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.
But the rupture cannot be undone. Patrik Keim has attempted to surface, and the distinct times and places of Shelton’s life and deaths conflate. The North Sea touches Alabama. Shelton wanders, surveys and maps this haunted geography.
The book is also an extended meditation on Marx’s evocative bundle of ideas he called fetishism of commodities. I understand it as the human life embodied in all things touched by human hands. With careful attention and open heart, Shelton describes objects in his life: an old edition of a Xenophon’s Anabasis with a slip inside on which his grandmother listed all the apostles and the way each was martyred; wood from the family barn; a child’s writing desk; pieces of Keim’s art.
Some of his most stunning pieces, like Utopia: Termite Season were unsellable. Patrick turned a room in the student union into a gigantic termite mound with stacks of paper, paper tunnels and scratchlike markings on the wall. These were meant, no doubt, to simulate the gnawing that haunted him. He had assembled a live model of the superorganism. This piece and others like it were experiences lasting no more than hours before the university would shut them down as hazards.
Shelton’s writing evokes the tenderness of James Agee’s loving descriptions, the pathos in the grain of an old plank. This moved me to consider the bottomless semantic depths of my own stuff—the junk on my desk, objects from childhood, worn clothes I can’t discard, my mother’s hairbrush, a bottle containing pebbles from every where I’ve lived and almost every country I’ve visited.
Anthropologists call all this material culture, a sadly denatured reference to the spaces we construct, the landscapes we reshape, the objects we fashion—nature’s substances we claim as our own and compel by work, art and industry to serve our needs. We force raw earth to change shape, to show us the universe and blind us to it, to keep our secrets and reveal them, to serve our pleasures and terrorize our neighbors. If we listen, every artifact sings us one of the songs of Zion. Shelton’s book is a full Greek chorus.
Proust, reaching into what some call romantic racial memory, opens the little madeleine story:
I feel there is much to be said for the Celtic belief that the souls of those whom we have lost are held captive in some inferior being, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate object, and so effectively lost to us until the day (which to many never comes) when we happen to pass by the tree or to obtain possession of the object which forms their prison. Then they start and tremble, they call us by our name, and as soon as we have recognised their voice the spell is broken. We have delivered them: they have overcome death and return to share our life.
Things and memories remain discrete as they enter Shelton’s story. In close contact, they play with and against each other, spinning webs of crisscross meanings. Readers have little choice but to spin webs along in tandem. My futile effort to grasp and voice Shelton’s narrative complexity brews in me a deep doubt. Does the social science’s insistence on abstraction and generalization drain from human being its human meaning?
Every day in the classroom I occupy this irony.
Sociology was born of death. Suicide provoked the first empirical sociological examination. Émile Durkheim’s landmark research made numbers of deaths the object of study—though not Patrik Keim’s or any other individual’s self-sacrifice. Hailed as the first work of empirical sociology, Durkheim’s research earned sociology a place in the French Academy and launched scientific sociology into the 20th century. Each scientific achievement distanced sociologists from those who create fiction. (Of course, one could argue that sociology itself is itself fiction, but we won’t go there.)
In the classroom, many times after presenting instructions for an essay or project, a student’s hand goes up, “Can I be creative?”
“Sure,” I respond, only to receive an essay in which I find nothing that resembles creativity. I have come to realize students really ask, “Can I ignore these instructions?” I now respond, “Yes, I expect you to be creative.” And then I provoke conversation about the creative value of working within constraints, imposed by circumstance or ourselves. I want students to discover writing is thinking, a way to discover one’s own insights, a special kind of talking to oneself. Allen Shelton masterfully does all this.
I am soon vacating an office I have occupied for 25 years, an office with five file cabinets, overflowing bookcases, and a window owned by a cactus. I started it 35 years ago. While visiting one of my first student’s grandmothers at her home in Jacksonville, Alabama, I admired the cactus dignifying the backdoor stoop. Plucking a four inch segment, she suggested “Stick it in a pot.”
While dumping a file cabinet, I noticed a paper from Freshman English, a course I only remember because our instructor opened class one day with news the president had been shot in Dallas. An in-class exercise, the little essay answered the instructor’s prompt to write about the act of writing. To my surprise I had penned a very short story about an anthropologist who discovered a pre-human fossil that would surely shatter paleontology’s neatly ordered genealogy. Worry soon replaced celebration. Could the scientist write well enough to publish his findings?
That I didn’t major in anthropology for several years later suggests that if I had only listened to my writing, I would have graduated earlier. I had written a first-person narrative. It yanked me back to a writer I had forgotten. Seven years of higher education buried the narrative writer under stacks of pages packed with third person, passive-voiced jargon bearing no scent of metaphor, similes, personification or dreaded anthropomorphism. I was taught, or taught myself, that objective science requires objective writing. Shelton writes literary and intellectual freedom into being. His constraints only expand his creativity.
Where the North Sea Touches Alabama is a gripping story, a memoir of sorts, a retrospective critique of an artist’s work, a requiem with no choral amen, a ghost story, an unnerving mystery sans solution, a chronicle of “the not quite dead” and, along with all this, a sociological treatise.
Shelton is a genuine craftsman. His prose glows like glass pulled from the furnace. This reader couldn’t watch from a safe, inflammable distance. By the end, Shelton became my significant other. Experience, knowledge, labored thought and honesty—what a generous gift he offers the humble reader.
Daryl White is a Professor of Anthropology at Spelman College in Atlanta. He chairs the Department of Sociology & Anthropology and co-directs Spelman’s new interdisciplinary minor in Food Studies. He’s a coordinator and juror of the Southern Anthropological Society’s annual James Mooney Book Award, honoring the best anthropological book about the American South and all things Southern.