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  • The Terminal: Eric Walrond, the City of Colón, and the Caribbean of the Panama Canal
  • Jennifer Brittan (bio)

All my readers must know—a glance at the map will show it to those who do not—that between North America and the envied shores of California stretches a little neck of land, insignificant-looking enough on the map, dividing the Atlantic from the Pacific.

Mary Seacole, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands

Matter in the wrong place: five words waiting for the largest public works project in US history. Single syllables are best for being matter-of-fact, and the four in this phrase pronounce with a self-assurance that doesn’t budge. Not so the physical stuff in question; the generically identified matter identifies a material referent already neither here nor there. The phrase was put to use in 1908 by geographer Vaughan Cornish, who adds a particularly memorable superlative to the many used to describe the American Panama Canal. Reflecting on the mammoth labor of removing a width of that little neck of land separating the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, he writes, “nowhere is the classical definition of dirt as ‘matter in the wrong place’ so appropriate as on the Isthmus” (167). Maps confirm this characterization; whatever the scale and however detailed, the canal is first and foremost the stretch where [End Page 294] the continent isn’t. With the completion of the canal in 1914, the transit route evolved into a perfect watery nothingness.

What makes the Isthmus so uniquely illustrative of this “classical definition of dirt?” Cornish’s remark is rooted in Victorian interpretations of Enlightenment natural theology, which made human beings instrumental in the achievement of a harmonious and rational natural order. Of particular concern was the urban problem of human waste, or “dirt.” Viewed as “an anthropological phenomenon: a product of man’s defective efforts to organize the material world” (Crook 205), “dirt” was form estranged from function, and thus “a temporarily aberrant substance (‘matter out of place’) within an orderly and intelligible cosmos” (219). Charged with repurposing this material, humans became vital in a conception of nature as a “social-technological whole” in which order required “the artifice of engineering” (208). Here we find the bridge that connects the Isthmus of the canal construction to Victorian urban reform, and the canal detritus to human waste. When Cornish makes the Isthmus exemplary of matter in the wrong place, one assumes he’s referring to the millions of cubic yards of material (over 37,000,000 in 1908 and 262,000,000 overall [McCullough 529, 611]1) excavated from the canal route. Might his remark not also extend to the very stretch of continent this debris came from, that little neck of land? Either way, the canal promises to affirm the natural order that results from putting things right.

There’s a comic irony to Cornish tagging the Isthmus of 1908 as the very place where the definition of “dirt” (matter wrongly placed) is most right; however, to quibble thus would be to forget that nothing was more at home in descriptions of the Panama Canal than superlatives. In this same spirit, we might say that nowhere is Cornish’s assessment of the Isthmus so appropriate as in the Panama described by a later writer: Eric Walrond. Born in British Guiana in 1898, Walrond grew up in rural Barbados and in Panama’s port city of Colón. His short-story collection Tropic Death is set in the Caribbean of the Panama Canal, but belongs to the cultural and literary life of Harlem in the 1920s. He wrote Tropic Death in New York, where, arriving from Cólon in 1918, he would gain prominence as a journalist and fiction writer in the New Negro movement. Walrond’s Panama stories occupy the physical center of a collection that ranges in setting from rural Barbados, British Guiana, and Honduras to Panama’s Atlantic coast. Colón marks the collection’s origin and endpoint: positioned last, the title story follows the move in the writer’s early life from Barbados to this city, the port of arrival for the canal’s largely West Indian labor...


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