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Geologically, Mammoth Cave is a network of underground caverns in central Kentucky believed to be the world's largest cave system.
"Les Revenants" (which also played on Sundance TV) became A&E's The Returned," "Broen/Bron" begat FX's "The Bridge" and in one of the earlier examples, the Danish series "Forbrydelsen" became AMC's "The Killing."Although subtitled fare was once the near-exclusive province of the art-house movie circuit, the prestige niche has found a fertile home in television.In the dozens of first-hand cave narratives that appeared in the 1840s and 50s, Bishop was often celebrated for his handsome and exotic appearance, his extensive knowledge of the cave's topography and history, and his bravery and winsome personality.Today, Bishop continues to capture the imagination, appearing as a central figure in a 2000 Yale Younger Poets volume of poetry, a 2004 children's novel, and a work of historical fiction.4 —as a forgotten romantic hero of the nineteenth century, a figure of black accomplishment and self-determination who overcame the dehumanization of slavery.Similar contradictions defined the slave's role as cave guide.Given the treacherous nature of the underground landscape, guides held practical authority over white tourists, even as their status as legal and social inferiors was acknowledged.While writers have often depicted Bishop and his fellow guides as heroic figures of slave self-determination and power, West complicates this interpretation by revealing how the symbolic authority of the Mammoth Cave slaves served the white imagination.
The theatricality of antebellum cave tourism—which included costumes, optical illusions, sing-alongs, and complex games of racial and sexual role-playing—emerges here as a way of containing the haunting spectacle of black authority and reaffirming conventions of white domination.
Because the archive I am working with exclusively comprises the work of white authors, it is problematic to use these documents to reconstruct Bishop and other cave guides as avatars of slave self-empowerment.
While these historical figures found ways of confusing the behavioral codes of slavery in their everyday interactions with cave visitors, my ultimate subject is the way that the mid-nineteenth-century consciousness witnessed and imagined Mammoth Cave as a racial, sexual, regional, and national space.
During the War of 1812, the cave was an important source of saltpeter (used in the manufacturing of gunpowder), and African American slaves provided the principal labor for its mining and extraction.
Following the war, when the price of saltpeter dropped dramatically, mining became unviable.
When Bishop famously traversed a giant chasm in the cave floor known as the "Bottomless Pit," was he a brave adventurer in a national tradition, or was he providing labor according to his status?