Academic journal article Intertexts

Scientific Racism and Masculine Recuperation: Charles Lummis and the Search for "Home"

Academic journal article Intertexts

Scientific Racism and Masculine Recuperation: Charles Lummis and the Search for "Home"

Article excerpt

Like many of his peers who came of age during the second half of the nineteenth century, Charles Lummis (1859-1928) chaffed against the constraints of what he and other antimodernists viewed as the overly civilized Eastern United States. (1) However, in Lummis' own estimation, one of the many qualities that distinguished him from his peers was his willingness to take the necessary action to combat the devitalizing impact of city life by heading west to experience unfamiliar lands and cultures. As he states in the opening pages of his 1892 travel narrative, A Tramp Across the Continent, "I am an American and felt ashamed to know so little of my own country as I did, and as most Americans do" (1-2). In 1884, having spent too much time "chasing the alphabet across the white page" (19) as editor of Chillicothe, Ohio's Scioto Gazette, he decided to embark on a great outdoor adventure by walking 3,507 miles from Cincinnati to Los Angeles (where he had accepted a job as editor of the Los Angeles Times). Lummis rejected the notion that he was motivated by money, despite his periodic mailing of letters to the Chillicothe Leader for publication--letters he later edited and compiled in Tramp. Rather than economic gain, Lummis claims he sought "the exhilarant joy of living outside the sorry fences of society, living with a perfect body and a wakened mind, a life where brain and brawn and leg and lung all rejoice and grow alert together" (1-2). This quotation sums up key themes that would define Lummis' life: an antimodern sensibility, an exceptional sense of self, and a commitment to promoting the American West as a site for spiritual and physical regeneration. He also allows room for discovery, room that largely was filled by the American Indian and Mexican American peoples and cultures he would encounter in the Southwest.

A careful consideration of A Tramp Across the Continent allows us to appreciate not only the degree to which Lummis was in fact able to step "outside the sorry fences of society," but also in what ways his upbringing and education molded and constrained his thought and writing. I argue that Eurocentric standards of civilized domesticity and contemporary ethnographic trends played a critical role in shaping Lummis' assessment and comparative ranking of Mexican Americans and members of different American Indian tribes. Although Lummis often is referenced casually as an ethnographer and credited for his promotion of the U.S. Southwest, the specific ethnographic influences on Lummis' writings and his use of domestic space as a barometer of civilization have not received extended consideration. It is my contention that these two threads of Tramp (the ethnographic and the domestic)--and the relationship between them--function to uphold prevailing Anglo American assumptions of the period. Such an examination of Lummis' narrative will allow us to appreciate the interested and intentional nature of his observations, his claim to have stepped outside the influence of his own cultural milieu notwithstanding.

Tramp was among the first of several ethnographic works Lummis authored. Despite his lack of professional ethnographic training, he believed firsthand experience qualified him to contribute to this new scientific field (a field that was just gaining official academic status during the late nineteenth century) while educating a broad readership about a region largely unknown to residents of the Eastern United States. (2) In the preface to his 1891 A New Mexico David and Other Stories and Sketches of the Southwest, Lummis asserts that he was no "random tourist" but, as a result of deep acquaintance with the region and careful study, an expert in Southwestern histories and cultures (v). However, he did not position himself as an academic scholar but rather as a popular writer who aimed to educate readers about the Southwestern United States and to encourage their travel to the region. (3)

Lummis was just one of many writers to navigate the historically fluid disciplinary divide between literature and anthropology. …

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