Introduced by professor Robin Metz, Joan Burbick, author and Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence in American Studies at Knox, gave a reading on Friday. Burbick was born in Chicago and currently lives with her husband, Alex Kuo, in the Pacific Northwest. A full professor of English and American Studies at Washington State University, she received her B.A. degree from Boston College and M.A. degrees from Wesleyan University and Brandeis, which also awarded her a Ph.D.
She is the author of four books and numerous articles and reviews on 19th and 20th century American literature and culture. Her publications include literary criticism, cultural studies, non-fiction, and poetry, from which she has read in Europe, China, and the Middle-East, and presented at the Harvard Medical School, the National Press Club, and public radio stations across the U.S. and England.
On Friday, she gave a reading of a manuscript tentatively titled “Gather at the River.” It is about a day trip, going to various sites of the river, not far from where she lives in eastern Washington, close to Lewiston, Idaho, and Clarkston, Washington. She is involved in a project about The Snake River, which starts in southern Yellowstone Park, goes down in the Tetons, heads off into lower Idaho — which her daughter says, “makes a smile” — then goes into Washington, where it joins with the Columbia.
“It’s a fascinating river because it’s a thousand miles long, it’s a mysterious river, and it’s also where the Oregon Trail, the California Trail, [where] Lewis and Clark trudged along so it has an amazing history,” said Burbick. “I’m particularly interested in these conjunctions between human violence, social violence, and natural violence against the natural world and that’s what I’m exploring especially as it raises questions about memory. I find memory a somewhat disturbing part of human life, especially contemporary American life.”
After the reading there was a lively question and answer session. Burbick answered questions about her previous publications as well as about the selection she read.
“I feel as if, where I live in this area, is very American because it’s a very intentional forget. To even bring up these issues is really in bad taste,” said Burbick. “There’s a huge contrast to me, living in Eastern Europe after the 1989-1990 desires to recover history and re-memorialize it, which has its own problems…Americans tend to get very legalistic about conflict, as opposed to community-based reconciliation, recognition. It becomes a legal battle in the U.S. about the graves instead of restorative work.”
Burbick also talked about the topics of her books. She was inspired to write about rodeos, guns, and the Snake River because they were all parts of the environment where she was living, in the American west. Research for one story led her to another.
“[I went] down to the Lewiston roundup and I did a lot of work with the rodeo court since 1935 up to the present. So I got very interested in the women’s story,” said Burbick. “So then guns grew out of that. They grew out of rodeos.”
Burbick continued to explain the relationship of her three books.
“And I live where there are a lot of gun shows. And it was definitely a very easy step to go from rodeos to guns,” said Burbick. “And it’s more interesting, in some ways for me, full circle, to come back to the natural, having done the work on Thoreau to bring back the issues to the landscape where I live.”