Ann Pancake’s “Carceral Geography”: New Historicism and West Virginia (4/20/11)

30 Sep

New Historicism takes the standpoint that every era, country, or group of people has a definitive perspective in and of history. Basically, this method highlights how cultures are interrelated and emphasizes the connections between members of a certain group as well as the interconnectedness of different groups. These equally separate yet unified peoples create their own discourses and apply that to their economy, production, beliefs, and everyday actions. These groups often experience mass undecidability, whether related to the nature of reality, religion, or geography in general. Michel Foucault, often deemed father to this theory, claims that history is not linear or purposeful; that peoples determine their own episteme, or standards of behavior and belief. Within the West Virginian world of Ann Pancake’s Strange as this Weather Has Been, Lace and family develop their own mountain episteme, continually gazing through the lens of Nature in response to its own impending end.

            It’s nearly inarguable that Pancake presents an honest depiction of a West Virginia that’s years behind the rest of the country. Lace’s family has for all intents and purposes lived off the land. “Fall meant wild meat as well, and Daddy tried to hunt some squirrel, even got a few, and Mogey and his older boy brought over more than that, turkey, and later deer, and that was the only time in my life I ate groundhog,” (Pancake, 139). These methods sort of fall to the wayside as Lace grows older and has her own kids, but the ideal of remaining in nature carries over as her kids develop a love for adventuring.

            “Corey plunges into the water running and splashing as fast as he can go, his brain turned off,“ (Pancake, 127). That last line rings very interesting because essentially Corey’s brain is turned off. His geographical influence, or discourse rather, has taught him that it’s okay to play in any pool of collected water. In the earlier section, it mentions pallets, pieces of metal, grease and grime floating in these pools that Corey and his siblings find so much fun in. The coal mining business has destroyed the rivers and lakes of the area, polluting land and water alike with foreign materials. Essentially this highly effected landscape has become the discourse for Lace’s children.

            She expresses undecidability about her raising of them: “It was like all the grief and disappointment and growing up I’d done while I was carrying her had seeped into her before she was born. I worried a lot about that” (Pancake, 140). Lace can’t decide how she wants to view their situation. At times, she feels that nature is key for them to grow up honorably, but at other times, it seems as if she wants to run away and not make them subject to the area’s instability. I think the greater point rests in the fact that Lace is almost indifferent to the progression of her family, as she knows she was raised in the same soil and her pride in her geography exceeds her worry. The presence of the mine places this in jeopardy, as it did equally when Lace was young, but their episteme seems to trump their understanding of how much they know of the mine. The men from the novel ironically work the mine, as well as become injured from it and nearly flooded out.

            Foucault discusses several different disciplines and prisons hidden right before our eyes in this country. “A subtle, graduated carceral net, with compact institutions, but also separate and diffused methods, assumed responsibility for the arbitrary, widespread, badly integrated confinement of the classical age,” (Foucault, 1639). I would argue that in terms of Pancake, this quote refers to the recent return of the mining age instead of the classical age. For all intents and purposes, the geography and peoples of West Virginia have become prisoners to the mining corporations that destroy these mountains. Within this “carceral net,” Lace and her family are both inmates and guards of these mining corporations. They are as effected by these companies as they protect it by working under its rule. Jimmy Make, Mogey, and Lace’s father all work or have worked for the mine with the result of injuries and very little money to support their families. In strife for any hope at all, they return to Nature for any sort of spiritual gain they can attain. However, the vicious circle continues because nature has become tainted and harmful due to the presence of man.

            This West Virginia discourse is rather ironic, yet hauntingly honest. This is the way they live and the developed ideals and practices they maintain due to their geography and particular view of history. To end with one of the many stunning passages from Pancake and in continuation of my claim: “The Bible says we are made of dust, but after that making, everybody else leaves the dirt and lives in air, except us, oh no. We eat off it, dig in it, doctor from it, work under it. Us, we grow up swaddled in it, ground around our shoulders, over top our heads, we work both the top and the underside the earth, we are surrounded. And still, Daddy wanting nothing in the end but to sit and look at land. Even though inside it drowns him” (Pancake, 151).

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Posted by on September 30, 2013 in Scholarly Essays/Responses


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