Friday, May 3, 2013

Michael Lundblad's "The Birth of a Jungle"

Michael Lundblad is Assistant Professor of English and Director of Animality Studies at Colorado State University. He is the coeditor, with Marianne DeKoven, of Species Matters: Humane Advocacy and Cultural Theory.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Birth of a Jungle: Animality in Progressive-Era U.S. Literature and Culture, and reported the following:
I’m going to cheat a little, because I think page 99 is not necessarily representative of my new book as a whole (and it’s probably pretty boring, unless you’re a fan of Frank Norris’s The Octopus). A few pages before would give readers a better sense of the kinds of claims I make in this book:
The Octopus explores four rather distinct representations of instincts through four different kinds of violence.... [including] the “instinctual” slaughter of thousands of rabbits by Spanish-Mexican workers... [and] the armed battle between middle-class ranch owners and agents of the railroad-octopus. While not often analyzed in juxtaposition with each other, these sites of violence together illustrate the ways that animality comes to define not only the nature of violence but also the nature of class identity at the turn of the century. In each, the privileged can resist animal instincts (or “the beast within”) or refuse to be defined by them, often with the help of Christian ideology, while working-class, racial, and animal “Others” are essentialized as creatures who can act only according to violent, survival-of-the-fittest instincts. (97).
What I’m interested in here, ultimately, is the fact that texts like The Octopus from the turn of the twentieth century simultaneously reinforce and resist new ways of linking animality—in both human and nonhuman animals—with what I call the discourse of the jungle. In the case of The Octopus, contrary to traditional readings of it, we haven’t moved completely away from Christian discourses (with an evil beast within the human) and into a Darwinist-Freudian discourse (in which human instincts are equated with animal behavior in the jungle). Instead, we see both discourses overlapping while also defining class difference in new ways.

In other chapters, I explore how the characteristics and imagery of wild animals were evoked to explore a wide range of human behaviors at the turn of the century, including homosexuality and the lynching of African Americans. According to the law of the jungle, humans could be seen as naturally violent in the name of survival and heterosexual in the name of reproduction. Despite reigning critical interpretations, though, these constructions of animality were often contested rather than reinforced in Progressive-Era texts, including the work of Henry James, Jack London, Upton Sinclair, William James, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, as well as cases such as Topsy, a circus elephant publicly electrocuted at Coney Island, Ota Benga, an African man displayed in the Monkey House of the Bronx Zoo, and the Scopes "Monkey Trial" of 1925. With jungle discourse continuing to be used to justify racism, labor exploitation, homophobia, and various other kinds of oppression today, my hope is that alternative formulations of animality at the turn of the century might help us to see why it’s important to avoid thinking of either human or nonhuman animals as “beasts in the jungle.”
Learn more about The Birth of a Jungle at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue