Objects of Our Depiction

Objects of Our Depiction: A Material Culture Survey is my new material cultures studies project that asks contemporary writers to answer questions about tools, toys, keepsakes, art, and other objects in their work.

That survey can be found here.

Material culture often refers to an angle of scholarship in which academic readers extrapolate on the meanings of objects in literature. Objects of Our Depiction approaches material culture differently, instead asking how writers conceptualize objects in their own work. The project aims to collect responses from a diverse set of writers on the roles of objects in their work, study those responses, and finally present some perspectives in an essay. The project may also include an archive of responses and a series of follow-up interviews.

What is Material Culture?

According to the Center for Material Culture Studies at the University of Delaware:

Material culture studies is an interdisciplinary field that examines the relationship between people and their things, the making, history, preservation, and interpretation of objects. It draws on theory and practice from such disciplines as art history, archaeology, anthropology, history, historic preservation, folklore, and museum studies, among others. Anything from buildings and architectural elements to books, jewelry, toothbrushes, or bubbles can be considered material culture.

How do material culture and literature overlap?

A wheelbarrow makes an apt example to explain how material culture engages with literature.

Using handles to increase leverage, a tray or bucket to hold materials, and a wheel to reduce friction through rotation, a wheelbarrow increases the efficiency of work a person can perform. Historically, wheelbarrows did not appear in Western culture until 1220 CE, but Chinese culture used wheelbarrow for millennia prior. Today, they are widely used in construction, agriculture, and mining.

From this knowledge, one could generate many questions about wheelbarrows and labor. Who uses a wheelbarrow rather than industrial machines? Is there a socioeconomic or racial disparity in wheelbarrow usage in US cultures or cultures around the world? How have wheelbarrows been owned and used historically? Who owned them? Who used them? Has there been change over time?

When focused on literature, objects like wheelbarrows adds layers of symbolic meaning, layers that inform cultural and historical understandings of things. The most famous literary wheelbarrow, of course, is the subject of Williams Carlos Williams’s poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow.” The poem depicts a wheelbarrow with familiar descriptions – it’s red, wet, and outside by some chickens. When the poet proclaims that “so much depends upon” a wheelbarrow, we encounter the archetype of wheelbarrow cast in a new role, a symbol of labor and subsistence.

Studying material culture encourages readers to turn outward from literary representations of objects to ascertain how objects depicted in literature exist in the real world. In 2015, William Logan published an analysis of Williams’s poem in Parnassus: Poetry in Review in which he pieced together clues from census records and interviews with William Carlos Williams to identify the owner of the poem’s red wheelbarrow as Thaddeus Marshall, an African American fisherman and farmer. Using a historical map, Logan confirmed that a large chicken coop once existed in Marshall’s yard.  

What does it mean that an affluent, white doctor/poet captured the tool of an African American laborer in a famous poem that has been read by scores of high schoolers and undergrads? What does it mean for Marshall’s real wheelbarrow which he literally depended on to become the symbolically depended-upon archetype of labor? What about the object is erased when the poet excludes the person who owned and used it?

Logan’s scholarship on “The Red Wheelbarrow” makes one wonder, what if we had always known who owned the red wheelbarrow and Thaddeus Marshall’s name had been remembered along with his tool? What would change if Williams himself had said, “I used Thaddeus Marshall’s wheelbarrow in my poem because…”?

Objects of Our Depiction intends examine objects through the eyes of the writers who depict them, to see what we learn and to make a record. To gather writer’s impressions, I have created a survey with six questions that prompt writers to reflect on specific objects in their work and the roles objects play in their writing more generally. Again, that survey is here.

In the coming months, I will be looking for participants in this project. I hope to meet some at AWP in Seattle soon. Maybe I’ve already met you there?