My inner Walter Mitty belongs to a small collective of social science writers.
We call ourselves the Professors Higgin. We commiserate, critique and urge each other to confess our literary sins, our endless little murders of the English tongue. We comprise a teacher, a pragmatist, a printmaker, a contrarian, a recovering atheist, an agnostic, a believer with no object of belief, a jaded millenarian, a Luddite, a backsliding Marxist and, depending on academic circumstances, either an anthropologist or a sociologist—an erstwhile Whitman’s Sampler.
We help each other, endlessly contradict, chide, commiserate and condemn colleagues’ writing. We laugh at our phobias, strain for 12-step clarity and all too rarely acknowledge the debt we owe our students. With ease, we blame them for our petty insanities, resent their ability to absorb our time and in the end know our better selves in their reflections.
We read Where the North Sea Touches Alabama in sustained awe. Inspired. Heartened. Daunted.
Buffalo-based associate professor Allen Shelton’s second book narrates the author’s friendship with Athens, Georgia, artist Patrik Keim. Keim killed himself, yet he remains alive or at least “not quite dead,” and a mysteriously active part of the Alabama-raised sociologist’s life. Unlikely close friends, their differences vast, Shelton and Keim met while graduate students in the Athens of REM and the B-52’s in the 1980s. Shelton pursued a Ph.D., Keim an M.F.A.
The genesis story goes like this: Walking past a gallery one evening on his way to the office, Shelton impulsively wandered into an art show, talked briefly with the artist, then continued on his way. Several years of deepening friendship later, Shelton wrote a preface for Keim’s thesis, collected his degree, and left the University of Georgia to wander the vast wilderness of adjunct academia. Keim remained in Athens, where his lifelong wanderings ended in a sadly coherent sacrifice:
On a warm summer’s night in Athens, Georgia, Patrik Keim stuck a pistol into his mouth and pulled the trigger…. [T]he room in which he died was an assemblage of the tools of his particular trade: the floor and table were covered with images, while a pair of large scissors, glue, electrical tape, and some dentures shared space with a pile of old medical journals, butcher knives, and various other small objects. Keim had cleared a space on the floor, and the wall directly behind him was bare. His body completed the tableau.
Sociology touches fine arts in this remembrance. “Reading this book and thinking it fiction,” writes a reviewer on the book’s back cover, “I came, reluctantly, to see that it is not. The import of that sentiment eludes me as I continue to read this settling, unsettling book.”
Most sociologists I know, expecting sociology as they know it, would ask “Where’s the sociology?” put the book away or move it to their fiction file. (If they have one.) Not a few might slam it down cursing bleep bleep post-modernism.
What would a sociologist make of this snapshot from the book?
The deepest hole I ever dug was four feet. It was my grandmother Pearl’s grave. I’d never dug a human’s grave. I was born too late to learn that skill. I had buried animals, dug ditches and planted trees. These were related skills, but a grave required a new set of abilities. I’d never gone that deep.
Every semester, I teach a course in qualitative research methods. Revealing this at a dinner party or art opening invariably prompts sympathy, no response at all or variations on “Yuck! That was the worst course I ever had.”
Teaching what students dread and remember in anger robs my equilibrium. I tell students qualitative methods happen to be about stories, not numbers and measurements. And who doesn’t love a story and need one—many—daily? I merely teach ways to collect people’s stories, how to observe everyday life and narrate the encounter, and ways to discover stories “contained” in every human communication medium, from movies and tweets to objects of material culture, cars to casseroles.
Hearing this, students perk up. Momentarily. I continue in the liberal arts college spirit and urge students, “Bring to our class discussion and your research planning the skills you developed in English, literature and art classes.”
Hearing this, spirits deflate. Although some take to the freedom in narrative research methods, many students can’t give up the security they find in objective hypotheses, measured variables and reassuring numbers.
“How can we be objective about ourselves?” I argue. “How can anyone?”
Today in the wake of so-called identity studies, we sociologists and anthropologists expect each other to write ourselves into our research. We reveal our social addresses, identify our perspectives, and justify our intent. Sociologists and women’s studies scholars call it standpoint theory. No more pretense of the all-seeing-eye. No more fly on the wall invisibility.
Shelton brilliantly transcends these dilemmas, turning objective sociology inside out by making himself both subject and object. The book may be read as a crazy academic’s autobiography, but Shelton also writes stealth sociology. In fact, sociology is the underground river that runs through the book from beginning to end.
Shelton occasionally invites novelists, critics and social theorists to speak for themselves. Their appearances are not the scholastic hamburger helper that extends so much academic prose. Walter Benjamin, Marx, Freud, Darwin and others show up simply because they have something to say. They have been talking to Shelton for a long time. Disembodied scholastic ideas don’t descend from the sky in order to confirm Shelton’s academic creds. They enter his story as companions and bring their experiences with them. Their visits continue, some at great length, in Shelton’s copious endnotes that make up a full third of the text. As a footnote aficionado, I enjoyed following each tale to its filigreed tip.
Where the North Sea Touches Alabama cannot be read the same way twice, nor in any particular way by two individuals. Its overwhelming ambiguities intensify Shelton’s efforts to dwell with death. The narrative demands emotional attention. It compelled me to bring along the deaths whittling my own immediate family down to a few twigs. To comprehend the liminal zone separating and connecting life and death, Shelton draws together pieces of his life that all of us often regard: isolated memories, events, places and objects, big events, and little details too.
Separate deaths mysteriously crash together when, years after Keim’s suicide, the artist reappears. Sort of. In the northeast Alabama valley where three generations of Sheltons lived and died, a bulldozer excavating a reservoir across the road from the Shelton farm frees an old casket from wet ground. Afraid to stir the dead, the operator looks in the casket and quickly reburies it.