Décor and Debris
Stephen Finley (left) with Lewis Bauer '06.
Professor Stephen Finley and Lewis Bauer '06 Explore the Historic Karakung Valley.
R-100 riders passing by the Penfield stop in Havertown, Pa., might ignore the words “punk rock” spray-painted on an old powder magazine right near the tracks. But it’s just this kind of incongruity that interests Lewis Bauer ’06 and Professor of English Stephen Finley: While the graffiti is an anachronistic 2003 addition, the magazine dates back to the Revolutionary War, one of the many historical remnants filling the Karakung Valley. This summer, Bauer—a recently graduated Student Research Assistant working with the Hurford Humanities Center—is helping Finley to uncover the area history that, according to Finley, lies “hidden behind the mundane façade of 20th-century suburbia.” The Karakung Valley is a three-mile-long watercourse in the northeast quadrant of Haverford Township, ranging from the Haverford College campus to the Grange, a Quaker mansion originally founded as Mäen Coch in the 1680s. The watercourse—running right outside Finley’s back door—conceals “a layering of epochs”: The landscape has hosted everything from Native American tribes to Civil War-era cotton mills to a proto-Disney amusement park.
But what is an English professor doing poking around historical societies and archives? Bauer explains, “The project might seem odd at first for research work in the English department. However, all of this has very much to do with Prof. Finley's prior and current work on the questions of landscape and autobiography in the narratives of Scott, Carlyle, Ruskin, and Newman.” A professor of Romanticism and Victorian literature, Finley was fascinated by the original Grange’s conversion from Quaker-Georgian mansion to Gothic estate, charging the property’s overseer with “wanting to play Sir Walter Scott on Cobbs Creek.” Intrigued, Finley decided to investigate “the extraordinary density or verticality” of his local landscape.
Bauer elaborates, “Investigations of history and landscape, and the human ‘placements’ therein, often default to idealizing or romanticizing the untouched or unsullied grandeur of the American West.” However, “the American landscape, as we know it now, came to be by way of the forcible displacement of native peoples. What we hope to generate in this exploration of an immediately local ‘topography’ is an understanding of the remarkable human ecology and narrative history found, quite literally, in the landscapes of our own backyards.”
Bauer’s earlier work with the Humanities Center inspired an interest in piecing together the historical. Last summer, he held a Student Summer Internship with the Johnson House, a historic stop on the Underground Railroad located at the corner of Germantown Avenue and Washington Lane in Philadelphia. Cataloging the furniture and decorations of another historic house across the street, Bauer discovered that the building had been emptied of its original furnishings, instead “injected with bizarre period piece décor.” Bauer became interested in what Finley refers to as “mimic history,” the contrived authenticity that became a history unto itself. Bauer notes, “You can look at it as frustrating or totally fascinating, the way people make sense of the past.”
Having spent the past year writing a thesis on Thomas Pynchon’s equally fascinating and frustrating Mason & Dixon, Bauer has plunged into Finley’s project, attempting to make his own sense out of the Karakung. “As students,” Bauer explains, “you’re pretty much engrossed in doing your own stuff all the time, and it’s interesting to see the professor’s work going on behind the scenes.” Right now, Bauer is investigating diaries and project records from as far back as the 17th century, trying to understand who has lived and worked the landscape.
That landscape does not so easily yield its secrets, however. While what Finley calls the area’s “bookends”—Haverford College and the Grange itself—are fairly “stable” or well documented historically, the three-mile watercourse in between remains perplexing. Finley notes, “I was overconfident…in my experience as an archivist with a long record of working in England and Scotland, that I would be able to use those skills in working with local history.” Instead, Finley discovered what he calls a “profound loss of context”: The duo has encountered an absence of letters, diaries, and other essential documents, despite the help of the Chester and Delaware County historical societies.
“The ruins are present but mute,” says Finley; if they are to speak, he and Bauer have much work ahead. Some of their current research will influence Finley’s classes for the coming academic year. In the fall, he will be teaching a course entitled “British Topographies”; in the spring, its American counterpart “A Sense of Place.” Thus, while the book project continues, Bauer and Finley’s interdisciplinary studies will impact students in the short-term. Bauer affirms, “We don't need to peer over the edge of the Grand Canyon to find great depth in human histories. Our everyday settings afford us the opportunity to explore intricate pasts and presents, and challenge us to think locally as well as globally.”
—James Weissinger ’06