Author Archives: keeneshort

About keeneshort

My name is Keene Short. I am currently an MFA student in creative nonfiction at the University of Idaho in Moscow, ID. Previously, I received a Master's in English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and two BA degrees in History and English at Northern Arizona University. I write, read, edit, and practice photography. My skills vary widely, and there is little that does not interest me.

In Which My Grandparents Turn 90

grandparents 2.JPGIn the year 1928, my grandmother was born in Kennewick, Washington, on October 20, and my grandfather was born on July 24 in Elk Basin, Wyoming. Last week, their six children and an extensive number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren got together in/descended upon my grandparents’ house in Hamilton, Montana (approximately halfway between Kennewick and Elk Basin) to celebrate their 90th birthday in the one week in summer when most of their descendants are free between work and travel.

I’ve only been around for twenty-five of those ninety years. I don’t know much about the sixty-five years my grandparents lived before me. I’ve always known them in one place, their garden-surrounded home in Hamilton, but I’m told they traveled a lot, from Montana to Washington to Minnesota. Their house has a kind of permanence in my mind. It has always been there, and has always been theirs. It’s strange to think of my grandparents living anywhere else. But ninety years is a long time to accumulate stories.

grandparents.JPG

They were born on the eve of the Great Depression. When they were five, the Weimar Republic was dissolved. When they were 13, the US entered the Second World War. They married in 1952. At some point, family traditions began to take shape: camping, river floating, fishing, miraculously digesting Spam.

Stories about my grandparents’ lives move all over the place, and I know that any story I hear from or about them will only ever scratch the surface. I don’t know how to quantify my own quarter-century of a life. Quantification isn’t always important, though. Nobody needs to measure a life, old or young, in order to celebrate it. 90 years is a long time, and I can learn to let it meander beyond my understanding. Their lives are too varied for me to know in their entirety, and that’s a good thing. It means there will always be something new to learn, something new to unlearn as well.

They still technically have a bit of time before they officially turn 90, though, and their dedication to wild partying, as evidenced in the weekend-long get-together, puts my own youthful spunk to shame. I have a lot to learn.

-jk

Road Stops: A Photo Essay, Part 2

On a rainy day in summer, Butte, Montana, and nearby Anaconda are rich with shades of green and rust. Mining rigs from its copper boom remain scattered around town, alongside monuments to the victims of mining disasters. More permanent is the Berkeley Pit, a toxic lake in an abandoned pit mine. Driving out of western Montana through the mountains on Highway 43 in this weather brought me through fog obscuring the road and the pines, but the clouds gave way to wind when I reached southern Idaho, still populated by ghosts from the Second World War, including a prison for German POWS and a Japanese internment camp. There are only a few remaining buildings from the internment camp recently preserved, a haunting and increasingly familiar testament to the scapegoating and indefinite detention of thousands of families. The remains are not as physically toxic as the Berkeley Pit, but the landscape is just as still and silent as the lake’s surface.

More to come. See Part One, in northern Idaho, here.

jk

Breaking the Sphere

Distribution of Population in 1890, US Census

Population density of the United States according to the 1890 census (xciv).

“Nearer the soil, Western life told quite a different story. There was more homesteading after 1890 than before. A number of extractive industries–timber, oil, coal, and uranium–went through their principal booms and busts after 1890. If one went solely by the numbers, the nineteenth-century westward movement was the tiny, quiet prelude to the much more sizable movement of people into the West in the twentieth century.” -Patricia Nelson Limerick, 2000

“Whereas the traditional notion poses the common as a natural world outside of society, the biopolitical conception of the common permeates equally all spheres of life, referring not only to to the earth, the air, the elements, or even plant and animal life but also to the constitutive elements of human society, such as common languages, habits, gestures, affects, codes, and so forth.” -Hardt & Negri, 2009.


American historians at the turn of the century rushed to interpret the 1890 census as one of the most important moments in US history. Frederick Jackson Turner argued in 1893 that the census marked the “closing” of the frontier, and Charles Beard would later write in 1933 that this “closing” was one third of a “triple revolution in agriculture” between first the abolition of slavery and third the “subjection of farmers to the process of capitalist economy” (Beard II 271).

But closure is only an interpretation of the census report’s findings. Comprised of twenty-five volumes, the introductory preface to the first volume, called “Progress of the Nation,” instead declares the following: “Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent and its westward movement it can not, therefore, any longer have a place in census reports” (xxxiv). The 1890 census declared simply that it would no longer record a frontier line.

Previous reports had actually measured frontier lines. According to the 1890 census, “the length of the frontier line in 1880 [was] 3,337 miles” (xxxvii), was 1,178,068 miles in 1870 (xxvi), and so on. The wording in the proclamation about 1890 is telling. The frontier line had been “broken into by isolated bodies of settlement,” a phrasing that hides those who actually went into the frontier while framing it as a fragile object that has been broken. The writing goes out of its way not to implicate settlers in the population increase, instead referring to “isolated bodies of settlement” to suggest groups of people who then share responsibility for settlement.

The frontier line was a literal demarcation between “settled” and “unsettled” land, which the census defined simply by population density. One table (xxxiii) lists the population density of each state and territory. In Utah, for example, the “Total area of settlement [of] 2 or more [people] to the square mile” was 27,580 square miles; the total area containing 6 to 18 people per square mile was 1,208, and the area consisting of 18 to 45 people per square mile totaled 718. There is nothing listed for a population density of more than 45 people in Utah, as opposed to Pennsylvania, which totaled 35,152 square miles inhabited by 45 to 90 people.

Equating settlement with population density meant that 718 single square miles of Utah inhabited by at most 45 people each was enough to make the territory “settled.” According to the census, every state or territory in the west had enough population density to qualify as such. If 27,580 people could survive in Utah, it was no longer legally recognized as wilderness. This implicitly established an evaluative scale for the economic potential of land. While it mattered to the federal government who was on what land (women, Native Americans, and other groups were recorded, though they could not legally vote in 1890), what was just as important was how many people were on the land, which became the primary distinction between wilderness and settled society.

By highlighting the experiences of people considered between the boundaries of wilderness and settlement, Beard and Turner both pioneered an early vision of social history that emphasized the experiences of workers and farmers. But they also left much to be desired. Another American historian a generation later, Staughton Lynd, writes that Beard and Turner, “the twin giants of modern American historiography. . . systematically minimized [slavery’s] importance” in their analyses (Lynd 135-136), and Patricia Nelson Limerick critiques Turner’s limited vision of the frontier.

For Turner, the frontier was the state of nature, which reinforced a Eurocentric understanding of the west’s indigenous communities, but for Beard, the frontier was essentially the commons. He writes of the 1890 census that “the disappearance of cheap or free land” was a tragedy because “by one legal phrase or another and by administrative procedure, the federal government prepared the way for the rapid seizure and exploitation of all the remaining lands on the western frontier” (II 269-270). In this sense, the closing of the frontier meant the privatization of the commons just before the Gilded Age. For Beard, this closure was a penultimate phase, rather than a finalizing one.

But Beard still treats the land the way Turner does, as free to white settler colonization. Both historians are in agreement with the census report’s declaration that the frontier was broken because of population growth, and all three tend to treat this breaking as a step in progress. Once this frontier was broken, they reasoned, it could be used. In this sense, “settlement” was about the deployment of a workforce, the presence of a monitored population subject to US law.

Though it is limiting to conflate the frontier with the commons, its perception as such explains why many progressive historians responded to its perceived closure as a significant turning point. If the frontier was acted upon as a kind of commons, then its closing would have spelled good news for those in power in the United States, because it finally meant access to the entirety of its previously obscure resources. By measuring the frontier by population density, this good news for those in power meant comparatively bad news for most settlers and signified apocalypse for Native Americans. The closing of the frontier was a process of opening the west to the full violence of what Wallace Stegner labeled “the path of empire.”

Yet another American historian, William Appleman Williams, calls this process of expansionism the defining feature of American history, declaring that the “culture has been unable, after almost 300 years, to develop any conception of success—or fulfillment—except the idiom of the endless chase itself. It was all a footnote to Madison: ‘extend the sphere’” (Williams 124). America, including any articulation of the frontier, is about growth for its own sake, and transforming the meaning of growth into the converse meaninglessness of satisfaction or stasis.

The frontier at the turn of the century, then, was considered the absence of influence, extended and measured through the strategic quantification of mouths to feed per square mile. This created an official policy in the US government of no longer marking the existence of a frontier in its regularized measurement of the country. The absence of the frontier meant the dissolution of both land and people (as Beard and Turner failed to recognize) not subject to American expansion, beyond the scope of the sphere. When the century ended, many historians seemed to wonder how much more of the continent the US could break.


Beard, Charles. The Rise of American Civilization. MacMillan Company, 1933.

Hardt, Michael, Antonio Negri. Commonwealth. Harvard University Press, 2011

Limerick, Patricia Nelson. Something in the Soil. W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.

Lynd, Staughton. Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution. Bobbs-Merrill, 1967.

United States. Census Bureau. “Population Part I.” 1895.

Williams, William Appleman. Empire as a Way of Life. Oxford University Press, 1980.

Road Stops: A Photo Essay, Part 1

Here is a collage of photos taken at various stops on Interstate 90 between Couer d’Alene, Idaho, and Missoula, Montana, including Cataldo Mission at Old Mission State Park and the historic town of Wallace, Idaho. The road out west is weird and long and very quiet on a Sunday morning. In most towns in northern Idaho, nobody is awake. It’s spooky.

More to come.

-jk

Summer is the Time to Finish Reading All the Unfinished Books

Books!I have a lot of books that I’ve started, but for many different reasons never got around to finishing. Many of them are Christmas presents that I started during the holiday break but put down again shortly after the semester started because schoolwork and teaching overwhelmed my schedule. There are short story collections with dogeared pages where I stopped, and novels with a bookmark still stuck at Chapter Six, and poetry collections with coffee stains where I left off.

To be clear, I appreciate the books as gifts. I went into writing because I love reading. But it’s easy to lose track of time and even easier to start more than I have time to finish. To be greedy, or at least unrealistic. Also I was assigned thirty books between three classes this last semester. Most were good, but it’s difficult to make time for leisurely reading when I have to make arguments about three books a week.

Until August, I hereby vow not to buy any new books. My summer reading list will consist only of books I’ve started reading but never finished, the various gifts and books I bought with the intention of reading in my spare time (back when I believed in such silly things). I have Kim Barnes’s first memoir In the Wilderness, for example, and a few critical theory books I got this last year to catch up on The Discourse. Yesterday I finished Matt Cashion’s Last Words of the Holy Ghost, a gift from two years ago, and now I’m going to finish Precarious Life by Judith Butler, which I started last month for a paper.

I can’t promise that I won’t start-without-finishing books in the future, but this summer, I hope to make amends for years and years of this moral failing on my part.

-jk

 

The Dogsitting Writing Residency

Two dogsCommensalism or mutual benefit is a constitutive premise of housesitting, or maybe an enabling fiction. The housesitter is apt to recognize the opportunity as a private windfall, and the pleasure is tandem: first in his own dis-habituation, and then in the adoption of a new readymade home, a vacated life to try on. With the extra keys on his chain, the housesitter leaves work on a different train or by a new road, becomes a local in the café or dogpark, creates or stars in fantasies grown out of his new neighbors’ notice.
-Brian Blanchfield, “On Housesitting,” from Proxies.

Like a lot of writers, I’ve never had a writing residency. Applications for residencies are expensive and highly competitive, and travel is even more expensive and time-consuming. Like a lot of writers, I don’t have the time or resources to travel to another country and write for a month, as much as I want to. But I can construct my own version of a residency with occasional opportunities and a little creativity.

For example, I’m currently dog-sitting for some relatives in Pullman, Washington, just six miles from Moscow but in a subtly different environment. Pullman is full of hills and mosquitoes, whereas Moscow is comparatively flat and full of earthworms. I’m in charge of a few tasks around the house, cleaning, taking out the trash on trash days, but most importantly I’m in charge of two good but regularly loud dogs. It’s been a week so far, and they are starting to get used to me.

I also have access to a large table, the internet, a coffee maker, and a view of the neighborhood. It’s not a real writing residency; I’m not funded to go wander the hills of Pullman and get acquainted with the local mosquitoes, and the dogs’ needs, of course, take precedence over writing. But it’s a chance to use my time wisely.

Since settling in last Saturday, I’ve revised one essay, written another essay, submitted fifteen various essays and stories to journals, and read a handful of essays from various collections (out of order like a heretic). By the time I leave Pullman, I’ll have been productive. I don’t have much of an excuse not to be.

This isn’t exactly a vacation, though, not a real one. Everything is borrowed and temporary. Everything comes with a caveat that I’m a stranger. I’ve been thinking about Brian Blanchfield’s essay about housesitting for friends and colleagues. The notion that housesitting is trying on another life is apt. This is a life I’m not used to, one I have to learn, and am responsible for maintaining in the absence of this life’s real inhabitants. I’m not quite a guest, nor a visitor, and also not exactly a steward.

Stranger still is that Pullman in May is very green, and it’s been rainy and overcast but also somewhat warm, and I wandered around town the other day between showers, passing neighborhoods filled with so many plants that I sometimes didn’t realize there were houses, and as such the city keeps reminding me of Galway, Ireland. I even found an Irish pub downtown, something I haven’t seen since living in Lincoln. I went in for a drink, wishing I could stay, or bring my laptop and write and read in the corner and be moody with the dark wood decorum around me. But I couldn’t stay, because this isn’t a real residency.

This place, in its slight and uncanny differences too subtle to classify but too monumental to miss, makes me want to travel, to break out of my long-established routine, to be the one who needs a housesitter for a change. I know this will never happen, for a lot of reasons. But I can still accomplish as much as a real residency with what little I have. And of course I’ll never say no to access to dogs. Just look at them.

-jk

 

Giving to a Part the Strength of the Whole

The American High Commission 1871

American High Commission Negotiating a Treaty in Washington, with Hamilton Fish sitting in the middle.

“Though he did not get his way on Santo Domingo, Fish would shape the Monroe Doctrine more than any other American in the 1870s. A forgotten figure today, Fish was the longest-serving secretary of state in the nineteenth century. . . His foreign policy vision rested upon the pillars of rapprochement with Great Britain and ‘informal imperialism’ in America’s growing sphere of influence.” -Jay Sexton, 2011


In 1871, President Grant sent an investigative commission to Santo Domgino (what is now the Dominican Republic) to explore the possibility of annexing the country. The commission came two years after Grant proposed the idea to Congress as part of the post-Civil War Reconstruction effort, arguing that that annexing Santo Domingo could create a new state for freed slaves to inhabit, an idea that the assistant secretary of the commission, Frederick Douglass, also supported.

Grant and Douglass, in their respective memoirs, make similar defenses of their mutual support. In the end of his 1885 memoir, Grant writes that after the Civil War, African Americans “now should be considered as having as good a right to remain here as any other class of our citizens. It was looking to a settlement of this question that led me to urge the annexation of Santo Domingo” (761), and adds that at the time, the Dominican president Buenaventura Baez favored and even requested annexation.

Grant goes on to write that freed slaves “would go there in great numbers, so as to have independent states governed by their own race. They would still be States of the Union, and under the protection of the General Government; but the citizens would be almost wholly” of the same race. This passage is immediately followed by a long description of the development of the Western Frontier during Grant’s military and political tenure, and there is no textual transition between these two moments. To Grant, the Frontier and Santo Domingo were part and parcel.

Frederick Douglass echoes this sentiment almost point for point in his 1892 memoir. He emphasizes a similar claim that Baez wanted annexation and adds, “there was no more dishonor to Santo Domingo in making her a State of the American Union, than in making Kansas, Nebraska, or any other territory such a state. It was giving to a part the strength of the whole” (Douglass 409). Like Grant, Douglass believed that the creation of states specifically for freed African Americans would be a cause of Reconstruction, granting land and governance to a vulnerable population eager to leave the ruins of the hostile South.

Despite an initial treaty between Grant and Baez failing to pass through Congress, Grant organized an entourage for the commission. In addition to Douglass, there was the Radical Republican Senator B.F. Wade; the historian, diplomat, and co-founder of Cornell University A. D. White; the physician Samuel Howe; and a diplomat to Colombia, Allan A. Burton. Grant cherry-picked these scholars and activists largely for their Republican leanings.

Allan Nevins, in his 1937 900-page biography of Grant’s Secretary of State, Hamilton Fish, provides one of the most detailed assessments of the commission. Nevins writes that in addition to the above five main members, there were “geologists, mineralogists, and other scientists, [and] ten newspaper correspondents” onboard (497). He goes on to describe B. F. Wade as “a Manifest Destiny man” and write that Howe was “carried away by humanitarian zeal for the Caribbean” (498). Fish himself was a quiet imperialist who influenced decisions behind the scenes, favoring annexation as an extension of the early nineteenth century Monroe Doctrine to protect (meaning control) the Western Hemisphere.

All five members returned to the US favoring annexation. On page 35 of the report, they conclude that “the annexation of Santo Domgino to the United States would be hardly less beneficial to the [Haitian] than to the Dominican people. . . This would end the exhausting border warfare” between the two republics sharing the island, by essentially forcing a regime change in Santo Domingo. Douglass and and Burton then go on to offer their “full and complete concurrence with the statements made.” So it was that in 1871, five abolitionists all agreed that annexing and colonizing a Caribbean republic would bring peace and stability, law and order.

There is, however, another chain of events that preceded the commission. Nevins notes that “two Yankee rovers and speculators, William L. Cazneau and Joseph Warren Fabens” who had “been in Texas just before its annexation and had seen the handsome fortunes made there by land speculators” had, before the Civil War, attempted to form economic treaties with Santo Domingo (252). When the first treaties failed, Cazneau “purchased a plantation near Santo Domingo City” and was joined by Fabens in 1859 (253). They wrote directly to Hamilton Fish encouraging annexation, but the Civil War interrupted their plans. A decade later, when the issue came up again under Grant, their investments in Santo Domingo had grown. Though they were not direct members of the commission, they were in contact with a geologist onboard named William Gabb, who worked alongside Wade, the “Manifest Destiny man.”

An even more obscure text, Melvin Knight’s 1928 The Americans in Santo Domingo, is more explicit. Knight writes that “Fabens and Cazneau were all stockholders in the National Bank of Santo Domingo” along with an unknown list of other stakeholders, which was “never published in full, but it was publicly charged in the newspapers, without provoking libel suits, that high officials of the Dominican Government were included” (Knight 8). The 1871 commission, then, followed the gradual investment in Dominican land by American capitalists, who had direct contact with the scientists onboard the commission, who concurred with Grant’s entourage that annexing Santo Domingo would be simultaneously an extension of Manifest Destiny, a defense of the Monroe Doctrine, and a major contribution to Reconstruction.

But it was clear by 1870 that Grant’s plan would not pass Congress, and the report became a way to justify itself by offering scientific and geopolitical evaluations of a neighboring republic. An ideological split within the Republican party between radicals and moderates led to Grant rapidly losing allies, though Fish remained a staunch, pro-expansionist supporter. This division would stall much of the real progress made in Reconstruction, and would contribute to the abandonment of Reconstruction altogether in 1877 as a compromise between moderate Republicans and southern Democrats.

Though the commission was an act of empire-building, it should also be understood, from Douglass’s perspective, in the context of Reconstruction. At the time, the South was occupied by Union soldiers tasked with keeping the peace, which meant protecting freed slaves from reactionary Confederate violence. Douglass supported the expansion that he otherwise opposed in previous and later iterations (Mexico and Haiti respectively) because he, and many others, had essentially greeted Union soldiers as liberators. He fully supported Grant’s coalition of Radical Republicans, who applied a uniquely American capacity to sustain contradiction to Reconstruction: the South became a frontier, and empire became a force of liberation. Douglass was swept up in the possibilities that fused imperialism with abolitionism.

A handful of Americans stood to benefit from the annexation and occupation of a foreign territory, for neither the first nor the last time. But the commission also demonstrates the similarities between three narratives in American history: the colonization of the western frontier, the power of financiers, and the Monroe Doctrine. All three became entangled in the Reconstruction Era, and frontier logic, as boiled down to Manifest Destiny, became a diagnostic tool as much as the Monroe Doctrine, an immaterial policy with material consequences.


Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Crowell-Collier Publishing Company, 1962.

Grant, Ulysses S. The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. Harvard University Press, 2017.

Knight, Melvin M. The Americans in Santo Domingo. Vanguard Press, 1928.

Nevins, Allan. Hamilton Fish. Dodd, Mead & Company, 1937.

Sexton, Jay. The Monroe Doctrine. Hill and Wang, 2011.