make sense of what I was reading and seeing in the archive. One of the joys of this project was being able to read widely about topics as disparate and related as middle-class foodways and interior design, liberalism, circuses and minstrelsy, waste management, Indigenous craft production, and boat design and amateur sport. What emerged from this entangling of past and present sources and thinking was an account of an annual event that tells us as much about the significance of sport and leisure in the late nineteenth century, both for individuals and for society, as it does about the ACA and canoeing.

I came to this project as an avid canoeist and I remain one to this day, but I understand the canoe and myself as a paddler in different ways as a result of this research. White settlers appropriated the canoe, eventually transforming it into a craft and, enabled by colonial policies of dispossession and assimilation, they paddled and sailed at their leisure. I have benefitted from these same policies, though I did not see that until I began to study the canoe. Understanding colonial histories of the canoe has not only re-shaped my approach to canoeing as a physical and ethical practice, but it has also inspired me to find ways to support the resurgence of Indigenous canoeing traditions in the place that I now call home, Denendeh.

***

Jessica Dunkin is an independent scholar based in Yellowknife, NT. To find out more about Jessica, you can visit her website.


To find out more about Canoe and Canvas, click here.

You Are What You Read

For our final contribution to the University Press Week Blog Tour (November 4-8), editor Natalie Fingerhut discusses the importance of compassion and how this forms the foundation of our soon-to-launch imprint, New Jewish Press. 

By Natalie Fingerhut

A little personal story: I spent my 20s working at the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University here in Toronto and teaching English at the Centre for Victims of Torture. Through a newcomer service, I helped an Iranian family adapt to their new life in Canada.

In my 40s, when the Syrian refugee crisis reached Canadian Jewish ears, I was busy with work, my kids, and I felt that it was other people’s turn to help out.

At the time, I had just finished Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe under Hitler and Stalin. Through that reading, I discovered the Soviet Jewish journalist, Vasily Grossman, on whom Snyder relies as a primary source. It was this paragraph taken from Grossman’s report, The Hell of Treblinka, about his 1944 visit to the remains of the Treblinka death camp that changed the course of my behavior:

“The SS men subjected the group of rebels from the Warsaw ghetto to especially vicious torture. They picked the women and children and took them not to the gas chambers but to the cremation ovens. They forced the mothers half crazed with terror to lead their children between the red hot bars on which thousands of dead bodies writhed and squirmed twisting and turning as though alive. This spectacle was enough to rob the strongest man of his reason, but the Germans knew that its effect would be a thousand times more terrible on a mother who was frantically trying to shield the eyes of her children from the ghastly sight while they shrieked in terror, “Mama, Mama…what are they going to do to us…will they burn us?” 

For a brief moment, I was that mother with my hand over my daughter’s eyes. It was only by an accident of birth that I was not. And it is only by an accident of birth that you were not.

The next morning I had a call into our synagogue’s private sponsorship group and asked them to put me to work. We wound up sponsoring a set of Syrian grandparents, parents, and a grandson now safe in Toronto.

Such is the power of words.

Such is the power of compassion.

Compassion, as well as empathy, critical thinking, and attentive hearing form the moral foundation on which our new imprint at the University of Toronto Press, New Jewish Press, rests. Our two new titles for Spring 2020 include The A–Z of Intermarriage by intermarried rabbi Denise Handlarski and The Conflict over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate by renowned freedom of speech and human rights advocate Kenneth S. Stern. These two books epitomize the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam – the repairing of the world – by offering their expertise on complex issues facing twenty-first-century Jewry.

Rabbi Denise Handlarski tells us that we may not like that our children marry out of faith but that we need to hear them out and respect their decisions. Ultimately, all marriages are intermarriages and there is so much good that comes out of mixing different cultures. Less Oy and More Joy!!!

Kenneth S. Stern tells us that we may not like when pro-Israel speakers talk on our university or college campuses, but we cannot ban them. We cannot retreat to safe spaces. We cannot disrupt them. Instead, we use rational and reasonable thinking – skills that we have learned in our higher education institutions – and we listen to each other as human beings.

As an editor, I believe in – and am proof of – the influential power of books. My goal with the books I acquire for New Jewish Press is to inspire Jewish, Jew-ish, and not-Jewish to read, think, and act with compassion.

***

To round out a successful University Press Week Blog Tour, check out posts by these other fine university presses:

University of Washington Press
Blog: https://uwpressblog.com/
Twitter: @UWAPress

Columbia University Press
Blog: cupblog.org
Twitter: @ColumbiaUP

University of Illinois Press
Blog: http://www.press.uillinois.edu/wordpress/how-the-transformations-series-invites-us-to-practice-compassion-university-press-week-blog-tour/
Twitter: @IllinoisPress

Penn State University Press
Blog: https://pennstateuniversitypress.tumblr.com/
Twitter: @PSUPress

University of South Carolina Press
Blog: facebook.com/USC.Press
Twitter: @uscpress

University of Nebraska Press
Blog: https://unpblog.com/category/jewish-publication-society/
Twitter: @UnivNebPress
Twitter: @JewishPub

Bucknell University Press
Blog: upress.blogs.bucknell.edu
Twitter: @BucknellUPress

Beacon Press
Blog: http://www.beaconbroadside.com
Twitter: @beaconpressbks
Twitter: @WitnessToGTMO

Thinking about Thinking: Kenneth S. Stern and How to Be a Better (Global) Citizen

In this lead-off contribution to the University Press Week Blog Tour (November 4-8), Anna Maria Del Col, Marketing Manager, Humanities, shares an excerpt from The Conflict over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate by Kenneth S. Stern. When considering today’s theme of “How to Be a Better (Global) Citizen,” Stern’s book offers valuable advice.

By Anna Maria Del Col

There are a lot of great things about working in publishing – and in particular, academic publishing. Every day, we get to shape and share ideas, work closely with language, learn new things from leading experts in a wide range of disciplines, and hopefully contribute to making the world a slightly smarter and better place. But once in a while, in the normal course of our work, we come across a particular author or book project that can entirely change the way we see the world, and how we try to behave in the world.

For me, the most recent author to have this kind of impact is Kenneth S. Stern, whose book project, The Conflict over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate, is set to launch our New Jewish Press imprint in Spring 2020. Stern, who has dedicated his life to fighting antisemitism and defending human rights, and who currently works as the director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, should inspire us all to become better global citizens.

I think everyone must go through phases where the media cycle becomes unbearable – the conflicts around the world seem unsolvable, the hatred seems endless, and rational thought seems to have completely disappeared. I was entering one of those phases when we signed Kenneth S. Stern and starting planning for the publication of The Conflict over the Conflict. To learn more about the project I began to read the prologue – and I would like to share an excerpt from that prologue here. Even though his project is focused on the Israel/Palestine debate, and how it plays out on North American college and university campuses, there is a real wisdom to everything that Stern says. He offers a model for how to think rationally about any kind of conflict. His lifetime of dealing with the topic of hatred is inspiring, and makes it clear that disengaging is not a solution.

I cannot think of a better book project to share with the world to help kick off University Press Week 2019. The theme this year is “Read. Think. Act.” Reading The Conflict over the Conflict will make you think about how you think, and it will force you to act for good and to act rationally. It is exactly the book the world needs right now.

Note: This excerpt is taken from the unedited manuscript. It has not been copy edited, typeset, or proofed and footnotes have been removed. Advance page proofs will be available soon. You can contact our publicist, Chris Reed, for more information about advance proofs for media purposes.

***

Excerpt from The Conflict over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate

By Kenneth S. Stern

PROLOGUE

From the 1970s until a lawsuit shut it down in 2001, the Aryan Nations – perhaps America’s most significant neo-Nazi group at the time – had a compound in Hayden Lake, Idaho, not far from Spokane, Washington. It was a Hitler-worshipping, Holocaust-denying, racist and violent enterprise, and some of its members were bent on using guns and bombs to promote white supremacy.

The group “The Order” was founded by Aryan Nations members. It robbed banks to support a white supremacist revolution. In 1984 it assassinated one particularly hated Jew, Denver talk radio host Alan Berg, who had enjoyed needling white supremacists on his program.

Randy Weaver, who lived in nearby Ruby Ridge, Idaho, socialized with other white supremacists at the Aryan Nations compound. In 1992 federal agents tried to arrest him on an outstanding warrant, and during an armed standoff U.S. Marshal Bill Degan was killed, along with Weaver’s wife and son.

Buford Furrow was another Aryan Nations member. He walked into a Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles in 1999, firing at least 70 rounds from a semi-automatic weapon. He wounded five people, including three children. Then he shot and killed a Filipino-American postal worker.

To the human rights and Jewish communities in the Inland Northwest, the Aryan Nations and the hatred it inspired in others was a direct and constant danger. A Jewish woman bought Chanukah giftwrap and discovered razor blades inside. When Temple Beth Shalom (Spokane’s main synagogue) remodeled, its classrooms were placed in an inner courtyard, protected with bullet-proof windows. Some members of the congregation came to services armed. Black law students at Gonzaga University received threatening racist letters, and some left. Bombs were planted at a Planned Parenthood office and the Spokesman Review newspaper. A pipe bomb went off in the home of Coeur D’Alene Idaho parish priest Bill Wassmuth (with him in it). Luckily, he wasn’t injured.

Activists in the region organized and pushed back. In 2001 the compound was closed, after Aryan Nations guards shot up a car passing by their property, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, along with local attorney Norm Gissel, filed suit. The area is now vacant. But the leaders in the community remain concerned about the potential for racist violence to disrupt their lives. Ten years after the compound closed, a white supremacist put a radio-controlled bomb in a backpack along the route of Spokane’s Martin Luther King Day march. Many children were among the marchers, and no doubt some would have been maimed or killed if the bomb had exploded. It was filled with small fishing weights, covered in an anticoagulant found in rat poison. Fortunately, the device was discovered and deactivated.

These days the potential for new recruits is obvious. Confederate flag stickers or license plate holders are on the occasional vehicle. White supremacist posters have been found on lampposts in downtown Spokane.

The region is small enough that most of the veterans of the struggle against the Aryan Nations and its legacy know each other. Many come from the Jewish community, and from the local peace and justice groups, particularly the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane (PJALS). They know that they need to work together to be effective. But for eight years, they didn’t speak to one another. In fact, they frequently refused to be part of coalitions with the other, or even in the same room.

What would cause them to be at each other’s throats, despite the threats from virulent racists who frequently were armed or had plans for murder, were endangering their children and might be living across the street?

The problem – some might say an abstract problem – was over 6,700 miles away.

Israel.

***

What is it about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that makes people nuts? In 2018 pro-Palestinian students disrupted a UCLA program on “indigeneity.” A protestor stormed on stage and ripped down the Armenian flag, apparently not willing to have it displayed near an Israeli one. Instead of listening to the panelists, or waiting to ask hard questions, the disrupters shouted “We don’t want two states; we want ’48” and “One, two, three, four, open up that prison door, five, six, seven, eight, Israel is a terrorist state.” Also in 2018, Israel passed its “Nation-State” law, making it easier to discriminate against non-Jews while downgrading the status of Arabic. A Palestinian student at Stanford University reacted with threats against his classmates, promising to “physically fight” Zionists; four hours later he amended his post to say he’d “intellectually” fight them.

Within the Jewish community, while Israel can be a uniting issue, it is also a great divider. As Rachel Sandalow-Ash, a co-founder of Open Hillel, has observed, Jewish students from all types and levels of observance can come together easily at a college Hillel (the mainstream Jewish organization on many campuses) for a meal after different services. Breaking bread with people who disagree about Israel, she says, is much more difficult, if not impossible. Jews who are pro-Palestinian sometimes say supporters of Israel are racists; pro-Israel Jews sometimes call Jewish pro-Palestinian activists traitors.

I observed a similar phenomenon to the one Sandalow-Ash described during my nearly 25 years on staff at the American Jewish Committee (one of the two large Jewish “defense agencies”). I had Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform and secular colleagues, as well as others like me who were atheist. No one felt less part of the AJC family because of how, or if, they observed the Jewish religion. I was never asked if I was going to High Holiday services.

But there was tremendous pressure on all staff (including non-Jewish staff) to attend the annual Salute to Israel Parade on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. There were multiple memos, the tone and content of which suggested it would hurt one’s career not to show up, even though the parade was on Sunday, a day off.

The organized Jewish community is particularly concerned about how Israel is portrayed on campus, for two reasons. First, tomorrow’s leaders are today’s undergraduates, and if being pro-Israel is part of your faith, you don’t want future professors, journalists, and lawmakers to view Israel poorly. Second, you worry that Jewish students who care about Israel deeply and hear vile things about it will feel as disturbed as if someone had said something hateful about Jews. While, as we will see, there have been deeply disquieting incidents, pro-Israel activists claim that the college campus is a hotbed of antisemitism, which it is not.

Meanwhile pro-Palestinian campus activists say these Jewish groups are using legislative and other means to suppress their First Amendment right to express pro-Palestinian political views. These claims and counterclaims, about who is trying to silence whom over Israel on campus, are taking place in an environment where many would sacrifice free speech to “protect” students from ideas they might find disagreeable.

This book is not a catalogue of every bad act by either side in the campus wars over Israel and Palestine. Rather, it is a call to action. The complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should make it an ideal subject to teach critical thinking and how to have difficult discussions. Instead, it is being used as a toxin that threatens the entire academic enterprise. How did we get here? What can be done?

***

To continue on Day One of the University Press Week Blog Tour, check out posts by these other fine university presses:

University of Virginia Press
Blog: https://www.upress.virginia.edu/blog
Twitter: @uvapress

University of Wisconsin Press
Blog: https://uwpress.wisc.edu/blog/
Twitter: @UWiscPress

University Press of Florida
Blog: https://floridapress.blog/
Twitter: @floridapress

University of Minnesota Press
Blog: https://uminnpressblog.com/
Twitter: @UMinnPress

University of Nebraska Press
Blog: http://unpblog.com
Twitter: @UnivNebPress

Vanderbilt University Press
Blog: https://my.vanderbilt.edu/universitypress
Twitter: @vanderbiltup

University of North Carolina Press
Blog: https://uncpressblog.com/
Twitter: @uncpressblog

Georgetown University Press
Twitter: @GUpress

Purdue University Press
Twitter: @purduepress

My Odd Case of Writer’s Block, Or, How I Spent Six Months Writing One Paragraph

Sharing the Past is an unprecedentedly detailed account of the intertwining discourses of Canadian history and creative literature. In this post, author of the book J.A. Weingarten discusses his own personal experience with writer’s block, and why it took him the best part of six months to complete his book.


By J.A Weingarten

By Fall 2016, I had finished nearly all of the writing for my recently released book, Sharing the Past. One thing remained: I had to complete a paragraph that I’d been agonizing over for nearly six months. It was a deceptively simple statement: I needed only to admit to my reader that I didn’t know everything. Let me explain.

The primary point of Sharing the Past is to show that creative writers – freer and typically more willing than academics to write experimental and deeply personal histories – have found the means to write histories that are (as I say in the book) both “intellectual” (based on factual events and sources) and “felt” (made emotionally powerful by the sharing of intimate, often familial, connections to those events). David Zieroth writes about his grandfather’s experience in Canadian internment camps, Louise Halfe writes about the devastation wrought by residential schools on her family, and Andrew Suknaski writes about the struggle his family faced as it joined the massive waves of Eastern European immigrants during the early twentieth century. The stories are big and small: focused on large historical events, but seen through the affective lens of a familial experience. Many readers have connected to these “big and small” histories in ways that they have not connected to the scholarship of conventional historians focused on “big picture” stories (e.g. tales of the political elite, memorable policy, large-scale events). I make that distinction with greater care and context in my book, but, for now, let that basic contrast suffice.

One thing many of the writers in my book have in common is that their personal approach to history compels them to acknowledge, in one way or another, that their histories are, by virtue of their subjectivity, open to corrections and/or expansions. “My family’s story,” these writers often seem to say, “is just one of many possible perspectives on history.” In other words, no one can really claim to know everything about the past. It is brave to write as passionately as creative writers do about history and then to acknowledge, simultaneously, one’s limited ability to write the past fully and accurately. There are, I say throughout the book, so many ways to tell a story, and each author I discuss acknowledges that plurality of approaches.

So here was my conundrum in Fall 2016. I was writing a scholarly history of history infused with my own feelings and beliefs, and so it became clear that I was trapping myself in a corner: I was praising authors in my study for their candid admissions that their knowledge about history has limits, but I was not sharing with my reader that same humility. The issue became more complicated as I began to write about experiences far removed from my own: I was writing about leading Canadian authors of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s like Margaret Atwood and Lorna Crozier and about Indigenous authors publishing since the 1980s like Louise Halfe and Joan Crate. The broader the reach of my book (eras, cultures, figures, et cetera), the more I felt it was necessary to say something about my own limits as a scholar. I began to feel hypocritical because of my omission. Every one of my authors happily celebrated that they could not know everything about the past … why was it so hard for me to write a paragraph that said something so obviously true of my own historical writing? Of course I don’t know everything! Of course my book is open to correction! Of course more could be said than I say! So why couldn’t I just say that?

The cover of Peter Steven’s Family Feelings & Other Poems makes an implied connection between photography and family.

It took me six months to find the words. And during those six months, I thought incessantly about my odd case of writer’s block. I gradually found some clarity … partly by rereading the poetry on which my study focuses and partly by reading eye-opening scholarship that unpacks questions about different systems of knowledge in and outside of Canada (I was especially influenced, for instance, by Deanna Reder and Linda Morra’s Learn, Teach, Challenge).

Here is what I realized by Fall 2016: as a young scholar I felt I needed, at all times, to wear a veil of certainty. Whether I put that pressure on myself or whether it was put on me by others (or both) I do not know. I have always been a bit of a perfectionist (flashback: my first day of kindergarten, trying desperately to cut a perfect circle, and looking angrily, crying and disappointed, at the splintery oval I’d cut out of construction paper). Having the answers – as many of them as possible – seemed important during my time as a student, both before and during grad school. It was my own failing that I came to believe, consciously or unconsciously, that having answers was the key to earning respect for my writing. Perhaps that was something deep-seated that had grown unchecked over the years, fed by the uncertainty, stress, and confusion of pursuing a grad degree.

The end result was, in my early 30s and finishing my first book, I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of claiming expertise and then admitting, in the same breath, that I was fully capable of being wrong. That admission became something over which I obsessed. The time I shared with that one paragraph was no longer just about finishing my book; it was about taking a step forward as a writer, professor, friend, son, husband – now a father – and all-around human being.

Those six months spent writing one paragraph changed my relationship to my book. They changed my relationship to my knowledge and self. I look back at the process of writing Sharing the Past and, as proud as I am of the book, I think of it now as a learning process for me. Not a crowning achievement, but the process through which I learned (with the help of poets, novelists, and scholars) to speak more honestly about my writing and learning. That paragraph entered the text without anyone ever realizing (minus those reading this blog) how much time went into it or how significant it was for me to write it. It surreptitiously snuck in line, joining the row of paragraphs ahead and behind it, the way I used to bud into the movie theatre line as a kid. It blends in unnoticed. Just another example of many things I wrote and will write.

The paragraph, for those interested, has been reproduced below:

“When I began this book about ten years ago, it had not occurred to me – at least not with the same force it now does – that every scholar, including myself, has limits to and gaps in their knowledge. I draw attention to this point because Indigenous scholars have often outlined the danger of holding firmly onto knowledge without questioning or recognizing one’s own position. While writing this book, a colleague had advised me to emphasize my expertise over my openness to correction, but I felt then – as I do now – that such an addition would be disingenuous in a study so concerned with the value and limits of individual knowledge. Intelligence, like compassion, is not achieved through assertions, but rather by making a genuine effort to reach a deeper understanding of a time, place, or perspective. While it may be necessary in a scholarly study to assert expertise, it seems equally important to acknowledge that a persistent problem in settler-authored studies is the deployment of uncontested, imperialistic interpretations. It would be irresponsible to pretend that I, as a third-generation Canadian and as a scholar entrenched in settler traditions of language and literature, could fully step back from those personal and academic positions. Hence, my discussion here – informed by years of research, interviews, and thought – will still surely invite expansion and possibly correction. Those outcomes seem to me ideal, because my critical efforts in this chapter, and in this book, are determined encouragements of further conversations, not assertions of rigid conclusions.” (Sharing the Past, page 205)


J.A. Weingarten is a professor in the School of Language and Liberal Studies at Fanshawe College.

Romanticism, Then and Now, Now and Then

The Romantic world was a time of revolution, protest, politics – and climate change. With the release of his fascinating new book, Romantic Revelations author Chris Washington shares how, two-hundred years later, the focus remains anthropocentric.


The Romantic world I explore in Romantic Revelations was a time of climate change, particularly exemplified by 1816, “the year without a summer,” in which the Shelleys and Byron hunkered down in a chateau reading ghost stories and failing to write them. Well, except Mary of course who completed Frankenstein. It was also a time of revolution and protest although that was not the focus of my book. But a few recent developments with global implications for climate change seem to me to resonate with Romanticism as a mode of thinking in, with, and against the Anthropocene.

On October 31, 2018, a thousand plus members of the Extinction Rebellion collective assembled in London at Parliament Square to protest government inaction on climate change. Over the course of the next several weeks, dozens of arrests were made at multiple Extinction Rebellion stagings of civil disobedience.

And yet, for all the good climate change protests like Extinction Rebellion arguably do in continuing to bring attention to this urgent issue and to pressure governments to take action, stated aims and goals of such protests very often fail to include nonhumans as subjects of attention, care, preservation, and life. The focus remains anthropocentric: how do we save the human species from the result of its own self-death-dealing, from the destruction of the natural world that they have in fact destroyed? A certain species-wide narcissism seems to persist. We must save ourselves at all costs.

Consider then a new study of climate change that might temporally locate the Anthropocene elsewhen. Scientists at the University of Cambridge have shown how the genocidal settler colonialism of the Americas killed around 90% of the Indigenous population – 56 million people – and that Indigenous genocide produced other catastrophic results, including the drastic cooling of the earth’s climate that may be the inauguration of what we think of as contemporary climate change. Their study reminds us that not only may the history of the Anthropocene be different than we think but that we tend to think of climate change as the extinction of “we” humans as a collective, but it is also of course deeply linked to colonization, racism, sexism, ethnocentricism, and speciesism, affecting non-white euro-populations more drastically than “we” often take into account. And as another recent study finds, humans have killed off 60% of different animal populations in the last 50 years.

Romantic Revelations does not directly address either Extinction Rebellion (which occurred after its writing) or the genocide of Indigenous peoples. However, the book does speak to such events.

Romanticism offers a radical hospitality, a kind of ethos perhaps, that we desperately need to adjust to and attempt to survive in the Anthropocene. This hospitality demonstrates a need not for a politics based on democratic equality, but rather for a new type of social living arrangement that affords equality to all humans and nonhumans on the basis of difference. To put it in terms of the ongoing climate change protest movements of today, Romanticism resists calls for a universalized humanity. It asks us instead to recognize differences amongst humans and to accept those differences in an intersectional fashion that invites others in precisely because of difference, precisely because difference should be celebrated. The radical hospitality of Romanticism seeks to multiply difference rather than cling to the dangerous belief in this thing called a “human.”

Mary Shelley’s second novel, The Last Man (1826), opens onto similar problems of extinction and climate change. In the book, straggles of leftover humans sludge through a world devastated by plague and pestilence. While the novel appears to aggressively inhabit and propose a kind of nihilism, I find such texts to be hopeful. Because it is only when all hope is lost, when there is no hope, that hope can emerge – that, after all, is the nature of hope. Post-apocalyptic Romanticism, in other words, is ultimately about happy endings. Or so it is if we heed the call of hospitality, especially towards those nonhumans who we overlook in our narcissism-fueled climate discussions and everyday practices of full-throttle capitalistic consumption. Given that these same practices are what created the crisis in the first place, it appears that our rapacious eating of animals, say, needs to stop. It may well be, even, that the only way to save ourselves is to save those who cannot save themselves.

Hospitality of this Romantic sort is also, then, a kind of love towards the other, a love that can extend to collectives or to interpersonal relationships. Consider, for instance, this nonhuman vignette. Two insects from 54 million years ago found preserved in amber, preserved in an embrace, a final act of loving and love, a preservation, perhaps, of their love? Except we don’t know whether they are in love. Maybe to assume so is to anthropomorphize them. We don’t know anything about them other than that they are suspended in an act of reproduction that does not reproduce. Perhaps this amber tableau offers a metaphor for humans as well. While we may think we are reproducing a human species for the future the truth is there may be no future for humans. It would seem a wise reminder that we should love each other now, while we can, before our fate is sealed in amber.


Chris Washington is Assistant Professor of English at Francis Marion University, and the author of Romantic Revelations: Visions of Post-Apocalyptic Life and Hope in the Anthropocene.