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Publications Book Reviews
Judith Richardson. Possessions. The History and Uses of Haunting in the Hudson Valley in the Hudson Valley

Judith Richardson. Possessions. The History and Uses of Haunting in the Hudson Valley in the Hudson Valley. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003. 296 pages.

This book ends with an important question: how could we think of the site of the Hudson Valley--an American cultural and literary site-outside or beyond hauntedness? Being the instantiation of complex "social and historical discontinuities" (209) that remain unresolved the Hudson Valley engages the presence of ghosts in an unfathomable and overwhelming way. The four chapters of this book, the introduction and the epilogue delve into the narratives that register this "hauntedness" represented as almost immanent in the region of the Hudson Valley. Folkloric backgrounds, local storytelling practices, Irving's dilemmas of identity and use of migrant folklore elements that make up his cosmopolitanism, local characters and their immigrant stories, and the various "pale" narratives of ghosts often forgotten by the grand narrative of history are explored as the narrated and portrayed instances of the region's "hauntedness". All of these historical and fictional sites consolidate the premise with which this book begins: the history of the Hudson Valley as one of the primary sites where America's history and its literary tradition emerge is unthinkable without the history of haunting. This region that historically was one of rapid change, development, nomadic wanderings, and migrations, and was transformed into the capital of American industry and the cultural, political and economic center of its modernity, is indissolubly related with what Richardson calls "ghosts" and she defines as the forces that "operate on a particular and peculiar kind of social memory, an alternate form of history-making in which things usually forgotten, discarded or repressed, become foregrounded, whether as items of fear, regret, explanation or desire" (3).

In her introduction, the author presents haunting as the narrative of the supernatural but mainly and more importantly as the tracing of a people's "historical consciousness" (4). Richardson promises to delve into the complex historical narratives to excavate the presence of haunting not only as an instance of social and cultural memory but as a kind of possession that relates to the issues of identity, belonging and presence associated with the ethnic, class, and rural/urban tensions that demarcate the fictive and literal borders of the historical consciousness of the rising idea called "America". In that context, this book promises to pursue the question of how the residue that the ghost not only represents but also is writes while being written by the cartography of the local. As the writer beautifully remarks, "[t]here is substance in these shadows" (7). As the immanence of the fragility of history, the ghost is the tracing of the history that is often repressed and forsaken but never obliterated.

Possession attempts to record this history of unrest and discord of the region of the Hudson Valley represented as the American region par excellence in whose rapidly transformed and accommodated wilderness the concept of America is first nurtured and cultivated. This "crucial and historical tenuousness that was crucial to producing ghosts" (23) is clearly identified in the third chapter of her book where she mentions the co-existence of slaves, servants and apprentices that make up the unprivileged and repressed classes of those often "unconstituted" constituencies whose manual labor consolidates the foundations of the American Nation.

Despite Richardson's occasional references to the relationship between the ghost folklore and the historical and cultural event of hauntedness, a relationship that her book sets out to clarify and best examine, she falters to do so at the most crucial moments of her book when she precisely approaches the political and ontological aspects of this relationship. In her chapter on Irving, for instance, she touches upon this difference when she investigates the process of haunting and rehaunting in the larger narrative of Irving's Knickerbocker tales: "Again, we see how the presence and remains of marginal others in the region lend themselves to the production of ghosts, the obscurity of the African-American past redoubling that of the Dutch" (55). By not thinking through the possibility that the ghosts inhabiting Irving's stories are what Derrida has called the "spectral silhouettes", that is, the embodiments of the residues that the cultural transformation of the American wilderness into "America" was unable to accommodate or absorb, Richardson does not clearly articulate the relay of the "unanswerable" differences that these specters represent.

She randomly appears to be aware of the ontological and political ramifications of the "spectral" as opposed to the mollifying representations of the ghostly in the folklore in which this "spectral unanswerability", to invoke William V. Spanos' term, becomes accommodated in narratives that often register the ghostly as the container of the supernatural and therefore as the representation of something that can be explained as ambiguous or equivocal. This awareness appears more clearly in her third chapter, "The Colorful Career of a Ghost from Leeds", where she makes references to the psychological roots of hauntings through Kathleen Brogan's reading of ghosts and ethnicity according to which the "ghost is in some way the reassertion of what "was" ignored" or what Brogan calls "the return of the repressed" (in Richardson 119). The possibilities opened by such a turn in her reading unfortunately remain unexplored for her discussion does not involve other theoretical frameworks that have chartered and probed into the territories of the "spectral" as that which symptomatically reveals the problematic site of memory, territory, history and performance. Specifically, Derrida's analysis of the spectral in Specters of Marx, and generally his work on différance; William V. Spanos' exploration of the formation of American culture in America's Shadow. An Anatomy of Empire, whose chapter on Spectral Politics offers an engaging and politically necessitated reconstellation of the relay of voices that have contemplated the "spectral"; and Rob Wilson's American Sublime: The Genealogy of a Poetic Genre, which traces the idea of the sublime in American Literature and investigates a similar terrain to Richardson's book by addressing the nexus of the political and the aesthetic in order to deconstruct the Americanization of sublime poetics, are some of those works that attempt to conceptualize and articulate the residue and the "unanswerable" and could have been provocative and energizing voices in Richardson's Possession.

Overall, this interesting book is the beginning of the author's exploration of an infinite quest, a worthwhile project whose question about "who and what define 'place" (200) and who and what determine the relationship between memory, place and politics (what the absent presence of the ghost, the "spectral", symptomatically reveals), the author will hopefully continue to pursue.

Assimina Karavanta
University of Athens, Greece

 

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