Commonplace


Just Teach One

The Archival Terror in A Journey to Philadelphia

Steffi Dippold
Kansas State University

“The time may come,” conjures the strange and beguiling narrator of the long-forgotten A Journey to Philadelphia; or, Memoirs of Charles Coleman Saunders, “when what is now hidden from human eyes will be disclosed—and then, my friend, when the grave shall hide me from the world, you, I trust, will do justice to my memoire.” A Journey was published in 1904 under the pseudonym “Adelio” but characteristic echoes of Charles Brocken Brown mark every turn of a sentence. And as so often with Brockden Brown, Coleman Saunders’ lugubrious and bumpy account is filled with faltering attempts to rationalize what happened in the haunted countryside of his sequestered upbringing. The gothic short story comes with awful weather, a potentially murderous nemesis, and a mysterious damsel in distress. Wrongful imprisonment, ruminations about death and doom, and manipulative carryings-on abound, inspiring students in my graduate “The Art of the Archive” class this spring to devour the nail-biter (barely over 60 pages) with delicious abandon. The ominous A Journey was a truly enthralling read in part because it offered a much needed respite from a series of theoretical interrogations about the construction of our repositories and their biases and silences (reaching from Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking my Library” and Sigmund Freud’s “A Note Upon the Mystic Writing-Pad” to excerpts from Jacques Derrida’s, Archive Fever, Diana Taylor’s The Archive and the Repertoire, and Ann Laura Stoler’s Along the Archival Grain).

The at first seemingly unrelated shift from complex archival theory to sensational gothic worked extremely well. Framed within Common-Place’s “Just Teach One” rubric, promoting the recovery of neglected and forgotten texts, A Journey prompted students to question the logic and limits of our literary and academic canons. In which ways, that is, do our reading expectations, teaching requirements, and professional anthologies promote a meager, highly selective archive of textual standards and weed out the luscious, feral overgrowth of alternative narratives? In addition to exemplifying abstract ideas in concrete textual form, A Journey provided weirdly wonderful pleasures and opened up its own dark archival queries. After all, the spine-tingler is very much a story about contested knowledge, biased records, and control over the documented past. Ambiguities multiply not only because the uncanny text celebrates uncertainties due to Coleman Saunders’ own tenuous grip on the puzzle pieces of the plot. But in addition to the insomniac memoirist we also have an unreliable frame narrator, of murky origins and prone to unexplained absences, who eerily mirrors our efforts to understand where things started to run afoul in Coleman Saunders’ life. Whom should we trust in this unnerving double-act of twisted exegesis and blinkered recovery that merely render past events ever more elusive?

Pairing A Journey with archival theory and not with the expected repertoire of the uncanny and the terrors that lurk in the human psyche felt both liberating and productive. Rather we approached the compact short story as a rich evidentiary and hermeneutic conundrum that challenged students to think beyond the supernatural surface about structural organization and the careful parading (and withholding) of information. Much of our class discussions, then, traced the various recording systems folded into A Journey like gothic matryoshkas. Formally a jumble of unreliable texts, a manuscript memoir, eye-witness accounts, gossip, and a final time-leaping self disclosure nestle here within a larger equally unstable frame. Who authored which fragment and why? Can any firm grounding be recovered from such layering of slanted records? And should we even desire an antidote to the malaise that has infected storytelling here? Or, as my students suggested, is uncertainty the ultimate unspoken terror and point of this self-reflective archival noir? Prophetically A Journey warns us that truth has come down to an enticingly absent presence. Remember Coleman Saunders’ glum vision stresses that the reader must “do justice to my memoire” even though “the grave shall hide me from the world.”

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