A hardwired fear of snakes reported–in 1896. Harold Frederic’s The Damnation of Theron Ware

The Los Angeles Times and other news outlets report that the brains of Japanese macaques (and possibly human beings) may be hard-wired to fear snakes

The results, published online Monday in the journalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, appear to support a theory that early primates developed advanced perception as an evolutionary response to being prey, not as an adaptation that may have made foraging or hunting easier.

Though fear of snakes may not be innate, noticing them more than other phenomena may be hard-wired by evolution, said Lynne Isbell, an evolutionary biologist fromUC Davis and one of the authors of the paper. That heightened attention, research has shown, can lead to early and resilient learned behavior, such as fear-mediated avoidance. In other words, getting out of the way of snakes. [. . . ]

The researchers used two monkeys raised in captivity that had no opportunity to encounter a snake. Probes measured responses to snakes, faces and hands of monkeys, and geometric shapes. More neurons responded to the snakes, and did so with greater strength and speed, the data showed.

This passage from Harold Frederic’s 1896 novel The Damnation of Theron Ware anticipates these results.  In the following passage, Dr. Ledsmar, an evolutionary scientist, is leading the naive minister Theron Ware around various scientific exhibits in his house.

They moved out of the room, and through a passage, Ledsmar talking as he led the way. “I took up that subject, when I was at college, by a curious chance. I kept a young monkey in my rooms, which had been born in captivity. I brought home from a beer hall—it was in Germany—some pretzels one night, and tossed one toward the monkey. He jumped toward it, then screamed and ran back shuddering with fright. I couldn’t understand it at first. Then I saw that the curled pretzel, lying there on the floor, was very like a little coiled-up snake. The monkey had never seen a snake, but it was in his blood to be afraid of one. That incident changed my whole life for me. Up to that evening, I had intended to be a lawyer.”

Annette Gordon-Reed on Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave

ImageIn The New Yorker this week, Annette Gordon-Reed discusses Northup’s 12 Years a Slave (available here) and the issues of the genre of slave narratives:

As powerful as they are, slave narratives are often said to raise special concerns as items of historical evidence. One argument goes as follows: White abolitionists, who almost always had a hand in helping to prepare and disseminate the narratives, hoped to destroy slavery by highlighting the more shocking aspects of the institution—the whippings, the separations of families, and the sexual abuse of enslaved women. As a result, the argument continues, the narratives adhere to a literary convention in which all of these events must play a prominent role, raising questions about the veracity of the stories. This seems a rather odd complaint, given that we know from other sources that whippings, separation of families, and sexual abuse were endemic to the institution. It would be more incredible, quite frankly, if Solomon Northup had spent twelve years on a slave plantation in Louisiana without encountering all of these things.

Another concern centers on the nature of the relationship between white sponsors and black narrators. Given the racial power dynamics, could blacks speak freely to the abolitionists and, later, to the white interlocutors who gathered stories for the Work Project Administration (W.P.A.), during the nineteen-thirties? If points of conflict arose, whose view would prevail? It has also been noted that the W.P.A. interviewees were children during slavery. A number of them painted almost benign pictures of the institution of slavery. Was this done to please their white interviewers, who were, after all, agents of the government, or were they just remembering a world through the eyes of children, without the heavy burdens that their parents had known?

There are other issues with slave narratives, but the simple fact is that every form of historical evidence has its own set of problems.

Gordon-Reed’s magisterial book on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, which she references in the concluding paragraphs, sorts out these issues in great detail, distinguishing between what we can and cannot know about the relationship between the two and what the documentary evidence can and cannot reveal.

Trove of Emily Dickinson Documents

Update: More on Dickinson and the Amherst/Harvard controversy at The New York Times: 


And here is the Amherst archive link: https://www.amherst.edu/library/archives/holdings/edickinson

The Boston Globe (http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2013/10/19/trove-emily-dickinson-manuscripts-appear-online/5NWTLLg5qM8WjF0Hjb8LzH/story.html) reports that Amherst and Harvard are rolling out an online collection of Dickinson materials this week but that there’s friction between the two institutions dating back to the Todd/Dickinson controversies that emerged after Dickinson’s death.

As anyone who’s read Lyndall Gordon’s Lives Like Loaded Guns or other books on Dickinson can attest, it’s a vexed and interesting history–unless you’re involved in it, of course, in which case it’s just vexed.

One of the things that Gordon explains, almost as an aside, is that in transcribing Dickinson’s poems after her death, Mabel Loomis Todd first used what was known as an index typewriter, the World typewriter,  that required the user to point at a letter and press a key to stamp it into the page. To say that this must have been slow going is an understatement.

From the article:

The conflict echoes the longstanding dispute between Harvard and Amherst over who may lay more rightful claim to Emily Dickinson. When Dickinson died, her sister, Lavinia, discovered hundreds of her poems.

Lavinia approached their sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson, about editing the poems. Susan Dickinson delayed too long, and Lavinia turned to Mabel Loomis Todd, wife of an Amherst professor and Emily Dickinson’s brother’s mistress.

Todd enlisted the help of Thomas Wentworth Higginson and the two edited the poems — changing punctuation, amending the text, and adding titles. They published three volumes of Dickinson’s work, the last in 1896. Two years later, a dispute arose between Todd and the Dickinsons.

Todd said Emily Dickinson’s brother had promised her a piece of land and failed to deliver, according to Martha Nell Smith, a professor of English at the University of Maryland and executive director and coordinator of the Dickinson Electronic Archives.

When the Dickinsons asked Todd to return her trove of Dickinson material, she refused, Smith said. In 1956, Todd’s daughter gave the collection — some 850 poems and fragments and 350 letters — to Amherst College, where Dickinson’s grandfather had been a founder and her father and brother served as treasurers.

Meanwhile, the manuscripts that remained in the Dickinson family — some 700 poems and 300 letters — ended up being sold to Gilbert Montague, a distant cousin of Dickinson, who gave the trove in 1950 to Harvard, his alma mater.

Ever since, the two institutions have jockeyed for the mantle of most complete Emily Dickinson collection.

Earle Labor’s new Jack London biography

Cross-posted from the Jack London Society site at http://jacklondonsociety.org

Edited to add: This clip also has a 10-second excerpt (at 2:00)  from the only known recording of Jack London’s voice, which isn’t otherwise available online.

I’ve been hearing portions of this biography for years at Jack London symposia, and it should be a terrific book.  Labor began working on Jack London in the 1960s; a prominent scholar, he knows as much about London’s life as it’s possible to know after a lifetime of study.

From http://www.npr.org/2013/10/17/230497660/jack-london-believed-function-of-man-is-to-live-not-to-exist

A literary critic once remarked, “The greatest story Jack London ever wrote was the story he lived.” In his brief life, London sought adventure in the far corners of the world, from the frozen Yukon to the South Pacific, writing gripping tales of survival based on his experiences — including The Call of the WildWhite Fang and The Sea Wolf.

His story is the subject of a new biography,Jack London: An American Life, by Earle Labor, curator of the Jack London Museum in Shreveport, La. Labor wrote his first book about London in 1974, but the 85-year-old scholar says with London, there’s always more to write.

Image[read or listen to the rest at the link]

CFP: Howells Panels at ALA (Deadline: 1.31.2014)

William Dean Howells Society Panels for ALA 2014, May 22 – 25

full name / name of organization: 
William Dean Howells Society
contact email: 

The William Dean Howells Society welcomes submissions for two panels at the 2014 American Literature Association conference in Washington D.C. on May 22 – 25.

Panel 1: New Approaches to Teaching William Dean Howells

We are seeking panelists for a potential roundtable on teaching the works of William Dean Howells. We hope to introduce new voices and techniques to the discussion of his most popular works, The Rise of Silas Lapham and A Hazard of New Fortunes, while also considering fresh strategies for the inclusion of Howells in American literature or American studies courses. We are especially interested in accounts of the teaching of his lesser-known works. Other areas may include Howells in his cultural context, from marriage to real estate to anti-imperialism; Howells and American literary realism; Howells and ethics; Howells as editor; or Howells and literary criticism, including critical race studies, cultural Marxism, queer theory, etc.

Panel 2: Open Topic

We are looking for insightful, original papers that address any aspect of Howells’s work.

Please submit your 200-250 word abstract and a current CV (or any questions) to Dan Mrozowski at Daniel.mrozowski@trincoll.edu by January 31, 2014


Mary Austin’s Devotion to Writing

A recollection from Elsie Martinez, wife of Marty Martinez, an artist of the San Francisco (and Taos) group who knew Jack London, from Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson’s Mary Austin and the American West: 

[Lincoln Steffens had] asked [Mary Austin] to marry him. . . . He told us that he was certain Mary was cautious.  Mary would say, “I can’t see you until four o’clock this afternoon. My work’s going well.” Or, “I can see you at all until this evening because my work’s going very well.” 

Goodman and Dawson continue: 

So at Austin’s suggestion, they lived separately.  When she felt ready and decided to surprise him with an apartment that suited both, she found him there with another woman, his old sweetheart, Gussie.  That, according to Elsie, “finished up the romance with Mary.”

Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers site is now active

The new site for Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers is now available at http://legacywomenwriters.org. Some features are still in progress, like the Gallery of Women Writers, but there’s plenty of other information, including submissions information, abstracts, and tables of contents for current and forthcoming Legacy issues. 

Upcoming conference: Western Literature Association, October 9-12, 2013

This week the Western Literature Association holds its annual conference in Berkeley, California.  Among the highlights of the program are readings by Gerald Vizenor and Ishmael Reed, past president Sara Spurgeon’s address “Incidentally Western,” plenary sessions on science fiction with Kim Stanley Robinson and Molly Gloss, on California Okie writers, and on the Free Speech movement (“West Coast / Left Coast: The Legacy of Berkeley”), with a keynote address by Robert Hass.

There are lots of great panels on Western literature, regionalism, visual cultures, “Native Lessons,” the Mexican-American experience, postwestern cultures, and so on. I’ll be presenting on Thursday in session 3A on Mary Austin, Jack London, and the “woman of genius” question in Little Lady of the Big House. 

More new Emily Dickinson resources and a gallery of women writers

First, these two Emily Dickinson resources, which were posted to SSAWW-L (hat tip to Martha Nell Smith and Ellen  Garvey):

Emily Dickinson manuscripts to download for free: “https://acdc.amherst.edu/browse/collection/collection:ed, and when prompted to enter as guest, just do so (this will disappear soon). Amherst has 100s of Emily Dickinson documents, and with each one you can just download the entire image. To find what you’re looking for, keep in mind that it must be in the Amherst Collections. This is not all of ED, but it’s about half of her writings. 

Harvard will also be releasing a resource on Oct 21. And already available is Radical Scatters at http://Radicalscatters.unl.edu, Emily Dickinson’s Correspondences at http://rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/edc/, and the Dickinson Electronic Archives I & II at http://emilydickinson.org.”

And from Ellen Garvey: 

I just learned of a recently digitized Emily Dickinson resource that may interest SSAWWers. .Harvard has digitized ED’s music binder — sheet music that she collected and played on the piano. Here’s a link to a blog description of it: 


and the digitized binder: 



More is available now than ever before, it seems; at least I end up posting resources or calls for paper to the SSAWW site daily now.  Here’s one from this morning: 

At The Library Company, Portraits of American Women Writers Appearing in Print before 1861


Below: Portrait of Caroline M. Congdon: http://www.librarycompany.org/women/portraits/congdon.htmImage