Erik Mortenson discusses his book Ambiguous Borderlands and the pervasiveness of shadow imagery in Cold War materials.
Ambiguous Borderlands: Shadow Imagery in Cold War American Culture (Southern Illinois University Press, 2016) investigates the role shadows play in Cold War literary and popular texts. Informed by research at the Ransom Center, it examines Beat literature, postwar photography, film noir, Twilight Zone episodes, and more to explain why shadow imagery had such a hold on American imaginations in the mid-twentieth century.
How did your work at the Ransom Center inform your research and book?
Ambiguous Borderlands really had its genesis at the Ransom Center. I’m a Beat scholar, and I had originally planned on writing a book about the Beats and dreams. Beat writers were very interested in recording the full range of their experiences, and they considered their dreams to be just as important as their waking life in trying to understand the world. The Center’s Beat holdings are extensive, and as I delved into the correspondence between Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, I did find a number of revealing dreams that the two shared with one another. But one figure kept recurring—a specter that haunted both their dreams, and that the pair would come to call “The Shrouded Stranger.” As I followed their attempts to describe this figure and debate his relevance, I realized that the image of The Shrouded Stranger was important not just for Ginsberg and Kerouac at this early stage in their careers, but it also spoke to larger fears and anxieties that permeated Cold War culture.
The scope of your book is broad: poetry, pulp fiction, photography, film. How did you approach researching a range of subjects?
In all my books, I like to explore larger themes, images, or concepts as they appear across various mediums, genres, and authors. Such an approach is powerful, I believe, since it allows for interesting ideas to emerge as texts are brought into new configurations. But it does require quite a bit of work. Each chapter of Ambiguous Borderlands felt a little like its own book, as I shifted from a history of shadow imagery to Cold War poetry to The Twilight Zone. Fortunately, I had the main thesis of the book—the idea that shadows revealed the anxieties of the Cold War world while providing postwar artists the imaginative space to challenge the thinking of the times—to keep each chapter focused.
While at the Ransom Center, did you find anything that altered your research focus?
The discovery of “The Shrouded Stranger” image and its importance for Kerouac and Ginsberg was a catalyst for the book. Both felt that their dreams were revealing something important, and as writers, they struggled in their letters and drafts to capture and explain their meaning. But Kerouac and Ginsberg also felt that The Shrouded Stranger was a universal figure that spoke to larger cultural concerns. I had always been interested in shadows, and as a scholar specializing in the Cold War, it seemed strange to me how often the figure of the shadow came up in works associated with the period. Ambiguous Borderlands is an attempt to understand why shadow imagery is so amenable to the Cold War and its concerns.
Ambiguous Borderlands draws “on theorizations of psychoanalysis” (Freudian and Jungian, specifically). How did you connect these ideas to your subject matter?
You can’t talk about dreams without talking about Sigmund Freud, and you can’t talk about shadows without talking about Carl Jung. Not only were their ideas essential for the project, but both Freud and Jung had a direct impact on U.S. culture at the time. In fact, Ginsberg and Kerouac initially discussed their Shrouded Stranger dream in Freudian terms, and one of Kerouac’s dreams looks very much like a dream Jung had while in North Africa of being chased by a strange Arabic man. However, I wanted to avoid a “Freudian” or “Jungian” reading of the material, and thus my focus is more on their ideas and how they might shed light on the recurring use of shadow imagery in the early postwar. For many postwar artists, shadow imagery is useful not because it reveals a hidden impulse or desire, but because it provides a visual metaphor for the anxieties of the period that can be usefully exploited. Rather than read shadows as a symptom in the psychoanalytic sense, these artists use the indeterminacy that shadows create to force the reader or viewer to re-examine their own ideas and beliefs.
Can you share how you thought to link these artists in the first place? (For example, how did the works of Sylvia Plath, Amiri Baraka, and Jack Kerouac come together for you?)
Although my research at the Ransom Center was the inspiration for Ambiguous Borderlands, I had been interested in Cold War shadow imagery for some time. I always loved the chiaroscuro world of film noir, and I was a Twilight Zone fan from a young age. Shadows always fascinated me, and I thought it strange that these ubiquitous images, so ephemeral yet with us since the dawn of time, received so little attention. The more I read in the field of Cold War studies, the more I realized that shadows were everywhere in the period. From images of the atomic bomb blasts, to political rhetoric that equated the Soviet threat to shadowy subversives, to numerous academic studies that employed the term in their titles, shadows had somehow become linked to the black-and-white postwar world. And once I started looking for them specifically, these shadows seemed to multiply in the work of writers like Sylvia Plath and Amiri Baraka and photographers like William Klein and Ralph Eugene Meatyard. Ambiguous Borderlands was my attempt to understand why shadow imagery had such a hold on imaginations during the 1950s and 1960s, and why it is still linked to the Cold War in popular culture today.
Mortenson is a senior lecturer at Wayne State University’s Honors College in Detroit, and before moving to Detroit, he was an assistant professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Koç University in Istanbul, Turkey. Mortenson was the recipient of a Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Jewish Studies from the Ransom Center. His most recent book, Translating the Counterculture: The Reception of the Beats in Turkey, examines how the Beat legacy of dissent is being appropriated in contemporary Turkey.