Connected to History: Land and Literature in Conversation

Campus was alive with activity on Theme Day 2011. Civil War reenactors roamed Burnham Circle. Assistant Professor of History Monty Dobson began his archaeological dig at the Burnham trench site. Professor of English Randall Fuller gave a reading from his new book From Battlefields Rising. Documentary filmmaker Ric Burns spoke of how the Civil War "shaped the memories, imagination and storytelling of America" in ways that are still with us 150 years later. President Todd Parnell described it as "a Drury kind of day." Theme Day events sparked conversations between Dobson and Fuller —about war and storytelling, land and literature—that have evolved into a partnership in creating a PBS documentary project called "America: From The Ground Up." We captured one such conversation on campus this summer.

The Dobson-Fuller Tapes

Introductions: Meet Dr. Monty Dobson
and Dr. Randall Fuller
Drury University & The Civil War

I have spent the last 15 years of my life living in the 19th century, reading literature from that period. I knew very little about the Civil War until I had finished my first book about Emerson, and I was wondering what I might want to work on next.

I was strolling around Drury as I often do, and I noticed the trench, and for the first time it registered for me as an artifact from the Civil War—something that might mean more than a strange little spine running through the green space at Drury.

Within 24 hours or so, I was rummaging around in the Olin Library when I noticed something peculiar: in the history section, there are hundreds of books about the Civil War. But when I went to the literary studies section, I noticed that there are no books whatsoever about American literature and the Civil War.

It was a series of random accidents that convinced me there might be a story to tell about American writers— Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, Dickinson—those authors that we know primarily from before the war. My book ends up tracing those figures as they are variously enthusiastic, frightened, bewildered, troubled by the events of the Civil War as they unfold over four years.

Everything that has come before, from people in a place, is still there. And that's what people are acting on, interacting with and reacting to. My interest in the landscape and in historical events surrounding places is really what drew me to this idea of the impact of the Civil War on place.

Much like your work, looking at the impact of the war on the American idea of self and how that's expressed in the literature. People act and react to place in the same way that they're acting and reacting to events.

The Civil War leaves behind marks in the landscape. The trench line that runs through Burnham Circle is a historical reminder of the activity that people undertook here.

As I got deeper into the Civil War, I discovered the close connection that Drury has, specifically to the aftermath. I talked to Bill Garvin, our archivist, who provided me with documents from Drury's founding.

In fundraising letters to potential donors out east, President Morrison would write that there was no college in this area that had been so devastated by the war. He said that Drury had been founded in the hopes that we could bind the horrid wounds of the war. And his idea, I think, was that if you got the offspring of soldiers who had fought for the North and for the South, and you put them in the same classroom and had them pursue knowledge, that you might begin that process of reconciliation and healing that this particular area needed so badly.

Missouri actually had the thirdhighest number of Civil War battles. There were reprisals, burning down of buildings, slaughtering of cattle. Morrison in fact describes the landscape as having been "razed," destroyed.

Wilson's Creek is a perfect example of that. A lot of people don't realize that was the second battle in the Civil War. And it was incredibly destructive to the place—not just militarily.

Everybody knows about Bull Run, the first major battle of the Civil War. What people don't realize is though Wilson's Creek was the second major battle, twice as many people were killed as at Bull Run.

People at the time realized this war wasn't going to be over soon, and it was going to take an enormous toll upon the population. Although Wilson's Creek has been forgotten largely by historians, it was incredibly important at the time. So important that Herman Melville wrote a poem about it from the perspective of a soldier who witnesses what he calls "the killing in the fields of corn."

All of those events are recorded in the archaeology of the place. That's one of the drivers that motivated me to think about this new project "America: From the Ground Up."

We can take a place like Wilson's Creek that's on the frontier, removed from the headlines of the day, and talk about the history of place from the archaeology. That's going to record what people actually did in a place, when it may have faded from the memory of documents.

Drury will be featured in the Civil War episode. Certainly the landscape is scarred by the physical reminders and the emotional landscape by the intellectual reminders. The campus that we walk across every day is rich in archaeology. The story of Drury is important on a national level because it speaks to those kinds of attempts that people were making to bring about healing after this incredibly traumatic experience of the war.

One of the exciting things about this four-part documentary series is that we are going to be able to show chapters of American history that most people don't know anything about.

Like the Big Eddy site along the Sac River. This is a place with more than 14,000 years of human occupation, and it records the history of the people of that landscape for millennia.

We have another UNESCO World Heritage Site just across the river from St. Louis called Cahokia. This was an urban civilization in North America during the Middle Ages in Europe, 2-3 times the size of Paris or London.

The "America: From the Ground Up" project grew out of a documentary on Cahokia I shot last August. Over the process of shooting with Patrick Muriethi, artist in residence at Drury, I began to realize that there were connections between the history of place at Cahokia and the project we were developing for Theme Day on campus.

These are stories that we can tell archaeologically that may be slightly different than the view of history that you're going to get from a standard textbook.

I teach in the English department, which is a really dynamic and creative department, but just over the last couple of months I've discovered what a vibrant group of documentary makers we have here at Drury. I've enjoyed getting the chance to see how they tell stories and how they make sense of the world—and seeing the connections between what they do and what we do in English.

What I have discovered is that underlying these two different media— one entirely verbal and one visual—they're both narratives. They're both the stories of people.

I was attracted to the same thing. I was intrigued by the possibility of telling stories visually, which is very different than the academic work that I do, but it still works in the connection between objects and landscapes. It's kind of a natural jump to want to be able to show those to people as I'm talking about them.

One of my strongest commitments is that what we do as academics, both as scholars and as teachers, should be made available to larger audiences. In my first book about Emerson I talk a lot about "public intellectuals"—people who didn't just stay in the library or even in the classroom, but went out and delivered lectures and tried to make a difference in the world as intellectuals.

I think that's what attracted me to the project: the idea that we can talk about things that we find intellectually challenging, but we can include more people in the conversation.