Saturday, July 3, 2021

Gordon Fraser's "Star Territory"

Gordon Fraser is Lecturer and Presidential Fellow in American Studies at the University of Manchester.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Star Territory: Printing the Universe in Nineteenth-Century America, and reported the following:
In 1853, a Cherokee observer named Tso-le-oh-woh published a poem about a comet. You can read about it on page 99 of my new book, Star Territory. The poem Tso-le-oh-woh published is the sort of nineteenth-century literary work that doesn’t get much attention. Printed in a newspaper called The Cherokee Advocate, it is difficult to understand without context, and it has only rarely been anthologized.

Yet this comet poem tells precisely the story that I tell in Star Territory. The speaker of Tso-le-oh-woh’s poem, an “Indian” man who “saw a comet,” has the option of looking up at the stars in one of two ways. He could imagine that the universe exists irrespective of human desires, that it is a vast cosmic tapestry of living and non-living things. Or, alternatively, he could try to come up with ways to instrumentalize the universe—to use it to become rich and powerful.

The observer in Tso-le-oh-woh’s poem chooses the second path, and the poet makes clear that he is fool for making this choice. This “Indian” man begins to imagine that he could find a gold mine on the comet. A gold rush in Georgia, Tso-le-oh-woh would not have had to remind his Cherokee readers, had prompted white settlers in the 1830s to drive indigenous people from their homes.

The choice in Tso-le-oh-woh’s poem—is the universe an instrument of human desires or something more?—is one that numerous nineteenth-century people had to make. In Star Territory, I am concerned with how the United States of America has since its founding sought to instrumentalize space, to use it for the extension of national power. Government agents did this with almanacs, star charts, observatories, and astronomy training for military officers. But I am also interested in how others in the nineteenth century regarded the cosmos as independent of human desires. From the poet Walt Whitman to the Black newspaper editor Samuel Cornish to the Hawaiian monarch Lili‘uokalani to Tso-le-oh-woh, numerous nineteenth-century people saw in the cosmos something more than exploitable space.

Today, we are embarking on a new space age—defined by commercial rockets, by the US Space Force, and by ambitious plans to land human beings on the moon and on Mars. We should, then, remember Tso-le-oh-woh’s injunction to regard of the universe as something more than another place to find a gold mine.
Visit Gordon Fraser's website.

--Marshal Zeringue