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State Takes Center Stage in Lit Class

Students who enrolled in Assistant Professor of English Jennie Joiner’s Traditions of Literature course this spring expected to delve into a collection of works set in New York state.

What they didn’t expect was an Empire State history lesson.

The running joke in class is that maps are now a regular part of Joiner’s routine, as students traverse a literary route from east to west across the state, exploring different regions of New York in works that include Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers, the Erie Canal Reader, 1790-1950, and Walter Edmonds’ Rome Haul.

Joiner acknowledged that her dependence on maps has been to emphasize that New York was the only state with geography sufficient for construction of the Erie Canal, and with the canal, linked the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean, bringing commerce and other boons of civilization further west.

“You think the biggest thing that happened to the state was New York City, or you’d think New York City was the heart of the state, but it’s not. The Erie Canal was. I’m not from here so it’s interesting to know,” said junior Annie Smith, a New Jersey native. “I never heard of the Erie Canal, so to see how much went on during the Erie Canal [era] and now in the 21st century … We wouldn’t have Auburn, Geneva, and all those places if it wasn’t for the canal. It played a major part in what’s 20 miles north of us and east or west.”

Sophomore Marie Cozzi calls Long Island home, and said she never realized how much history was prevalent in Upstate and Western New York.

Marie Cozzi pores over historic images of Niagara Falls in a book Joiner passed around the classroom.

“Reading through the stuff, it’s cool to see how the history is [represented] in the novels. I never thought there would be a history of Upstate New York in the books. One thing leads to the next. They all relate to the other.”

Students have learned much about New York state, from the salt mines of Syracuse, to the commercial hub of Rome, where the Black River Canal also linked the Erie Canal to points north, and to the Pan-American Exposition, a World’s Fair-style marvel held in Buffalo.

Recently, Joiner pulled up a PowerPoint filled with maps, photos and even classic paintings of the Niagara Falls “cataract” and city of Buffalo. Students ventured back in time to 1901, the year in which Lauren Belfer’s “City of Light” is set. At the time, Buffalo was the nation’s eighth-largest city. The Pan-American Exposition  was built on 350 acres in what today is a portion of  Delaware Park. According to Joiner, the focus of the international event was to show off the wonders of electricity, particularly by showcasing the Exposition grounds and buildings at night, powered by energy harnessed at the nearby Falls.

Dr. Joiner points out the 1901 PanAm Exposition map laid over the current city of Buffalo.

“It doesn’t even look like Buffalo, does it?” Joiner asked, highlighting several ornate features including red-roofed European-style buildings, water fountains, gardens, pillared facades and more. “This is the backdrop of what’s happening in the novel.”

Much like the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, which was plagued by a bombing, the Exposition holds a mixed legacy. President William McKinley was assassinated there in September 1901.

Students review a portion of the novel's environmental debate before choosing sides in a class discussion.

Moving into photographs of Niagara Falls, its natural power and, at the turn of the century, its first hydro-electric power plants, Joiner assigned a brief writing exercise. Students examined the debate between two primary characters in the book– Daniel Henry Bates, who argued for environmental preservation, and James Fitzhugh, chief engineer of the Niagara Frontier Power Project, who pushed for industrial development – and chose sides. Contrasting the characters’ claims of job creation and clean energy versus near-religious arguments that attempts to tame the waters invite the punishment of God, Joiner asked students, “Does any of this sound familiar right now?”

Freshman Tom Fowler spoke up: “It’s the same argument with [hydro]fracking; there’s just no middle right now.”

“This was the first environmental fight in our country and [Belfer] was using it as a backdrop for this story,” Joiner said. “This is [published in] 1999, looking back on 1901 and speaks to the present moment in New York state.”

Later this summer, Joiner will use Belfer’s novel and two others for a presentation at the Association for the Study of Literature & Environment (ASLE) Conference, contending that the works show there can be no marriage between industry and the environment.

The Niagara Frontier Power Project, seen in this historic photo, takes center stage in the novel, "City of Light."

After students complete the Belfer novel, they will move back east across the map to Albany, where the final novel, William Kennedy’s Ironweed, is set. In this way, Joiner  hopes to bring the class back to a centralized locale and capital of the state. In addition to teaching traditional components of literature, Joiner said her goal has been to hear students say “‘Wow, I never realized this was here!’

Freshman Braegar Taaffe has noticed the effect of history on the people of the state and how different cultures sprang up in various locales.

“It’s interesting to see New York culturally developed and the advancement of pioneers, to Erie Canal and Buffalo,” he said.

One Response to State Takes Center Stage in Lit Class

  1. Christopher Leahy says:

    Thank you for the great article! Professor Joiner now has me interested in reading the novels the class has had to read. I teach a course on the History of New York State and love the interdisciplinary approach to learning. I am sure I can learn a great deal by approaching the subject through literature.

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