"Trying the Dark: Mammoth Cave and the Racial Imagination, 1839-1869"
Created and maintained Peter West and Southern Spaces.
In this digital article, Adelphi University English professor Peter West applies literary analysis to a corpus of texts to examine "the way that the mid-nineteenth-century consciousness witnessed and imagined Mammoth Cave as a racial, sexual, regional, and national space." Published in the online interdisciplinary journal, Southern Spaces, "Trying the Dark: Mammoth Cave and the Racial Imagination, 1839-1869" takes advantage of a few of the presentational benefits of the digital medium, however, it fails to fully realize its potential as digital scholarship. Nevertheless, West's analysis is thorough and thought-provoking, and will be of interest to literary and cultural scholars of the American South.
The structure of the article is clear and easily navigable. Broken down into sections at the start of the narrative, the title of each portion of the article appears as a hyperlink, allowing the reader to choose how they read the text. Every section presents a different interpretive framework through which West explains the central-Kentucky Mammoth Caves and is fashioned so that theoretically, each may be read on its own. However, the Introduction naturally alerts readers to the significance of the caves and the sources from which West draws. Additionally, certain names and documents are used throughout the essay, so for continuity's sake, the article is best read in a linear fashion.
As the article's title suggests, the predominant theme to West's argument is the racial ideology that pervades the imaginations of mid-nineteenth-century whites and influenced their interactions with and understandings of the Mammoth Caves. He explores this concept by examining the Caves in different contexts—as a theatrical environment, a paradox of slave authority and subjection, a trial of white masculinity, and a literary invention. In each instance, West demonstrates how white visitors and authors experienced and re-imagined the Mammoth Caves in racialized terms, reaffirming their superior status as whites, despite submitting to the authority of the enslaved cave guides on whom they relied for guidance and safety. The strongest part of his argument is his analysis of the Mammoth Caves as a device of fiction. Analyzing a number of texts, West recounts how authors used fictional narratives—from mock-science to gothic novels—to bestow upon the Caves larger significance as reflections of the tumultuous racial and sectional dilemmas plaguing the nation.
Various photographs and document scans appear sporadically throughout the article. These illustrations add little to West's argument, but are interesting additions nonetheless. Clicking on the images enlarges them slightly, however, not large enough to make careful examination of the documents as primary sources. This critique may be for the publishing journal rather than the article's author, nevertheless, it is a notable disappointment for a work of digital scholarship. One remedy for this situation would be to take advantage of the imaging tool Zoomify, which presently offers users greater interactivity with images on the web by allowing them to zoom in closely for greater examination. It is in this interactive capacity that West's digital article is lacking.
While the mechanics of an essay on Southern Spaces dictate conformity to a specific form, there are means through which to capitalize more fully on the digital medium. For example, the archive from which West draws his research contains travelogues, letters, poems, and stories that feature the Mammoth Caves. These texts are merely cited in his Notes, despite the fact that many are available via Google e-Book. What makes this issue even more perplexing is the fact that West does provide two links to Google Books within the essay, linking to a referenced collection of poetry and a gothic novel. But by failing to do likewise to the rest of his sources, he misses an opportunity to link to the pages of each citation, allowing the reader to examine and interact with the source for his or herself. Despite this oversight, West does endeavor to utilize hyperlinks to his advantage. Various individuals and terminology are linked to external websites such as Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica to allow readers to clarify their knowledge, if needed. While this is a helpful trait and shows West's understanding of the merits of hypertext, it could prove to be problematic should these external websites move or disappear entirely. Another more reliable—and scholarly—solution would be for West to have created his own reference section to refer readers to via hypertext in the same way he directed them to external sites.
Nowhere in the article does West reveal his research methodology, so it is unclear whether or not he used any digital tools to aid him as he ploughed through his archive. Many tools of analysis exist which provide visualizations of texts and help researchers mine them for data with unparalleled speed and ease. Allowing readers of the essay access to such analysis tools or their findings and visualizations is another feature that would have added greatly to this article's merits as a work of digital scholarship.
The simplicity of this digital article leaves it open to readers of many backgrounds—from scholars of nineteenth-century literature to students of the South, whether proficient in technology or not. While West could have taken further advantage of the digital medium, "Trying the Dark: Mammoth Cave and the Racial Imagination, 1839-1869" fits soundly within the audience and mission of Southern Spaces and shows how digital technologies are compatible with even the most traditional academic scholarship.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Reviewed: February 2011