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A Road Course in Early American Literature: Travel and Teaching from Atzlán to Amherst

A Road Course in Early American Literature: Travel and Teaching from Atzlán to Amherst

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A Road Course in Early American Literature: Travel and Teaching from Atzlán to Amherst

387 pages
5 hours
Feb 23, 2021


A Road Course in Early American Literature: Travel and Teaching from Atzlán to Amherst explores a two-part question: what does travel teach us about literature, and how can reading guide us to a deeper understanding of place and identity? Thomas Hallock charts a teacher’s journey to answering these questions, framing personal experiences around the continued need for a survey course covering early American literature up to the mid-nineteenth century.
Hallock approaches literary study from the overlapping perspectives of pedagogue, scholar, unrepentant tourist, husband, father, friend, and son. Building on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s premise that there is “creative reading as well as creative writing,” Hallock turns to the vibrant and accessible tradition of American travel writing, employing the form of biblio-memoir to bridge the impasse between public and academic discourse and reintroduce the dynamic field of early American literature to wider audiences.
Hallock’s own road course begins and ends at the Lowcountry of Georgia and South Carolina, following a circular structure of reflection. He weaves his journey through a wide swath of American literatures and authors: from Native American and African American oral traditions, to Wheatley and Equiano, through Emerson, Poe, and Dickinson, among others. A series of longer, place-oriented narratives explore familiar and lesser-known literary works from the sixteenth-century invasion of Florida through the Mexican War of 1846–1848 and the American Civil War. Shorter chapters bridge the book’s central themes—the mapping of cognitive and physical space, our personal stake in reading, the tensions that follow earlier acts of erasure, and the impossibility of ever fully shutting out the past.
Exploring complex cultural histories and contemporary landscapes filled with ghosts and new voices, this volume draws inspiration from a tradition of travel, place-oriented, and literature-based works ranging from William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road to Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, Wendy Lesser’s Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books, and Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch.
An accompanying bibliographic essay is periodically updated and available at Hallock’s website: www.roadcourse.us.
Feb 23, 2021

Despre autor

Thomas Hallock is assistant professor of English at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

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A Road Course in Early American Literature - Thomas Hallock



Travel and Teaching from Atzlán to Amherst




The University of Alabama Press

Tuscaloosa, Alabama 35487-0380


Copyright © 2021 by the University of Alabama Press

All rights reserved.

Inquiries about reproducing material from this work should be addressed to the University of Alabama Press.

Typeface: Adobe Caslon Pro

Cover design: Lori D. Lynch

Cataloging-in-Publication data is available from the Library of Congress.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-2083-6

E-ISBN: 978-0-8173-9340-3

for Julie & Zack

are we we are, are we we are the waiting, unknown?

FRONTISPIECE. A Road Course in Early American Literature, a geographic guide by chapter number. (Map by Brad Sanders)



Commonplace Book

Preface: Starting from Igbo Landing

Introduction: Searching for Solomons Store

1. Shell Mounds and Indianness

2. Into the Swamp with El Inca Garcilaso; or, the Ghost of the Two Body Problem

3. A Walk in Penn’s Woods

4. Coyote and the Kid

5. Wheatley in Flight

6. Root

7. A Raven and Three Crows

8. Oro de Oaxaca

9. A Is for Acronym

10. Emerson on the Hutch

11. Mary Rowlandson’s War on Terror

Coda: Emily Dickinson’s Ring Shout






Frontispiece. A Road Course in Early American Literature, geographic guide.

1. Floyd White. Photograph by Orrin Sage Wightman, from Margaret Davis Cate and Wightman, Early Days of Coastal Georgia.

2. Africans in flight, artwork from the cover of Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon.

3. Solomons Store, in its first and second incarnations, outside Charlottesville and Richmond, Virginia. Based on 1996 and 2019 Rand McNally atlases.

4. Henry D. Pursell, A Map of the United States . . . in Bailey’s Pocket Atlas . . . for the year of our Lord 1786.

5. Watercolor portrait of Meriwether Lewis in frontiersman’s regalia, by Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin, 1806–1807.

6. Terrorist Hunting Permit, decal and magnet, commonly reproduced after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

7. Manuscript map of shell heaps, or middens, in the early Tampa Bay area. From S. T. Walker, Preliminary Explorations among the Indian Mounds in Southern Florida, Smithsonian Institution Annual Report, 1879.

8. Hypothetical Route of the Hernando de Soto Expedition, from the Final Report of the National Parks Service, De Soto Trail Study Act of 1987 (1990).

9. Map of the Walking Purchase, from William W. H. Davis, History of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, 1905.

10. Nicholas Scull, depiction of Philadelphia in 1762.

11. The Kid at the Dalles Dam, Oregon.

12. Frontispiece to Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), thought to be based on an image by Scipio Moorhead.

13. Frontispiece to The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, stipple engraving, by Daniel Orme after W. Denton (1789).

14. John James Audubon, American Crow (1833), hand-colored etching.

15. Priest seeking council with the god Huitzilopochtli, from the Tira de la Peregrinación (also known as the Códice Boturini), from the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City.

16. Tira de la Peregrinación, showing the arrival to Coatepec (or Coatlpetl, serpent hill).

17. Tira de la Peregrinación, showing Aztec-Mexica path to Chapultepec.

18. Scarlet A over Nathaniel Hawthorne’s grave in Concord, Massachusetts.

19. Microfilmed page from Mary Rowlandson’s Sovereignty and Goodness of God (1682).

20. Manuscript of Emily Dickinson’s I felt a Funeral, with variants.

21. Many Thousand Go, from Slave Songs of the United States (1867), edited by Lucy McKim Garrison, William Francis Allen, and Charles Pickard Ware.


Nican ompehua in ohtli [Here begins the road].

Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca, quoted in The

Road to Atzlán: Art from a Mythic Homeland,

Los Angeles County Museum of Art

"I came to explore the wreck.

The words are purposes.

The words are maps."

—Adrienne Rich, Diving into the Wreck

The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself and will explain your other genuine actions.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance

My body floats between contrary equilibriums.

—Federico García Lorca, Poema doble del lago Eden

It is not down in any map; true places never are.

—Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

Space that has been seized upon by the imagination cannot remain indifferent space subject to the measures and estimates of the surveyor.

—Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

"Fluctibus et fremitu assurgens Bernace marino. This is the first line of Latin verse the subject of which I have seen with my own eyes. Today when the wind is increasing in force and higher and higher waves are dashed against the landing place, the verse is as true as it was many centuries ago. So much has changed, but the wind still churns up the lake which a line of Virgil’s has ennobled to this day."

—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Italian Journey

And Travelling is foolish. We imagine that in Germany is the ailment which the mind seeks or in this reading or in that. But go to Germany & you shall not find it. They have sent it to America. It is not without but within: it is not in geography but in the soul.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals

Mr. Krab: Like they always say back in the Old Country, lad.

SpongeBob: What’s that?

Mr. Krab: I don’t know, I’ve never been to the Old Country.

SpongeBob SquarePants, Pets or Pests

When the Pilgrims first came to America, did they speak English or hadn’t the Bible been written yet?

—Mary Ann Gamblin (Julie’s mom)

"Before the wig and the dress coat

there were rivers, arterial rivers

there were cordilleras, jagged waves

where the condor and snow seemed immutable

there was dampness and dense growth, the thunder

as yet unnamed, the planetary pampas."

—Pablo Neruda, La Lámpara en La Tierra: Amor América (1400)

Contact! Contact!

—Henry David Thoreau, The Maine Woods

"Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition. The prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants. Los atravesados live here: the squint-eyed, the perverse, the queer, the troublesome, the mongrel, the mulato, the half-breed, the half dead; in short, those who cross over, pass over, or go through the confines of the ‘normal.’"

—Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza

The project of decolonization involves . . . a constant vigilance and a consistent transgression of the norms that facilitate, and control, the production of knowledge.

—Robert Young, White Mythologies (quoted in Anne Godlewska and Neil Smith, Geography and Empire)

The right words in the right places.

—John Stuart Mill, Inaugural Address: University of St. Andrews, Feb. 1, 1867

Poetry is a rival government always in opposition to its cruder replicas.

—William Carlos Williams, The Basis of Faith in Art

A morning-glory at my window satisfies me more than the metaphysics of books.

—Walt Whitman, quoted by one of my favorite students

Use Books as young swimmers use Bladders; the spirit of Grace will help thee beyond what thou wouldst think, and thereby thou wilt more sweetly tell God thy mind and therefore labour chiefly for a spirit of Grace.

—John Cotton, The Way of God’s Way and Course, in Bringing the Soule into Life and Peace, quoted in Andrew Delbanco, The Puritan Ordeal

My book should smell of pines and resound with the hum of insects.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance

I would hurl worlds into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for the life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.

—Richard Wright, Black Boy (American Hunger)

Language, for the individual consciousness, lies on the borderline between oneself and the other. The word in language is half someone else’s. It becomes ‘one’s own’ only when the speaker populates it with his own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention. Prior to this moment of appropriation, the word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language (it is not, after all, out of a dictionary that the speaker gets his words!), but rather it exists in other people’s mouths, in other people’s contexts, serving other people’s intentions: it is from there that one must take the word, and make it ‘one’s own.’

—Mikhail Bakhtin, quoted in Henry Louis Gates Jr., The Signifying Monkey

Writers have to push the limits that others want to impose. . . . [They should be] going to the frontiers and pushing outwards to increase the areas where the imagination can operate. People will not like that. But that’s the job of literature.

—Salman Rushdie, public lecture at the University of Mississippi, Oxford, January 30, 2006

But the important thing,’ Crispin leaned forward so that all could listen, ‘is to know how to interpret the signs. The legend renews itself with each generation, and we must know how to unravel the meaning of the sign—.

—Rudolfo Anaya, Heart of Atzlán (as quoted by Michael Pina)

The thin film of writing becomes a movement of strata, a play of spaces. A different world (the reader’s) slips into the author’s place.

—Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life

One need not deconstruct the entire scientific enterprise to know that the reconstruction of all archaeological societies is, at least in part, fiction.

—Esther Pasztory, Teotihuacan: An Experiment in Living

I want to draw a map, so to speak, of a critical geography and use that map to open as much space for discovery, intellectual adventure, and close exploration as did the original charting of the New World—without the mandate for conquest.

—Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark

To read and to journey are one and the same act.

—Michel Serres, quoted in Edward W. Soja, Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places

To be an academic is to study the strings that made Peter Pan fly.

—Russell D. Crumley, my late neighbor, writing partner and friend, in 2008

Critics are the priests of literature. How often, like other priests, they abuse their place and privilege, is but too obvious. They receive into their ranks the self-interested, the partisan, the lover of power, besides the stupid and frivolous; and thus the periodical literature of the day is in the rear, rather than in advance of the public mind.

—Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, "Nature—A Prose Poem"

Not imitation but evocation has been the goal.

—Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Suetyba chequy bohza umcubunuoa nga ys acubun ocasac umguaquyoa? [Have you spoken with any shaman and given credit to what he said?]

Diccionario y gramática chibcha: Manuscrito anonimo de la Biblioteca Nacional de Colombia

The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not. To ask questions of the universe, and then to learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity. But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it—at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.

—James Baldwin, A Talk to Teachers

"Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes it shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore. . . . It’s uh known fact, Pheoby, you got tuh go there tuh know there. Yo’ papa and yo’ mama and nobedy else can’t tell uh and show yuh. Two things everybody’s go tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves."

—Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Looking back is a bad habit.

—John Wayne, True Grit

And tell a good story when we got home.

—Gary Snyder, quoted in Greg Garrard, Ecocriticism

Da hama tcaitc [This is the way it happened.]

—Traditional Acoma (Hopi) closing


Starting from Igbo Landing

I probably should not have taken the water. Blame scholarly curiosity. In May 1803 a group of enslaved Eboes from present-day Nigeria jumped ship, here, from a crowded sloop into Dunbar Creek, a tidal inlet on the leeward side of St. Simons Island, off the Georgia coast. Written records conclude that the Ebo prisoners committed mass suicide by drowning, but oral traditions—which survive to this day—maintain that the waters connected the Africans to their ancestors, giving them the power to return home. Traditional beliefs, moreover, hold that after death one’s soul passes on, while the spirit remains with a place. I had no grasp of these theological nuances from earlier visits to St. Simons.

Feeling justified by the book I was writing, I asked my son, a little more than ten at the time, to dip a disposable bottle into the brackish low tide. He found a shallow pool in the muck and filled up the plastic bottle, which I took home for a souvenir—as white people are wont to do. The water sat near my desk through my sabbatical, on a windowsill, while I finished a draft of this manuscript. I talked to the spirits. I placed a cheap cigar by the window and promised to restore them on my next trip to St. Simons. Spring wheeled into summer; algae bloomed in the sealed bottle. The following fall, in a ceremony cut short by mosquitoes, I returned the spirits to their proper place.

No single answer explains what happened at Igbo Landing in 1803. There are as many accounts of the place as orthographies (Ebo, Ibo, Igbo, Eboes Landing). The spellings change with the many retellings. On paper the story looks like mass suicide. An exchange of letters, now at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, blames the loss on bad business practice. Suffering much by mismanagement, a slave trader wrote matter-of-factly, the Eboes took to the marsh. The death toll tallied ten to twelve captive Africans, a white overseer, and two sailors. Vernacular traditions, by contrast, emphasize spiritual crossing and political release. St. Simons native Annie Arnold (1847–1927) told the Quaker musicologist Lydia Parrish that the Eboes preferred death to a life in captivity and walked into the creek, singing the water will take us away. Many tellers spin the rebellion into a ghost story. The 1939 Georgia Guide introduces a Chief Ebo who led his people in tribal songs, then into the marsh. Later versions add an elaborate African backstory. Nearly every rendition includes this refrain: The water carried us here, the water will carry us away. Amateur folklorists from the Works Progress Administration cite these lines in Bantu:

Kum buba yali kum buba tambe,

Kum kunka yalki kum kunka tambe.

The passage by some reports translates to he is tricky, so I will win by being tricky too. Perhaps a joke on the prying interrogators? The story’s content and moral cargo continue to rock and shift over time. In recent retellings the Bantu chant has morphed into Oh Freedom (And before I’d be a slave), an anthem dateable to Reconstruction and made famous during civil rights struggles in Mississippi.¹

Who’s to say what I had in this bottle? Traveling into the past is tricky business. Igbo Landing registers a vexed dialogue about race in the United States, and the South especially, from the early national period to the present day. It is a local tale, with resonances far beyond coastal Georgia, exhibiting both slavery’s horror and Black creativity in response. For some area residents, the 1803 episode marks the beginning to a saga of heroic uplift and progress. For others, Dunbar Creek serves as the bitter reminder of a past that is not past. Marie Jackson Ryals of nearby Darien says that every time she crosses the causeway from sulfuric Brunswick, home to a Georgia-Pacific pulp mill, the song Oh Freedom leaps to mind. There’s not a day I go onto St. Simons, she says, I don’t think about how they did them people, did us.²

Did them, did us. Igbo Landing survives into the historical present, bypassing academic markers of periodization. The story’s long history matters. After circulating locally through the nineteenth century, the legend would enter the documentary record during the Great Depression, its preservation being partly a function of timing. In 1924 the Brunswick-St. Simons Causeway opened, linking once isolated groups to the outside world at a time when formerly enslaved Sea Islanders were still alive to share their folklore. A taste for the Black exotic led both professional and amateur anthropologists to seek out magical tales. The 1803 Igbo Landing story became a type specimen for the Flying African, and thus a prized scholarly catch for ethnographers. The story then took on a life of its own. Preserved in the semischolarly literature, disseminated through public works projects, the Igbo Landing story morphed with related archetypes. Eventually the site at Dunbar Creek came to stand as a shorthand for the Black diaspora. Poets, novelists, playwrights, journalists, activists, story tellers, jazz musicians, film makers, quilters, visual artists, and pop singers today use Igbo Landing as a touchstone—as a metonymic toponym, as a spatial part for the unspeakable whole.

What one claims to believe about the place has long stood as a measure of identity, a way of defining one’s position against the shifting tides of race relations in America. Heahd bout duh Ibo’s Landing, Floyd White remarked to a WPA field worker (figure 1). The transcript leaves unclear whether White was offering an affirmation or framing a question. Das duh place weah dey bring duh Ibos obuh in a slabe ship, he recounts; they staht singing and de mahch right down in duh ribbuh to mahch back tuh Africa. White adds that the Eboes never reach their homeland. They could not walk on water; Dey gits drown.³ The story confounds. Even as scholars cite Floyd White’s testimony as a definitive source on the Flying African, the text destabilizes. The interview, often misinterpreted, escapes one-sided readings. Igbo Landing more broadly is a parable that must be worked out individually, time and again. Operating on a continuum of connection and isolation, African American authors have turned to stories of Igbo Landing and the Flying African as catalysts for transformation. Paule Marshall incorporates the legend (along with a traditional ring shout and Caribbean drumming ceremony) into her 1983 quest novel Praisesong for the Widow. And Toni Morrison draws memorably from the Flying African in Song of Solomon. With characteristically precise chronology, Morrison sets the novel in 1963, the year Oh Freedom emerged as a civil rights battle cry. Milkman Dead, son of a realtor and slum lord in an industrial Ohio city, recovers the origins of a childhood song, pieces together his roots, then jumps off a Virginia cliff to his death—or does he fly away?

FIGURE 1. Floyd White. Photograph by Orrin Sage Wightman, from Cate and Wightman, Early Days of Coastal Georgia. In the same volume, Cate writes: Floyd’s name, ‘White’—which, perhaps, was wishful thinking—was typical of the way the Negroes of St. Simons found surnames for themselves after the War. In other parts of the South, the former slave took the name of the master, but here the Negroes found other names, seeming to feel that the name of the white man belonged to him alone. White’s pose, meanwhile, indicates an awareness of his gatekeeping role between Black knowledge and a white marketplace. The casual lean and confident cock of his brim (emphasizing the play between shadow and light) register his position as an ethnographic go-between. (Orrin Sage Wightman Estate)

We never know for sure. Igbo Landing speaks to the burden of a numbing past . . . and to the possibility of rebirth, through narrative. Born from alienation and death, the Flying African offers potential for spiritual-historical transcendence. Take Julius Lester’s 1969 People Who Could Fly, a source that some critics see as having inspired Morrison. Lester offers a quilted account, starting generally from several versions, then honing down to a specific setting and characters. In the broad opening, Lester describes how the Africans walked across the water, making it back home or drowning in the attempt—no one knows. . . . At least they were no longer slaves. The white man looked at each person as money for his pocket, not realizing that the cargoes of stolen people might include the occasional witch doctor—a medium to the gods. Lester then turns to South Carolina and his three main characters. One day, the story goes, a woman fainted in the Lowcountry heat. The white man (unnamed) cracked the whip, ordering the woman (also unnamed) back to work. The witch doctor whispered to her the secret word. She passed the secret on. Soon, everyone knew the signal. As the lash fell on his back, the witch doctor shouted: Now! Now! Everyone! The Africans dropped their hoes, straightened out their arms, and flew away, back to their home, back to Africa. The secret word has since been lost, Lester explains; no one now remembers the language to make people fly, he says in closing. But the possibility of a linguistic restoration still remains open. Who knows, Lester speculates, maybe one morning, someone will awake with a strange word on his tongue and, uttering it, we will all stretch out our arms and take to the air, leaving these blood-drenched fields of our misery behind.

FIGURE 2. Africans in flight, artwork designed for the cover of Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly, illustrated by the Caldecott Medal–winning team of Leo and Diane Dillon (Penguin Random House)

The story emphasizes the transformative power of a word, now lost yet open to recovery. When I teach the early American survey, a foundational course that I usually cover once a year, I start with differing versions of the Flying African. We read this myth alongside several other oral traditions. I give students selections from the WPA guides (where earnest white folklorists make a mess of Black southern dialects); I assign Julius Lester’s account, which students might know from Morrison; and in the style of a public library story hour, we share Virginia Hamilton’s children’s classic The People Could Fly. We read the text, gorgeously illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon, as a group (figure 2). Being left-handed, I can make words out upside down, so I walk around the room and let each student take in the pictures and text together. The different experiences of reading—privately, in scholar mode, collectively during story hour—prompt a discussion about the dynamics of delivery. How do the different versions of one story, each housed in its separate medium or home, work on us in different ways? With the Lester especially, I call attention to temporality. The witch doctor speaks a word that connects present and past. (Maybe one morning, someone will awake.) The legend leads me to an important point for the course: how a story provides a vessel into difficult legacies of violence, a heritage that many Americans may prefer to forget but that we all must sift through together. To engage the magic word, the witch doctor understands, the community moves as one. The witch doctor starts flying only after everybody knows the signal: Now! Now! Everyone!

Stories carry us into buried, forgotten, remarkable though-not-always-welcoming spaces. As names get relearned, we recover the effaced corners of a collective identity, and in a painful process of rediscovery, the individual might find a new self, within community. The survey in this way provides a vessel, giving us the container we need for the words to address otherwise glossed legacies of colonial and early national violence. Early American literature is special in this way: it wades into troubled waters, venturing where old wounds remain open. The literature offers case after case of voices translated across one boundary or another. Through this process of translation, or carrying across, we continue to negotiate individual and collective identities, weighing the past against a present-day America. Sometimes I believe in this alchemic magic, this intellectual flight we call reading; at other times, I must acknowledge that the translation is not so simple. In the context of the Julius Lester story, my closest ancestor is not the witch doctor but rather the man with the whip. My father’s maternal ancestors, the Bonneaus, were French Huguenots (Calvinists) who migrated to coastal South Carolina in the seventeenth or early eighteenth century. I once checked historic newspapers on the Bonneau family. The records turn up deadeningly predictable and unflattering accounts: slave bought and sold, slave bought and sold. When I read the Virginia Hamilton today, like children’s story hour, students may question my appropriation. But if I trespass, I do so by necessity; I try to be careful. All of us must cross a boundary to enter another’s space of memory. In physical places, we cannot hide. (A meeting of the Modern Language Association is not the same as taking a text into the world.) Experience, or reading on site, pries loose pretentions. I have never owned up to my students that my closest ancestor in the Lester story is probably the man with the whip. I suspect they already know.

If travel represents an attempt to engage with unfamiliar experience, then I hold onto the possibility of revising my old self. For almost three decades, I have been trying to wrap my own scholarly imagination around the Georgia Sea Islands. St. Simons occupies the heart of a long archipelago that arcs from north Florida into the Carolinas, traditional home to Gullah-Geechee cultures. The Georgia Sea Islands possess undeniable beauty. What tourist would turn away from gray-green Atlantic waters, waves curling down miles of pristine beach; sea fowl nesting in the untouched twenty-foot dunes; spikey saw palmetto and resurrection fern punctuating old-growth live oaks, with Spanish moss swaying in a silken breeze; or the chest-high spartina on the leeward shores, burnishing the muck and lending this area its nickname of the Golden Isles? Any fool can wax romantic here. But there is blood in the romance. The Sea Islands possess distinct and varied cultures, forged from slavery. For centuries families lived here in isolation, apart from the mainland, preserving traditions carried over from Africa. When a long-fibered strain of cotton was found to suit the climate and soil, plantations thrived. Enslaved Sea Islanders worked under the task system, a bondage that allotted certain chores (one task being a quarter acre) each day. When the work was done, island inhabitants were left to fish, farm, or hunt on their own. The upside, if slavery can have an upside, was that independence fostered cultural continuity. Traditions stuck, where elsewhere they vanished. Gullah-Geechee speech, music, worship, storytelling, housekeeping, foodways, burial practices, and dance have survived. Somewhat.

Having fought back slavery and Jim Crow, Sea Islanders now face the threat of tourism. Black-owned coastal properties are in demand. Many families hold collective deeds, dating back to Reconstruction, that can be dissolved with the buyout of one stray northern cousin. Up and down the coast, investors have exploited the fragility of communally held titles. Some island economies have changed radically, others less so. Hilton

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