Guest Blog: Native American Women’s Transatlantic Activism for Sovereignty, Gyorgy “George” Toth (University of Stirling)

Following our Protest and Activism workshop last week, we’re delighted to share a fascinating guest blog from the University of Stirling’s Dr Gyorgy Toth on the topic of Native American women’s transatlantic activism.

Gyorgy “George” Toth holds degrees from Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary (M.A. in English Language & Lit and American Studies) and The University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, USA (Ph.D. in American Studies). Since December 2014 George has been serving as Lecturer in post-1945 U.S. History and Transatlantic Relations at the Division of History and Politics at the University of Stirling, Scotland, UK. His book From Wounded Knee to Checkpoint Charlieon the transatlantic alliance for American Indian sovereignty in the Late Cold War was published by SUNY Press in 2016. His research profile is at https://www.stir.ac.uk/people/257093

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In April of 2019, my friend Christine Nobiss, an activist of Canadian Cree-Salteaux and Hungarian heritage, will travel to Glasgow, Scotland, then on to Poznan, Poland, to present a paper at the annual American Indian Workshopconference. Christine is the founder and co-director of the organizations Indigenous Iowaand Seeding Sovereignty. At the conference and in her meetings with European activist groups, Christine will discuss her experience in the resistance to the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Sacred Stones Campin North Dakota, and her various projects to decolonize the environment and landscape of what she calls the land of the Ioway – much of what is now the U.S. Midwest.

With her travels, Christine is not inventing the wheel – in fact, her trip as a Native North American woman activist will only be the latest in an established history of indigenous American female campaigners for sovereignty who toured Europe. Some of the key members of Christine’s mother’s generation of Native women travelled to Europe as part of a transatlantic alliance for causes related to Native American sovereignty. These included campaigns for indigenous reproductive rights, environmentalism and resource sovereignty, anti-nuclear and peace causes, and even Marxist revolutionary projects.

The Movement

The Native American women activists of the 1970s and ‘80s were ‘woke’, tough, and persistent. Their awareness of colonialism and discrimination most often came from their own experience – whether from living on reservations, the crucible of urban life, university workshops, or the social movement struggles of the 1960s. Native women often formed the hard core of the Red Power struggleand the American Indian Movement– they were the ones who put their backs into movement work, including the everyday tasks less glorious than the dramatic demonstrations on Alcatraz in 1969-71, the Trail of Broken Treaties in Washington, D.C. in 1972, or Wounded Knee in 1973. At key junctures, female elders and activists would also provide a crucial pushneeded for these protest events to take place. Native women participated in all such events, sometimes with their whole families, even marrying, giving birth, or burying their community members right there at the protest sites.

After these dramatic and costly confrontations with the United States government, by the mid-1970s Native sovereignty activists had changed strategy. In 1974, the American Indian Movement (AIM) launched a sustained and concentrated organizational effort to pursue the decolonization of Native America by seeking admittance to the United Nations and forging alliances with Central European solidarity groups. AIM representatives travelled to Europe to form and visit solidarity groups, who in turn raised funds, publicized the cause of sovereignty, collected signatures, and sent petitions to U.S. government officials and judges. This strategy put external pressure on the United States government in order to force it to legislate American Indian sovereignty rights. The major organ of this strategy was the International Indian Treaty Council, which attained consultative NGO status at the United Nations in 1977. In September of the same year, the United Nations held their International NGO Conference on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations in the Americasin Geneva – a breakthrough in the transatlantic alliance for Native American sovereignty.

Transatlantic Warrior Women

One of the key activists in the Indian Treaty Council was Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, a lady of Southern Cheyenne and white Oklahoman heritage. Dunbar-Ortiz had fervently campaigned for some of the most important social causes in the United States and internationally, including women’s liberation and Marxist world revolution. After working with the Wounded Knee Legal Defense / Offence Committee, Dunbar-Ortiz became one of the early leaders of the International Indian Treaty Council. Committed to a Marxist revolutionary project of national liberation, she believed that the Indians of the Americas were part and parcel of the downtrodden working class in each country. Dunbar-Ortiz insisted that national liberation movements should include indigenous populations, and that revolutionary regimes should recognize Indian sovereignty rights.[1]Importantly, this Native perception of Marxism called for a deep commitment and mutual collaboration between sovereignty activists and revolutionary movements and regimes.

As a representative of the Treaty Council, Dunbar-Ortiz crossed the Atlantic for the 1977 conference in Geneva with several other Native American women. Especially notable was Winona LaDuke, an 18-year-old girl of Anishinaabe (Ojibwa) and Jewish heritage, who fearlessly addressed the world gatheringabout the effects of uranium mining on the Navajo nation.

The Native women who went to Geneva did not stay in Geneva. After their conference, the American Indian delegation fanned out across Europe to build alliances. One team featuring Allene Goddard-Cottier of the Oglala Lakota took a trip to the USSR. In Moscow they met the Soviet Peace Council, government officials, educators, and the press. The group toured the Kremlin, and two of them visited the Moscow Ballet. A University of Moscow ethnographer presented them with eagle feathers from Siberia, and they appeared on Soviet TV, broadcast to some 180 million viewers. Next the delegation visited the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan, where they were explained the Kremlin’s progressive policies for Kazakhs as a minority “of color.” Goddard concluded her trip with a visit to the Soviet Republic of Mongolia.[2]

The daughter of AIM leader Russell Means of the Pine Ridge Oglala Reservation, 15-year-old Sherry Means accompanied her father on a trip across Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary and East Germany. In Bulgaria, where they were treated as guests of the government, the sovereignty delegation met with members of the country’s Central Committee and the World Peace Council. In East Germany, the Indian visitors learned about the history of the Sorbs, an ethnic minority, whose human rights were now protected under socialism. For Sherry, “that goes to show what a lie the Americans are living” with their anti-Communist propaganda. She concluded that “what I have learned in these countries is that they believe strongly in human rights and for our struggle. They aren’t the people to feel sorry for. They have no poverty or competition with each other, and nobody wants to get rich because they all have equal opportunities.”[3](It can be reasonably assumed that not all Native American activists actually believed Eastern Bloc propaganda, but rather they reported it strategically, in order to bolster their cause back in the U.S.)

The 1977 UN gathering and post-conference tours in Europe were so successful that German solidarity workers planned a new campaign the following year, with another group of Native North American activists. One important new feature of the May 1978 tour was its stronger focus on Native women’s causes than in the previous visit. In addition to Dunbar-Ortiz, the delegation featured three women activists. Phyllis Youngof the Standing Rock Sioux nation had co-founded Women of All Red Nations, an organization that campaigned for Native treaty rights and the elimination of demeaning Indian stereotypes in U.S. culture.[4]Yvonne Wanrow, from the Colville Reservation of the Confederated Tribes of Washington, championed women’s right to self-defence and legal protection in the U.S. courts. Barbara Moorewas the Sicangu Lakota sister of the famous late Mary Moore, whose book Lakota Womanlater documented women’s experience in the American Indian Movement. A victim of the practice herself, Barbara Moore campaigned against involuntary sterilization, which she recognized as a measure of colonialist control of non-white populations in the United States.[5]Several of them strong personalities and veteran activists, these women forcefully foregrounded Native women’s demands and contributions to the sovereignty struggle, and shared their experiences and wisdom about activism with their German audiences and counterparts. Accordingly, the tour’s program also included events such as a mass rally on women’s rights at the Audimax hall of the Technical University of Berlin on May 5, 1978.[6]

‘Sisters’ in Transatlantic Activism

European women were often partners and allies in Native American transatlantic activism for sovereignty. After the 1975 opening of an American Indian Movement office in West Berlin, Regina Mayerserved as a solidarity volunteer, doing public outreach for Native sovereignty across West Germany.[7]In April and May of 1978, Ulla Bäcksin of the Swedish Indian League (Svensk Indianska Förbundet) helped take Eddie Benton Banai and Shirley Blakely of the Federation of Survival Schoolson a “European Speech Tour” to West Germany and Austria.[8]In the 1970s, university professor and popular author Liselotte Welskopf-Henrichwote a fiction pentalogy titled The Blood of Eagles, focusing on current Native American issues.[9]In the mid-1980s, Renate Domnick of the West German NGO Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker(Society for Endangered Peoples) helped conduct a media campaign to publicize the right of the Sioux nation to the Black Hills of South Dakota.[10]In 1984, the West German Green Party’s founder, nuclear disarmament activist and eco-feminist politicianPetra Kellydemanded that her country’s government lend support to the same land rights case in the United Nations. Kelly raised the issue of German complicity in uranium mining in the Black Hills, and eloquently explained that the Sioux nation were no less sovereign than West Germany, which had become independent from the “trusteeship” of the United States after World War Two.[11]In the same year, Kelly published her book Fighting for Hope, a call for a world free from violence generated by colonialism, gender politics, and humans’ exploitation of the environment.

Stronger with Age, Still Fighting

Kelly’s murder by her partner in 1992 serves as a horrible reminder of the deadliness of domestic violence against women. Yet several of the above members of this great generation of transatlantic activist women remain leaders in their causes to this day. Barbara Moore served as dean of the Crow Dog’s Indian Way School on the Rosebud Reservation of South Dakota, where she was also an educator for Native reproductive rights.[12]Yvonne Wanrow was a champion of traditional Indian lifeways, and a defender of female Native American prisoners. Phyllis Young was a pillar in the struggle against the Dakota Access Pipelinein 2016-2017, and has subsequently helped defend water protectors in the courts. After decades of activism in the United Nations, in Nicaragua and with transnational organizations, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortizkeeps speaking and writing about the relationship between indigenous rights, the left, and women’s liberation. Winona LaDuke’s activism for environmental sovereignty has earned her high prestige in activist communities. Also known as “Thunderbird Woman”, LaDuke has not only promoted local and Native lifeways, faming and dietas a viable alternative to factory farming and consumption. As vice presidential candidate on Ralph Nader’s Green Party ticket, she was theNative American woman who arguably helped upset the U.S. presidential election of 2000-01.[13]

With such elders, my friend Christine can proudly make the trek to Europe in her campaign for environmental sovereignty, which now is a pillar of the movement to turn the tide of climate change. May she find sisters and brothers who will join her in our shared struggle!

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[1]Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War (Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2005) 17, 20, 51, 261.

[2].“Indian Delegation Visits Soviet Union.” Treaty Council News Nov 1977, 3; Records of the International Indian Treaty Council, San Francisco, California.

[3]“Indian Delegation Visits Soviet Union.” Treaty Council News Nov 1977, 3; Sherry Means, “‘These Countries Believe Strongly in Human Rights.’” Treaty Council News Nov 1977, 4. Original title in quotation marks. Records of the International Indian Treaty Council, San Francisco, California.

[4]Meg Devlin O’Sullivan, “’We Worry About Survival’: American Indian Women, Sovereingty, and the Right to Bear and Raise Children in the 1970s.” 17, 20, 32, 91. Unpublished PhD dissertation. Department of History, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2007. Online: https://cdr.lib.unc.edu/indexablecontent?id=uuid:7a462a63-5185-4140-8f3f-ad094b75f04d&ds=DATA_FILE. Accessed November 7, 2018.

[5]Jael Silliman et al, eds. Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice. (Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2004), 112. On Barbara Moore, also see Crow Dog and Erdoes, 4, and Brave Bird with Erdoes, 193.

[6]“0132/62-65. Performance Göttingen Delegation ’78. Photo Baugert,” and various other photographs. Photo archive of the Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker. Undated “Endgültiger Terminplan fur die Indianerdelegation ’78 [Final Schedule of the Indian Delegation in 1978].” April 8, 1978 letter from Society to its members regarding the schedule of Indian delegation. Records of the Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker, Göttingen, Germany.

[7]Letter to Richard Erdoes from Regina Mayer White Plume, February 13, 1975. Richard Erdoes Papers. Yale Collection of Western Americana, Yale University.

[8]December 17, 1977 letter from AIM Support Group Hamburg to the Society for Endangered Peoples. March 29, 1978 letter from AIM Support Group Hamburg to the Society. Records of the Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker.

[9]For more on Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich, see Glenn Penny, “Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich and Indian Activist Networks in East and West Germany,” Central European History 41 (2008): 447-476.

[10]Clippings from assorted newspapers published between February and September 1984. Records of the Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker (Society for Endangered Peoples).

[11]August 31, 1984 letter from Petra K. Kelly to West German Federal Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. Translation by the author. Records of the Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker (Society for Endangered Peoples).

[12]Jael Silliman et al, eds. Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice. (Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2004), 119.

[13]In the November 2000 presidential elections of the United States, Democratic presidential contender Al Gore won the popular vote by 0.5% or 543,895 votes; yet George W. Bush won the Electoral College by 1 single electoral vote. The Green Party ticket, with presidential contender Ralph Nader and vice presidential candidate Winona LaDuke, won a total of popular vote of 2.74% or 2,882,955, but did not win an Electoral College vote. In the Electoral College, one elector abstained from voting. In the key state of Florida, which ultimately decided the election, Gore lost to Bush by 537 votes, or by 0.01%; the Green ticket received 97,488 votes, or 1.63% of the vote. “2000 Presidential Electoral and Popular Vote.” Federal Election Commission. https://transition.fec.gov/pubrec/2000presgeresults.htm

Protest and Activism Workshop, Wednesday 7th November (co-organised with Hook Centre for American Studies).

Wednesday 7 November, 2-4.30pm, Gannochy Seminar Room, Wolfson Medical Building, University Avenue, Glasgow University.

We’re thrilled to announce that, following the success of our Modernisms Workshop and our Wharton Workshop, we’re teaming up with the Hook Centre for American Studies to run a workshop on the theme Protest and Activism. Given that 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of partial women’s suffrage in the UK, and the 50th anniversary of the social unrest and protests in 1968, this theme felt timelier than ever. This is a relaxed, informal event. You can join us for part of the workshop or for the whole afternoon.

We’re now delighted to tell you a bit more about our three speakers:

Katja May (University of Kent): “Legacies of Resistance: From Womanist Writers to Radical Quilters”

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Katja May is a third-year PhD candidate and Graduate Teaching Assistant at the University of Kent. Her interdisciplinary research project examines practices of needlework as a form of politics within feminist activism. This research aims to gain further insight into the relationship between personal and social transformation, social movements, politics and the role of everyday practices on the level of affect, knowledge and the phenomenology of making. Katja is a passionate quilter and has organized multiple feminist craftivism workshops and the interdisciplinary conference ‘Emotional Politics – The Role of Affect in Social Movements and Organizing’.

Kate Ballantyne (University of Birmingham): “Beyond a Rise and Fall: Tennessee Student Activism, 1954-1975”

Dr Kate Ballantyne is a Teaching Fellow in United States History at the University of Birmingham.  She received her PhD from the University of Cambridge in October 2017, and is revising her dissertation into a book manuscript on the subject she will discuss today.

 

Nick Batho (University of Edinburgh): “Ocean Hill Be-In: Children’s Books and
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Nick Batho is a third year PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. His interdisciplinary work examines children’s books amidst the educational upheavals and Black Power movement in New York City. His work looks at the impact of children’s books in schools and the ways in which they were used. He is also a research assistant for the ‘Our Bondage and Our Freedom’ project at the National Library.

Janine Bradbury, “Racial Passing and Its Transatlantic Contexts”, 5.15pm, Tuesday 20th November, Room 101, 5 University Gardens

The Transatlantic Literary Women are excited to be welcoming Dr Janine Bradbury to Glasgow to give a paper titled: “Racial Passing and Its Transatlantic Contexts”. The talk takes place in room 101, 5 University Gardens at 5.15pm on Tuesday 20th November with drinks and refreshments available from 5. This is a social, friendly gathering. As always, everyone is welcome. Hope to see you there!

Racial Passing and its Transatlantic Contexts

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an entire literary genre emerged in the United States that revolved around light skinned, mixed race African Americans who ‘fraudulently’ pretended to be or passed for white in order to ‘evade’ racism, prejudice, and segregation. Films like Imitation of Lifebrought the topic to a national audience and writers as diverse as William Faulkner, Mark Twain, and Langston Hughes featured passing in their works.

Given that the United States has a distinct history of race relations, how do stories about passing ‘work’ beyond these regional and national contexts? And do American stories about passing inspire and hold relevance for writers across the black Atlantic? How is gender and nationhood represented in these works? And what role do women writers play in the history of the passing genre?

This talk explores the phenomenon of ‘passing-for-white’ as represented in the work of transatlantic literary women ranging from Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen to contemporary British writer Helen Oyeyemi and asks why passing continues to inspire women writers across the West.

Bio: Janine Bradbury is a Senior Lecturer in Literature at York St John University where she is also the Acting Subject Director of American Studies. Her work on passing has appeared in the Guardian and her forthcoming book Contemporary African American Women Writers and Passing will be published with Palgrave Macmillan.

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Jennifer Haytock, “Writing for France: American Women Writers and the Great War”, Wednesday 17 October, 5.15pm,

 

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The Transatlantic Literary Women are excited to be welcoming US academic Professor Jennifer Haytock to Glasgow on Wednesday 17 October.

Jennifer will be talking about American women writers in France during the First World War. Gertrude Stein, Alice Toklas, Mildred Aldrich, Edith Wharton, Gertrude Atherton, and Dorothy Canfield Fisher will all be present! The talk takes place in room 202, 4 University Gardens at 5.15 on Wednesday 17 October, with drinks and refreshments available from 5. This is a social, friendly gathering. As always, everyone is welcome. Hope to see you there!

Writing for France: American Women Writers and the Great War

Looking back in her unpublished autobiography, the American journalist Mildred Aldrich wrote how “strange” it was that during the war “I . . . should suddenly find myself more alive than I had ever been, and possessed with but one idea—a wish to try and make everyone see the situation from my point of view.” Aldrich and other American women writers, including Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Edith Wharton, Gertrude Atherton, and Dorothy Canfield Fisher, were either already living in France when the Great War began or came to France in order to contribute to the war effort. With the exception of the more domestic Toklas, all were professional women and many were well-known public figures before the start of the war, and they turned their skills and reputations to the work of educating Americans about why the invasion of France and Belgium mattered. While American men too worked behind the lines and wrote about the plight of France and Belgium, these women were able to write about the war without the baggage of masculinity, so often tied to martial prowess, thus opening up the ways in which war could be written about. In reportage, memoir, short stories, and poems, these writers showed Americans the suffering of refugees and the wounded, the physical devastation of the war, and the efforts of the French to take care of their own problems, all with an eye for engaging American sympathy and calling them to action. As we prepare to mark the centenary of the Armistice, we’ll examine the ways that American women writers sought to invest their fellow citizens in the plight of France.

Jennifer Haytock is professor of English at The College at Brockport, SUNY. She has published The Routledge Introduction to American War Literature, The Middle Class in the Great Depression: Popular Women Writers in the 1930s, Edith Wharton and the Conversations of Literary Modernism, and At Home, At War: World War I and Domesticity in American Literature.

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TLW/CAS Event: Conniving and Surviving: Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, and 1930s Movies (Sept 26th,University of Glasgow)

Please join us for a joint Centre for American Studies/TLW talk on Wednesday 26 September 2018 at 5.15 at the University of Glasgow.

Our speaker is Professor Donna M. Campbell (Washington State University) who will be discussing “conniving and surviving” women in 1930s movies. Full details below. The talk will take place in room 202, 4 University Gardens at 5.15, with wine, soft drinks and snacks available from 5. This is a free event, generously supported by a BAAS/US Embassy Small Programme Grant. Everyone welcome!

Conniving and Surviving: Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, and 1930s Movies

Donna M. Campbell (Washington State University)

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Since their beginnings in the early 1900s, mainstream Hollywood movies have been a perennially faithful barometer of gender norms and expectations for women, both reflecting and shaping the attitudes of U. S. culture as a whole. By the early 1930s, the vamps, flappers, and vixens of the 1920s began to fade from the screen along with the cult of youth and exuberant sexuality that pervaded movies such as It, Flaming Youth, and Our Dancing Daughters. In their place were women, no longer “girls,” whose response to the catastrophic economic times of the Great Depression was to seize control of their lives and bodies by any means necessary, from the canny conniving, played for humor, of the golddigger to the intense, driven women fighting for survival played by two leading actresses at Warner Brothers, Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis.

Stanwyck’s and Davis’s careers spanned the early years of sound film through the television miniseries, yet in their career peak of the 1930s and 1940s, they epitomized women who would do whatever it took to survive in films such asBaby Face, Jezebel, and Double Indemnity as well as adaptations of fiction by writers such as Edna Ferber (So Big), Edith Wharton (The Old Maid), and Willa Cather (A Lost Lady). Their characters operating in survival mode mirrored the desperation of the real women who flocked to see the movies of Stanwyck and Davis, offering extreme solutions but also a sense of self-worth that countered cultural anxieties during the worst economic era of the twentieth century.

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Donna M. Campbell is a professor of English at Washington State University. Her most recent book is Bitter Tastes: Literary Naturalism and Early Cinema in American Women’s Writing (University of Georgia Press, 2016), and her work on women writers and on film has appeared in Legacy, Journal of Popular Culture, Studies in American Fiction, American Literary Realism, Edith Wharton in Context, Edith Wharton and Cosmopolitanism, and The Cambridge History of the American Novel. Her current projects include a critical edition of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth in the 30-volume Oxford University Press edition of the Complete Works of Edith Wharton, a series for which she is associate editor.

 

Marine: Angela Carter and America

Hello all!

I am a PhD student at Cardiff University, proudly representing TLW in Wales. My research focuses mostly on the portrayal of objects and materiality in the work of Angela Carter. Naturally I couldn’t miss an opportunity to talk a bit more about her. While my research doesn’t directly concern itself with transatlanticism, it is worth looking at Carter for an example of a British writer’s critique of America.

If you’ve been one of our attendees from year 1, you’ll know that we invited Dr Heidi Yeandle (Swansea University) to tell us about her research into Carter’s portrayal of America. The case for reading her work in a transatlantic light is therefore a well established one, with researchers like Yeandle, but also Sarah Gamble, and Edmund Gordon’s recent biography. Carter’s relationship to the continent was a fraught one on multiple emotional, cultural, and political levels. Her first experience of America was a trip to the ‘US of A’ after she’d won the Somerset Maugham literary Award for her novel Several Perceptions (1968). Then accompanied by her first husband Paul Carter, she took a road trip around the country before embarking on a plane to Japan. A month there led to some drastic changes: she left Paul and filed for divorce, and what was supposed to be a short stay became a 2-year long expatriation that lasted until 1972. While her trip to America was comparatively shorter and less eventful, Carter still acknowledges its effect on her imagination in the essay ‘My Maugham Award’ she wrote in 1970:

‘In America, I saw a great many hallucinatory midnight bus stations and lived in a log cabin in a redwood forest for a while. I heard the windbells of San Francisco and the picturesque cries of the street traders of the Haight-Ashbury quarter … ‘hash … lids … grass’ I made a sentimental journey to the jazz museum in New Orleans and looked at a glass case containing Bix Beiderbecke’s collar studs and handkerchief through a mist of tears. […]’[1]

The enumeration goes on. Carter compares the effect of the travels she undertook around that time with an ‘enormous barrage of imagery’ (204). Indeed, her writings bear the mark of an American inspiration, particularly her novel The Passion of New Eve (1977), set in the USA, and replete with allusions to Hollywood and the cinema industry. In addition, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972) takes place in an imagined South America – a homage to the continent of Magical Realism and Borges, who Carter had started reading while travelling in Asia.[2]

When she returned to America more than a decade later, Carter’s career had blossomed. She had published her novels The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972) and The Passion of New Eve (1977), and the short story collections Fireworks (1974) and The Bloody Chamber (1979). In her polemical essay The Sadeian Woman, she had put forward radical ideas about the politics of sex, pornography, and pleasure. During the 1980s, Carter lived in the USA three times in total: in 1980, as a teaching fellow at Brown University; in 1985, for a similar position at the University of Texas, Austin; and in 1986, to work at the Writers’ Workshop of the University of Iowa.[3] Unsurprisingly, her journals from the decade testify to her growing interest in American history, but also in contemporary American culture, with topics ranging from snake fights (yes, yes) to urbanism – on a random note, she took extended notes on the malls she visited there. Nevertheless, Carter remained very ambivalent in her assessment of her temporary home country. Her notes from that time reveal her frustration:

‘It’s a culture so entirely without sensuality that I find it very difficult to work here. It’s not something I can talk to Americans about, either; the sensuous apprehension of the world was written out of the script very, very early on.’[4]

The short stories that she wrote during the decade, later anthologised in Black Venus (1984) and the posthumous Old World Wonders and American Ghosts (1992) show Carter working out her frustration with the American ‘script’ by exploring foundational myths. Carter’s America, home to Edgar Allan Poe, Lizzie Borden, Cotton Mather and John Ford, is a ghostly land, haunted by puritanism, violence, and repressed European paganism. It is also a colonised land, and the figure of the Native American appears in various guises throughout the collections. To conclude this (very) short introduction to Carter’s transatlantic aesthetics, I will leave you with her own depiction of the American continent, taken from the story ‘John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore”:

America begins and ends in the cold and solitude. Up here, she pillows her head upon the Arctic snow. Down there, she dips her feet in the chilly waters of the South Atlantic, home of the perpetually restless albatross. America, with her torso of a woman at the time of this story, a woman with an hour-glass waist, a waist laced so tightly it snapped in two, and we put a belt of water there. America, with your child-bearing hips and your crotch of jungle, your swelling bosom of a nursing mother and your cold head, your cold head.

Its central paradox resides in this: that the top half doesn’t know what the bottom half is doing.[5]

Marine.

[1] Angela Carter, Shaking a Leg: Collected Writings, ed. by Jenny Uglow (London: Penguin Books, 1998), p. 203.

[2] Edmund Gordon, The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography (London: Chatto & Windus, 2016), p. 143.

[3] See Edmund Gordon, The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography (London: Chatto & Windus, 2016), for a detailed chronology.

[4] Cited in Gordon, p. 314.

[5] Angela Carter, American Ghosts & Old World Wonders (Random House, 2012), p. 21.

Get to know the TLW team: Kari and the Hollywood Novel

Hello everyone! Over the summer, each member of the TLW team will be writing a post to tell you a little bit about what they’re reading and researching at the moment. Today it’s our resident film buff, Kari Sund!

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I hope you’re all having a great summer and that everyone has had the chance to enjoy the rare Scottish sunshine! My reading is strictly taking place outdoors now (even in rain – I’m stubborn!) so I thought I would focus this blog post on one of the novels I’ve been reading over the last few weeks, Dorothy B. Hughes’ In A Lonely Place (1949). I’ve just re-read this thrilling American crime novel, and I’m hoping that a small taster will convince anyone who hasn’t encountered it before to give it a read.

In a Lonely Place is both a fitting and an unconventional summer read. It’s set in sunny Los Angeles in the 1940s, and the location plays an important role as we follow the main character, Dix Steele, driving around Hollywood, Beverley Hills, and other well-known West Coast locations. We find out very early in the novel, however, that Dix is a serial killer, and many of these routes are the same ones which he uses at night to stalk his victims before raping and murdering them. What might initially be perceived as a sunny and glamorous setting for a novel quickly becomes an extremely dark and disturbing place.

Dix Steele is an ex-World War II fighter pilot. He is originally from the East coast, was based in England during the war, and now lives in Los Angeles. The opening chapter sets the scene for the rest of the novel: Dix reconnects with Brub, his wartime best friend who is now a detective in the LAPD, and he stalks two girls through the dark streets of the city, murdering one of them. He also bumps into his stunning neighbour Laurel Gray, for the first time, immediately falling for her. The rest of the novel follows Dix’s inner narrative as he juggles his secret life as a serial killer, with the seemingly normal persona of a young man falling in love with a girl, and socialising with his best friend.

What seems like love to the outsider, is arguably a desire to possess and control a woman who commands more respect than him. This is obvious from the first time Dix meets Laurel;

“The girl didn’t move for a moment. She stood in his way and looked him over slowly, from crown to toe. The way a man looked over a woman, not the reverse. Her eyes were slant, her lashes curved long and golden dark. She had red-gold hair, flaming hair, flung back from her amber face, falling to her shoulders. Her mouth was too heavy with lipstick, a copper-red mouth, a sultry mouth painted to call attention to its promise.” (21)

It is evident that gender roles are being reversed in this encounter with Laurel, and Dix’s overbearing need to possess her after this is akin to his urge to kill. It is this element of Hughes’ writing which lead to it being interpreted as a feminist story.

Hughes makes no secret throughout the novel that Dix and “the strangler” are one and the same. Many critics have remarked on the nature of the novel as “less a “whodunit” than what we might term a “whydunnit”” (Telotte). I found, rather, that the pleasure in reading this novel came from the experience of piecing together Dix’s history of murder as he gradually unfolds past events to us. It’s like being in a police interview room and hearing a confession, not necessarily of why a man has killed – because Dix never directly reveals this – but of when and how he has killed, and then being able to draw our own conclusions about why.

Some readers may be familiar with the 1950 film-adaptation of the novel, which diverges from Hughes’ storyline in interesting ways. In Nicholas Ray’s film, the viewer is left in suspense about whether Dix is the serial-killer until the very last scene. Though the movie-version of Dix (appropriately played by Humphrey Bogart) is a flawed man with severe anger issues, he is ultimately **!spoiler warning!** innocent of murder. On first watching the film, I assumed that the reason for this change was due to the Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code. The Hays Code laid out industry moral guidelines which American-produced movies had to adhere to. These guidelines dictated what could and could not be depicted on screen. Amongst the many topics prohibited were miscegenation, sex, drug use, and it was also not permitted to show or encourage sympathy for a criminal. This meant that the hero of a film could not be allowed to get away with a crime, especially not murder! The impact that the Hays Code had on scriptwriting, adaptation, and film production during this era was huge, so it was surprising to learn that this plot divergence was completely unrelated, and a directorial preference. In Film Noir, Alain Silver advises that the original script saw Dix trying to strangle Laurel, and claims that it was Ray’s decision to change this, with Ray allegedly saying “I just can’t do it. Romances don’t have to end that way . . . They don’t have to end in violence” (474).

I’m not going to try and argue that this novel is overly transatlantic, but there are definitely aspects of relevance which struck me. The war preoccupies much of Dix’s thoughts and memories, and Hughes juxtaposes the overseas experiences of men like Dix and Brub, who have both killed in a way which was accepted and unquestioned by society, with the difficulty that they often experienced trying to integrate back into “normal” society and behaviour. Furthermore, as we see with Dix, many men experienced a completely different quality of life during the war. Dix reminisces about the days when he was a well-dressed hero who commanded respect regardless of what his social background was. When he returns home, he struggles to move back into the social class he belongs to. Though he is not poor, he is also not wealthy, and is required to work for a living. As an alternative to this, Dix prefers to scrounge off a comfortable uncle under the pretence that he writing a book, all the while longing to have the leisure-class lifestyle which he constantly sees promoted around him in California. By basing Dix in England during the war, Hughes makes the chasm between these two lives even more pronounced. The men’s time in the air force seems completely disconnected from their lives at home in America, and they know very little about each other.

If you have an interest in crime, detective, Los Angeles, or Hollywood fiction then I would highly recommend In A Lonely Place. Not only was it a gripping page-turner on the first reading, but like all my favourite works of literature, it was even better on a second reading. When we think of American crime fiction, we tend to automatically think of authors such as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and the hard-boiled style. It’s certainly not a genre often associated with women writers, but Hughes’ work stands at the top for me.

Though quite different from the novel, the film adaptation is also fantastic, and now regarded as a classic film noir. If you are interested in seeing it on the big screen, then the Glasgow Film Theatre have screened it around November-time for the last two years, so do keep your eyes peeled if you think it’s something you might enjoy!

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Next week we’ll be introducing one of our new committee members, so stay tuned!

 

Additional reading:

You can read a free excerpt from In A Lonely Place here.

I also enjoyed this take on the novel as a feminist story, from Glasgow Women’s Library.

 References:

Telotte, J. P., ‘The Displaced Voice of “In A Lonely Place”’ in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 54, No. 1 (Jan 1989), pp. 1-12.

Silver, Alain, James Ursini et al. Film Noir. Ed. Paul Duncan & Jürgen Müller. Taschen, 2012.