Ruins are scars. Some are in the process of healing, succumbing to gravity, dirt, and time, covered in roots and soon to be buried. Others still hurt, poking at the sky, or, more pointedly, at the transformation and defacing of a people’s dignity. No matter their state of decay, the remnants of buildings, monuments, and infrastructure fundamentally alter how we construct the idea of landscape, of the structures we use to illustrate power.
Alicia Puglionesi’s second book In Whose Ruins: Power, Possession, and the Landscapes of American Empire, heavily invests the majority of its pages into interrogating the relationship between ruin and power, from the notion of governmental legitimacy, to fresh histories of Americans and their relationship to energy sources (oil, hydroelectric, and atomic), to the spiritual power lent to the land and its resources by a wide array of ideologies, religions, and cultures. This last aspect is not so surprising, considering Puglionesi’s first book, Common Phantoms, examined the boundaries of science, belief, and Spiritualism, focusing especially on seances and mediums. With this expertise and prior research, Puglionesi makes a perfect guide through the strange myths, characters, and environments that best reflect the insidious exploitation inseparable from American dominion.
White settlers needed a variety of narratives to help justify their extraction of natural materials as well as their brutal treatment of Indigenous people throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the main time period discussed throughout In Whose Ruins. Stories of the “Mound-Builders,” an imagined lost white race that predated Native groups, helped to assuage white guilt at the forced removal of Native American tribes, and to finance the exhumation and tourism industry that grew up around the site of a burial mound in Kentucky. At every turn in the saga, which Puglionesi chronicles exhaustively, settlers undermine Native legends, beliefs, and ways of life. Their motivations range from intentional distortion, ambition, greed, and misplaced altruism even to the hastening of the end times. As Puglionesi writes: “American culture continues to produce new stories that justify the violence of the past and fantasize its recurrence in an apocalyptic future.”
One of the highlights of In Whose Ruins is Puglionesi’s attention to the complicated marriage between Bamewawagehikaquay, or Jane Johnston, and Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, today remembered for chronicling many Native American folktales, though, as we know now, rather inaccurately. Initially a partnership between two people from different cultures by all appearances deeply in love, Schoolcraft’s whiteness and eagerness for fame eclipses his love for his wife and ultimately leads to her illness and death. Puglionesi tells their story, which is really more the tale of Johnston, in the most deft writing in the book. The laser-sharp historical focus on this marriage persuades the audience of her thesis more clearly than some of the more conceptual and thus, more removed, passages that follow.
As we move from the confluence of history, white surpremacist myth making, and translation to an examination of Spiritualist oil magnates in “Petrolia,” Pennsylvania, an area in the present day that has been left in both physical and economic ruin as a result of more than a century of ceaseless oil drilling, we follow Puglionessi’s thesis to some unnatural avenues. Oilmen like Abraham James claimed to be investing in oil deposits at the behest of their spiritual beliefs, because to them oil was a blessing from God or even, in some cases, at the direction of ghosts and otherworldly spirits who located new spots to dig.
Puglionesi’s previous work gives her unquestionable expertise on this subject matter, but at times there is perhaps too much credence given to the idea that these oilmen truly believed in these stories of divine intervention and inspiration. These stories should be interpreted more figuratively, or in the manner of her earlier analysis that understood these narratives to be rationalizations and/or fairy tales that covered up the damage this exploitation caused to the Spiritualists, the land, and the Indigenous people who first lived there. This is not to say that the Spiritualists did not deeply, or devoutly, believe, but there is danger in reading their accounts at face value. The same can be said for reading Native spiritual stories as well; it is possible to read them seriously without reading them literally.
As Puglionesi’s history continues through accounts of the destruction of petroglyphs along the Susquehanna River to the Atomic Energy Commission irradiating the lands of the Pueblo, readers begin to recognize Puglionesi’s larger aim in this book is not to author a history through the lens of belief and its destructive impulses, but instead to draw out the conflict embedded in the American landscape and the stories buried there. Her argument directs us to rethink the narratives that feel “so embedded in histories of energy, landscape, and technology.”
In a challenge in the book’s conclusion, we are called on to seek the actual ruin of a capitalist system that preys upon people today, both through popular myths (such as the American Dream, or Manifest Destiny), and the myths that linger in the unconscious, of the United States as a land where power, money, and opportunity must come at the expense of marginalized and oppressed groups. The ruins of Petrolia, the hydroelectric dams, the state prison “haunted” by ghosts of previous inmates built on top of the burial mounds, are all visual reminders of hidden histories that we would rather leave undiscussed. But wounds don’t heal that way; they fester if not treated or washed out with disinfectant.
To lay my cards on the table, I am not swayed by arguments to take ghost stories as fact, or to think of them as anything other than figurative representations of trauma, exploitation, or violence that can give structure to events that otherwise seem random or unexplainable. But to take up Puglionesi’s convincing and illuminating reading of American history and land, it seems to be inevitable that a public reckoning with these ghosts, real or not, is necessary. If this accounting did come to pass, it could herald the beginning of an American without these ghosts, where the ugly histories are not concealed, but brought out into the sun.
In Whose Ruins
By Alicia Puglionesi
Scribner Book Company
Published April 5, 2022
Michael Pittard is an English lecturer at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He has an MFA in poetry from UNCG and is a former poetry editor of The Greensboro Review.