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  • The Chinaman’s CrimeRace, Memory, and the Railroad in Willa Cather’s “The Affair at Grover Station”

When “Terrapin” Rodgers, the narrator of Willa Cather’s short story “The Affair at Grover Station” (1900), discovers that the railroad agent and professional gambler Freymark is not the “Alsatian Jew” (341) he has advertised himself to be but really of Chinese descent, he declares that this fact “explain[s] everything” (342).1 It explains why Freymark, a man of about thirty, has the “yellow, wrinkled hands” (342) of a “centenarian” (343), although he takes “the greatest care” of them (342). It explains his “unusual, stealthy grace” (342), his “sallow [and] unwholesome looking” face (341–42), the “impudent red lips” (342), and the sense that there is something “in his present, or in his past, or in his destiny which isolate[s] him from other men” (342). Most important of all, the story implies that it is Freymark’s Chinese blood that leads him to murder in cold blood his fellow railroad worker and romantic rival, Lawrence O’Toole, at Grover Station before hiding the body on an eastbound freight car and returning to Cheyenne to dance at the governor’s inaugural ball with O’Toole’s sweetheart, Helen Masterson.

In many ways “The Affair at Grover Station” presents a familiar, early-twentieth-century justification for Chinese exclusion. It warns that the Chinese have no place in the United States and that if they are allowed to sneak in, as Freymark has, the consequences for the hard-working men who represent the best of the US frontier, as well as the virtuous women who love them, will be dire if not disastrous. In this regard Freymark seems to fit in with the cast of Chinese villains that populate the cultural landscape of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From Frank Norris’s [End Page 147] depictions of the Chinese as kidnapping, drugging, and then enslaving white women in “The Third Circle” (1909), to Jack London’s fantasy of a race war between China and the United States in “The Unparalleled Invasion” (1910), to the evil, world-conquering machinations of Sax Rohmer’s Dr. Fu Manchu (first introduced in 1913 with The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu), Chinese fictional characters such as Freymark reflected and reinforced the widespread early-twentieth-century belief that the Chinese presented a real and imminent threat to the nation, a belief that reached its hysterical heights with the passage of the first Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 but that resonated for much of the twentieth century. Jacob Riis, who deplored the miserable conditions under which many immigrants lived in the New York City slums in How the Other Half Lives (1890), nevertheless wrote in the same volume that the Chinese “are in no sense a desirable element of the population . . . [and] serve no useful purpose here”; in fact, “they are [such] a constant and terrible menace to society” that the “severest official scrutiny, [and] the harshest repressive measures are justifiable in Chinatown” (chap. 9, “Chinatown”).

Despite the seeming unanimity of anti-Chinese sentiment throughout this period, the manner in which the Chinese were depicted in popular fiction was anything but monolithic. Each Chinese figure, Freymark included, tells a slightly different version of a complicated historical story, one that has little to do with the experiences or histories of the Chinese in America and instead has everything to do with US anxieties regarding the limits of its national identity and emerging global power. In attempting to account for the depth of anti-Chinese sentiment and the diversity of its literary manifestations, a productive but relatively unheralded conversation has emerged among literary scholars regarding the archaeology of Asian racial formation in the early twentieth century. These viewpoints are by no means mutually exclusive; in fact, they overlap and build upon each other in important ways, but each focuses on a slightly different trope within anti-Chinese discourse to explain the power and persistence of Asian racialization. For Colleen Lye, Asian racialization in the early twentieth century was built around economic tropes, and she argues that the association between Asians and economic modernity characterizes much of [End Page 148] that discourse—both in its “negative” manifestations (yellow peril) and in its “positive” ones (model minority) (3). David Palumbo-Liu argues that Asian racialization had everything to do with the nation’s attempts to “manage” the modern, which was particularly linked to conquering the Pacific Rim (18). Robert G. Lee presents extensive historical evidence that the Chinese were imagined to be contaminants, infecting and weakening every aspect of US life they touched, from labor to urban spaces, from gender relations to domestic arrangements (90). For these critics the key to understanding the racialization of the Chinese in the early twentieth century is to analyze what Lye calls “modernity’s dehumanizing effects” (11).

I want to build on the conversation that I’ve summarized above and argue that “The Affair at Grover Station” offers a particular and peculiar twist on the usual anti-Chinese rhetoric, one that I will attempt in this essay to parse and make meaning of. The wellspring of Chinese amorality and the justification for their exclusion is not rooted merely in an inherently violent or uncivilized nature; rather, the story argues that Freymark and his ilk should be excluded from the nation because they are old, and not just old, but too old. In other words, what is most noteworthy about Rodger’s sinophobia is its emphasis on the ancientness of the Chinese as a race. “The Affair at Grover Station” goes to great lengths to assert the fact that Freymark commits this premeditated murder because he belongs to “a race that was already old when Jacob tended the flocks of Laban upon the hills of Padan-Aram, a race,” Rodgers goes on to note, “that was in its mort cloth before Europe’s swaddling clothes were made” (343). Rodgers staunchly believes that Freymark murders O’Toole because of the “sluggish amphibious blood” that flows through his veins (343). The antiquity of Chinese civilization has rendered its citizens walking anachronisms—forever foreign in terms of both space and time—and, therefore, unfit for inclusion into the United States.

The problem with this verdict is that Freymark does not seem to be aware of the fact that he and his race have been relegated to the dustbin of history. This, I would argue, is the central conundrum that troubles “The Affair at Grover Station”: the Chinese never seem to recognize their irrelevance and so fail to fade away accordingly. On the contrary, the Chinese do not merely cling to the modernity [End Page 149] that the United States exemplifies; they thrive in it. Rodgers grudgingly but repeatedly showcases Freymark’s genius for maneuvering himself through the US landscape. Rodgers describes Freymark as a shrewd if dishonest businessman with an “insatiable passion for gambling” (342). Freymark’s murder of O’Toole is a technical feat as well as a diabolical one: he takes a train down to Grover Station from Cheyenne, murders O’Toole, disposes of the body, performs the dead man’s work in order to allay any suspicions, and then catches another train back to Cheyenne in time for the ball—all in the absence of any eyewitnesses who can definitively place him at the scene of the crime.2 Thus, the story’s insistence on Chinese exclusion based on their atemporality as citizen-subjects masks a much deeper anxiety: that the Chinese are actually incredibly adept at maneuvering themselves through modernity, rendering the United States a belated newcomer to the modernity that it had believed itself to epitomize.

The story’s anxiety that the Chinese actually embody—rather than threaten—US modernity is exemplified and complicated by two interconnected tropes that are central to the story, both of which I will explore in these pages. The first is the railroad and Freymark’s relationship to it. For much of the nineteenth century the railroad was a potent symbol of US manifest destiny, the very thing that justified and exemplified US exceptionalism. Yet in “The Affair at Grover Station” it is Freymark who is most closely linked with the railroad. He was the station agent at Grover Station before being caught in financial shenanigans by the scrupulously honest O’Toole; after his dismissal, Rodgers explains that Freymark “went into cattle” and often “sent cattle shipments our way” (342, 348). His success in murdering O’Toole depends upon his ability to navigate train schedules as a passenger and his knowledge of the railway business as a freight agent; because he is a prized customer, Freymark can request that the train make unscheduled stops at his ranch outside of Cheyenne. The last anyone hears of Freymark, he escapes on the Union Pacific railroad, free presumably to create another identity and insinuate himself into the life of another town in the West. Freymark’s association with the railroad—and the fact that he uses it to commit and then flee from his crime—is perhaps the most convincing indicator that the story’s attempt to relegate [End Page 150] the Chinese to the ancient past cannot succeed. If the train is the stage for national identity in the turn-of-the century United States, then somewhere riding the rails, the Chinese linger—hidden, fungible, wealthy, and able, surprisingly, to blend in.

The second trope that informs the story’s anxieties regarding the Chinese is one that will be familiar to Cather readers: that of memory. As much as any work of fiction within Cather’s canon, “The Affair at Grover Station” is an anxious meditation on the nature of memory-making itself—how memories are formed and recalled—and the narratives that are conjured by certain memories. It is a story, in other words, about mnemonics, or the signs that we must interpret to make certain memories available. Freymark, as we shall see, transforms himself into a mnemonic device, essentially asserting that any act of memory on the part of the characters will have to take him into account. Freymark’s co-optation of memory emblematizes the story’s concern that the Chinese can shape national narratives even when their presence is demeaned and minimized. The story emphasizes the antiquity of China in an attempt to control the kind of memories that they provoke—things easily relegated to the past, irrelevant to the workings of an US present—but it simultaneously presents a lingering anxiety that the Chinese can control not only that modernity but also the meaning-making processes that bind the nation together. In other words, it is precisely because the Chinese are perceived as being anachronistic—that is, out of their time—that their presence disrupts the nationalist narratives that are central to the nation’s imagined community.

The Chinese and Temporality

The relationship between temporality and racial difference is vital to understanding the threat that Freymark poses in “The Affair at Grover Station.” As I stated earlier, the Chinese cannot be assimilated, but not merely because they are heathens, contaminated, and less than human. Instead these qualities are the results of their own racial, cultural, and political obsolescence. What distinguishes the Chinese from other racialized groups (and makes them fascinating to Americans from the nineteenth century to the present) is the perception that although China was once a highly civilized and cultured nation, it now lingers stubbornly in a world that has moved [End Page 151] beyond it. Theirs is a race that is characterized not by belatedness in relation to the white man (which is the relationship that Homi Bhabha argues exists between the colonizer and colonized), but by metachronism, that is, the erroneous placement of a person or event after its actual date.3 Their continued existence and interaction with Americans therefore represent a disruption of a narrative regarding modernity, progress, race, and nation.

A preoccupation with temporality and metachronism pervades much anti-Chinese rhetoric. Stuart Creighton Miller maintains that “China was viewed as singularly impervious to nineteenth-century ideals of progress, liberty, and civilization to which an emergent modern America was committed” (vii). The Chinese were often associated with death simply because they themselves were seen as part of a culture and civilization near death. Senator James Blaine, a vociferous champion of Chinese exclusion, argued that Americans had “the right to exclude that immigration which reeks with impurity and which cannot come to us without plenteously sowing the seeds of moral and physical disease, destitution, and death” (qtd. in Gyory 3–4). A cartoon published in the September 25, 1869, issue of Harper’s Weekly starkly captures the notion of the Chinese as living anachronisms in relation to the United States.4 The cartoon, titled “The Last Addition to the Family,” shows a woman, embodying the United States, holding in her arms what appears initially to be an infant. Closer inspection reveals the baby to be an ancient Chinaman, with a long queue of black hair, a deeply wrinkled face, and a sinister expression about his eyes. The woman’s pose in the cartoon suggests maternal solicitude, and her face is set with what seems to be parental resolve as she gazes upon the infant in her arms. The image is fascinating because it emphasizes the idea that the relationship between the United States and China is generational and thus defined by each nation’s place on a timeline. The grotesque image of the Chinaman suggests the ambivalent registers of the nation’s construction of Chinese difference. On the one hand the helplessness and weakness that characterize the Chinese are imagined as a form of infanthood, thus evoking a sense of moral and familial responsibility that fits in with imperialist fantasies. With noble mien the United States resolves to cherish and care for a nation that clearly violates all principles of domesticity and personhood [End Page 152] because it has a duty to civilize. On the other hand, however, the image also evokes a sense of disgust as well as pity. China as a nation is forcibly represented as having entered its “second childishness,” but without any sense that “mere oblivion” is about to follow, as Shakespeare tells us. This bizarre image of the Chinese man as at once infantile and ancient powerfully suggests how completely metachronistic and out of sync the Chinese and Chinese culture are with the modernity that the United States represents; but this combination also makes clear that the Chinaman still has a long life, as it were, ahead of himself, one that the United States will have to take into account in its role as exemplar of the modern world.5

Part of what makes Freymark fascinating to Rodgers and other characters is the sense that he’s a man out of his time, that there is something “in his present, or in his past, or in his destiny which isolate[s] him from other men” (342). Prior to the revelation of Freymark’s racial identity Rodgers thinks of him as “a blackguard,” “queer,” and “uncanny” (341–42).6 Early in the story the secret of Freymark’s Chinese ancestry is revealed by a cousin of O’Toole who worked as a journalist in London. Freymark is indeed from Paris, but he is not a Jew, as he initially purports to be; rather, his ancestry “date[s] from farther back than Israel” (342). Rodgers and O’Toole also learn from this source that Freymark is exceedingly sensitive about his Chinese lineage and eager to enter society as a white man; his adoption of a “Jewish patronymic” is an attempt to “account for his oriental complexion and traits of feature.” Despite Freymark’s attempts to mingle in respectable society, Rodgers and O’Toole learn that while in London, Freymark engaged in “exceedingly questionable traffic”; later, Rodgers again asserts mysteriously that Freymark was involved in “peculiarly unsavory traffic” and that his activities, not to mention his race, would have “disbarred [him from] almost any region outside of Whitechapel” (343). The invocation of Whitechapel, an area associated in the Victorian world with prostitution and, most infamously, Jack the Ripper, gives the reader a sense of the nature of Freymark’s underworld ties and the threat he potentially poses to the beautiful Miss Masterson particularly and white womanhood more generally.7 Rodgers’s construction of Freymark’s isolation along a timeline rather than through other exclusionary rhetorics (biology, religion, politics) reflects the [End Page 153] particular strain of anti-Chinese discourse in the twentieth century that I discuss above.

The temporal displacement that the narrative continually touches upon is also reflected in its structure. Rodgers’s narration of O’Toole’s murder is surrounded by a framing story that is narrated in the first person by an unnamed college friend of Rodgers. This frame narrator is out West on a geological expedition and recounts meeting Rodgers by chance in Grover Station. While the two men are riding a train car back to Cheyenne, the frame narrator asks to hear the story of O’Toole’s murder. Cather often used this framing technique in her stories, most famously in My Ántonia (1918), to explore what Lisa Marie Lucenti calls “the architecture of . . . remembrance” (194).8 In the case of “The Affair at Grover Station” the frame doesn’t merely highlight the narrator’s intensive interest in making meaning of the past. The framing story acts as another form of temporal displacement, further separating the Chinese from the “here and now” of Rodgers and his college friend in an attempt to locate them more firmly in the “there and then” of the story’s own past. Placing Freymark in the past—even if it is the immediate past of the story—contains his presence and controls what he is capable of doing in the present. In addition to the story’s temporal containment, Rodgers is warned by his superiors not to repeat the story, an admonishment that is obviously meant to control Freymark’s presence or at least to control knowledge about his presence. Rodgers ignores the warning of his employers and recounts the story to the unnamed framing narrator, partly because he is deeply troubled by what has transpired and partly with the idea of shaping the listeners’ understanding of events and O’Toole’s blamelessness in them. By the story’s end neither strategy—containment nor repetition—has worked in limiting the impact that Freymark has had on the other characters.

The story’s insistence that Freymark’s presence and effect be displaced both temporally and geographically speaks to its anxiety that the Chinese are not as irrelevant as the United States wants to believe. The story’s description of Freymark falls in line with Colleen Lye’s proposition that the United States has historically constructed Asian exceptionalism as an “unusual capacity for economic modernity [that] extends to moments when the affect of racial discourse [End Page 154] has been hostile (‘yellow peril’) as well as admiring (‘model minority’)” (3). The story’s anxiety regarding the Chinese propensity for economic modernity can be seen in Freymark’s name itself. In German frei means “free,” and mark was the German currency in the late nineteenth century. We can thus interpret his name as meaning “free money” or “liberated money.” That the struggle between Freymark and the various characters in the story is inextricable from economic issues can also be seen in the description of O’Toole, who is described as having a “face that served him as a sight draft, good in all banks” (341). It seems counter to the story’s logic that O’Toole’s open face and honest demeanor should bring to mind systems of borrowing and institutions of lending (drafts, banks), while Freymark’s sinister mien and crafty manner are associated, linguistically speaking at least, with currency as gifts. However, Lye’s theory of US constructions of Asia reveals this seeming contradiction to be two sides of the same coin. In this case Freymark’s name along with his widely recognized skill in gambling and his ability to master the technology of the railroad to commit his nefarious deeds all seem to suggest that despite the corrupting effects of China’s great age, it produces men who excel at accumulating capital and manipulating technology. As Lye suggests, the Chinese have historically been perceived as a threat to the United States precisely because of their ability to embody both the “yellow peril” and “the model minority,” stereotypes that she argues are really different facets of the same racialized discourse. Cather’s portrayal of Freymark makes temporality a vital and constitutive component of the Chinese exceptionalism that Lye describes rather than an irreconcilable element outside of it. The agedness of Freymark’s Chinese blood does not make him any less adaptable to the modern United States; in fact, it makes him all the more skillful in furthering his economic interests, in moving noiselessly from place to place undetected by anyone, and ultimately in committing a crime for which he will not be punished.

These two strands of thought regarding the Chinese—that they are culturally metachronistic and simultaneously hypercompetent negotiators of modernity—necessarily had a profound impact on how the United States viewed itself as a nation. The presence of the Chinese in the United States highlights the difference between [End Page 155] the two countries in terms of their histories: if China is imagined as a country with too much past, then the United States becomes the nation with too little. The ease with which Freymark navigates modern life—trains, schedules, firearms, capital—raises the possibility that it is not the Chinese who have outlived their own time, but the United States that has arrived belatedly into its own; the angst that Rodgers feels over O’Toole’s seeming lateness to the ball, especially after Freymark makes his appearance, echoes a cultural apprehension that US exceptionalism is merely another way of talking about its laggardly relationship to the temporality that defines modernity. To borrow a formulation of Aamir Mufti’s regarding the Jews and Europe, being Chinese in America “puts into question any settled identification of this place with this people and this language” (106).

“Dead Things That Move”: Cather’s Chinese Fiction

Cather’s representation of the Chinese as the living dead is not unique to Freymark and “The Affair at Grover Station.” Unlike “The Affair,” “A Son of the Celestial” (published in the Hesperian in 1893) and “The Conversion of Sum Loo” (published in the Library in 1900) are set in Chinatown and are character sketches rather than full-fledged narratives. While “The Affair” is more readily identifiable as a Cather work—with its prairie setting, idealization of frontier life, evocative prose, and a framing narrative device—all three stories make the metachronistic nature of the Chinese their focus. Although the Chinese figures in “A Son of the Celestial” and “The Conversion of Sum Loo” are not nearly as villainous as Freymark, they inspire in the other characters a similar level of fear, resentment, and, most interestingly, exasperation. These three stories—all published in the first decade of Cather’s professional writing career and that I am dubbing Cather’s Chinese fiction—provide a new perspective on Cather’s attitudes toward racial difference. While several critics have written about Cather’s representation of Jewish and African American characters, no one has considered how the Chinese figure into Cather’s fiction. Read together, the three stories make clear that Cather’s work contains an untapped archive of materials regarding the Chinese in the United States—an archive that does not necessarily contain any accurate information on the lives [End Page 156] of the Chinese who worked and lived here, but rather indicates how anti-Chinese discourses were constructed, utilized, and adapted.

Published in the same year as “The Affair at Grover Station,” “The Conversion of Sum Loo,” the most sentimental and arguably the most sympathetic of the three stories in terms of its treatment of the Chinese, recounts the attempts of the Heavenly Rest Mission Home to convert Sum Chin, a successful San Francisco merchant, to the Christian faith. “Sister Hannah” of the mission convinces Sum Chin and his young wife, Sum Loo, to baptize their only son, Sum Wing. Hannah’s triumph in bringing the couple to Christ is marred by the intense discomfort she feels when she is in Sum Chin’s presence, a discomfort that stems from his demeanor, which is characterized by a “passive, resigned agnosticism, a doubt older than the very beginnings of [her own] faith. . . . It is such an ancient doubt, that of China, and it has gradually stolen the odor from the roses and the tenderness from the breasts of the women” (328). Like “The Affair,” “The Conversion of Sum Loo” constructs Chinese-American relations in temporal terms, emphasizing the deadening quality of Chinese culture, especially when placed in proximity to US ideals. Unlike Freymark, Sun Chin is a family man who has consciously chosen to assimilate into the United States through gender, domestic, and religious conventions. Despite these attempts, Sister Hannah perceives Sum Chin as a threat, not because he represents an immediate physical danger, but because of his ability to suck the life out of the innocent things around him. The descriptions of roses that have no scent and breasts that are no longer tender suggest a slower, more seductive form of corruption, one that fascinates as much as it terrorizes. The unexpected death of the baby leads Sum Chin to accuse the “Jesus people” (329) of murdering his son; Sister Hannah then witnesses a terrifying ritual in which Sum Loo, in order to regain her husband’s favor and bear another son, burns the New Testament, one page at a time, as a sacrifice to a fertility god. Horrified by what she has seen, Sister Hannah withdraws from the Chinese mission trip she had agreed to undertake, not because, the story suggests, she lacks religious zeal, but because she realizes the ultimate futility of Christianizing Chinese people at all. The nation’s duty to Christianize and civilize its Chinese inferiors cannot [End Page 157] override the revulsion that China inspires in America’s dutiful and modern subjects.

The theme of Chinese antiquity can also be seen in “A Son of the Celestial: A Character Sketch,” which describes the life of Yung Le Ho, a San Francisco artist who crafts “painted silken birds, and beautiful lacquered boxes,” “bronze vases, “ivory gods,” and “carved sandalwood” with such skill that he is compared to Michel Angelo (523–24). The narrative explicitly mentions the Chinese Exclusion Act and states “that it was not because of the cheapness of Chinese labor that the bill was enacted,” but rather the fear of China’s “terrible antiquity,” which “weighed upon us like a dead hand upon a living heart” (526).9 Both church and state fear a people “who had printed centuries before Gutenberg was born, who had used anesthetics before chloroform was ever dreamed of. Who, in the new west, settled down and ate and drank and dressed as men had done in the days of the flood” (526). This description of Chinese difference is notable in that it contains a tension. On the one hand, the story portrays the Chinese as nearly sui generis, predating technology, modernity, and even the Flood. And yet, this description of the Chinese also betrays a lingering respect for the achievements of their civilization. It is this tension within US orientalism that distinguishes this particular racist discourse from others and that Cather’s Chinese stories seize upon so consistently and forcefully.

Yung is an opium addict and forms an unlikely friendship with a painter and another addict named Ponter. Ponter professes to like Yung, but in the middle of the brief narrative he delivers a screed against the Chinese that ends with him berating Yung. Here any trace of grudging admiration is gone, and Ponter expresses fear of and, surprisingly, frustration with the Chinese:

Your devilish gods have cursed you with immortality and you have outlived your souls. You are so old that you are born yellow and wrinkled and blind. You ought to have been buried centuries before Europe was civilized. You ought to have been wrapped in your mort cloth ages before our swaddling clothes were made. You are dead things that move!


Ponter’s attack expresses impatience that Chinese individuals have refused to die when it is so clear that their civilization has already [End Page 158] passed on. But Ponter’s frustration might also stem from the fact that although both are artists, only Yung is successful. Yung is able to capitalize upon the craze for Oriental objects, even as he smokes up most of the proceeds from his sales. Like Freymark, Yung might be a “dead thing that move[s],” but he’s still better than Ponter at understanding US consumer preferences, creating products that will appeal to American orientalist tastes, and selling his work to the public. Ponter’s anger stems not just from Yung’s decrepitude but also from the success that Yung has as an artist, a success that far outstrips Ponter’s.

Strikingly, the language that Cather uses here to describe the Chinese (“You ought to have been wrapped in your mort cloth ages before our swaddling clothes were made”) is recycled in “The Affair at Grover Station.” The repetition of this language in two different stories indicates an uncharacteristic carelessness on the part of Cather, who was well known for the meticulous care with which she wrote, revised, and shaped her prose.10 This act of self-plagiarism suggests that words have essentially failed Cather in describing the Chinese and the horror that they inspire in Americans, whether they be drug addicts like Ponter or hard-working frontiersman like Rodgers. The absence of an adequate vocabulary for expressing one’s horror at the Chinese seems directly tied to the way in which they undermine the temporality of the nation. In her essay on fiction “The Novel Démeublé” Cather talks about narrative’s power to transform “tiresome old patterns” and “meaningless reiterations” into the “stage of a Greek theatre” or into a “house into which the glory of the Pentecost [has] descended” (6). The Chinese, however, seem impervious to that kind of transformative, almost religious power—they are tied to the “meaningless” and to the “tiresome” even in the language used to describe them.

Yung’s death in “A Son of the Celestial” is particularly useful in helping the reader understand the significance of one of the more curious features of “The Affair at Grover Station”: why O’Toole’s body returns to reveal its location (on a eastbound freight train) and not the identity (or whereabouts for that matter) of his killer. At the end of “A Son of the Celestial” Yung asks Ponter to have his body sent back to China after he dies. Ponter comes across Yung’s corpse one morning after a long opium bender; standing over the [End Page 159] body, Ponter exclaims that “your heart has been dead these last six thousand years, and it was better for your carcass to follow suit” (528). “The Son of the Celestial” reduces the Chinese body to a “carcass” before dematerializing and then banishing that body with burial back in China. In stark contrast, in “The Affair at Grover Station” it is the body of the murdered O’Toole that reappears in graphic form at the story’s terrifying climax. Not only that, but “The Affair” offers a gruesome and detailed description of O’Toole’s corpse when it appears to Rodgers. Rodgers instantly recognizes the dead man with his “broad, high shoulders,” wearing his dress clothes and moving stiffly “as though his limbs had been frozen” but “silently as a shadow in his black stocking feet” (350). Rodgers goes on to note that his “face was chalky white, his hair seemed damp and was plastered down . . . his eyes were colorless jellies, dull as lead,” and most horribly of all O’Toole’s “lower jaw had fallen and was set rigidly upon his collar, the mouth was wide open and was stuffed full of white cotton!” (350, emphasis original). During this terrifying visit O’Toole writes down with blue chalk a series of letters and numbers, which Rodgers realizes refers to a train car. Using this information, Rodgers is able to locate O’Toole’s body. When he goes to identify the body and retrieve O’Toole’s personal belongings, he discovers that the fingers of O’Toole’s corpse are “covered with blue chalk” (352).

Rodgers’s description of the violent wounds and the blue chalk on O’Toole’s body of course implies that it was not a ghost that visited him that night (as we might expect) but rather the actual body of O’Toole himself, reanimated and transported across hundreds of miles of track in order to make certain that his absence (and therefore his presence) could be accounted for. The story’s emphasis on the physicality of O’Toole’s body suggests that its hard turn into the realm of the supernatural is not about solving a horrible crime or exacting a frontier justice. Although O’Toole and Yung are both “dead things that move,” the two stories draw an important distinction between them: even in death the text insists on the presence of O’Toole’s body and a form of consciousness, whereas it is only in death that Yung’s body and soul are perfectly in accord and at peace. Managing Chinese bodies—whether in “A Son of the Celestial” or in “The Affair at Grover Station”—means banishing Chinese [End Page 160] bodies from the US landscape as soon as possible and emphasizing the physical presence of white male bodies, even when, or especially when, those white male bodies are corpses. The story mitigates the threat that Freymark poses by claiming that the white male body can still assert itself and cannot be erased from the country. Ironically, in insisting on the inviolable connection between the nation and whiteness, “The Affair at Grover Station” transforms O’Toole, its symbol of white masculine superiority, into a dead thing that moves, that is, a Chinese. The intertextual linkage between the corpse of O’Toole and the immediate banishment of Yung’s carcass is linked to a fear that the memory of the Chinese man will linger even after the bodies of white men have passed away.

Remember Me

As I noted above, Rodgers attributes Freymark’s brutality to the fact that the Chinese are an anachronism, the antithesis of US openness, individuality, and modernity, qualities that are exemplified by O’Toole. Because of their metachronistic status, their presence makes certain kinds of memory impossible and others impossible to ignore. Freymark himself makes this point before the discovery of O’Toole’s body, during an enigmatic conversation with Miss Masterson at the inaugural ball:

[Freymark says:] “You see I’ve forgiven this morning entirely.”

She answered him rather coolly:

“Ah, but you are constitutionally forgiving. However, I’ll be fair and forgive too. It’s more comfortable.”

Then he said in a slow, insinuating tone, and I could fairly see him thrust out those impudent red lips of his as he said it: “If I can teach you to forgive, I wonder whether I could not also teach you to forget? I almost think I could. At any rate I shall make you remember this night. Rappelles-toi lorsque les destinées / M’auront de toi pour jamais séparé. [Remember, when the fates / have parted me from you forever.]”


At first glance Freymark’s use of this line of poetry seems to be an acknowledgment that the two are about to be separated because of the crime he has committed. But Freymark’s injunction to remember carries with it another, much more sinister meaning. Although [End Page 161] Rodgers knows about Freymark’s racial identity at this point in the story, Helen still does not. Thus, she is not aware, as the reader is, of the sexual threat that lurks behind Freymark’s comments: the imperative to “remember” accompanied by the “thrust” of those “impudent red lips.” The story implies that Freymark’s desire to sexually dominate isn’t limited to Helen; later we learn that Freymark murders O’Toole by shooting him in the mouth and then inserting white cotton in order to prevent the blood from flowing out. The intimacy that both the murder and the handling of the corpse must have required, bringing Freymark into close contact with O’Toole’s sleeping and then lifeless body, is clearly meant to cause a shudder in the reader. But I would also argue that there is something excessively emasculating about Freymark’s act of violence, an excess that hints at the sexual threat that the Chinese were constantly accused of posing. It isn’t enough that he shoots O’Toole; he must point the gun in his mouth in a symbolic rape and then complete the emasculation of O’Toole by stuffing his mouth with cotton. Indeed, if we read the insertion of the cotton into O’Toole’s mouth as another act of violation, then Freymark essentially rapes him twice, the second time while the man is dead. Freymark’s necrophilic treatment of O’Toole is not just a sign of his race’s moral corruption; it also is a statement about the state of the Chinese civilization and its life force. Like Yung in “A Son of the Celestial,” who should be dead before he was even born, Freymark is so ancient that the only “natural” sex partner the story can imagine for him is a corpse.

The ominous manner in which Freymark essentially commands Miss Masterson to remember this night foreshadows what we learn at the story’s end: that her true love is dead and that she will, naturally, be unlikely to forget that he never made it to Cheyenne to escort her to the ball. However, it is within the context of the story’s discourse surrounding memory that we begin to understand the true threat behind Freymark’s citation of this line. The short verse that Freymark quotes is from a poem titled “Rappelle-toi” by Louis Charles Alfred de Musset. In the poem the narrator exhorts his beloved to remember him, though they are about to be separated. Since the poem forms a crucial part of my reading, I shall quote the English translation of the stanza in full: [End Page 162]

Remember, when the fates Have parted me from you forever, When grief, exile and the years Have withered this despairing heart; Think of my sorrowful love, think of the supreme farewell! Absence and time are nothing when we love. For as long as my heart shall beat, It will always say to you: Remember.11


Freymark’s invocation of a poem that is obsessed with the act of memory has nothing to do with romantic sorrow, even though the circumstances seem to call for that kind of rhetoric. The rest of the poem asserts that even death will not be able to stop the poet’s heart from commanding his lover to remember him: “For as long as my heart shall beat, / it will always say to you: / Remember.” The act of remembering depicted here is not shared between two equals; rather, it is a command from one to another. Its status as a command is emphasized by the fact that the stanza begins and ends with that single word.12 The sandwiching of the poem between the commands to remember suggests a feedback loop in which the narrator is ordering the listener to remember to remember. Freymark takes advantage of his metachronistic status and inserts himself into the act of memory by becoming a mnemonic device. By making the beating of his heart an admonishment to Helen to remember, Freymark transforms his own body into an instrument of memory. So if we consider what it is exactly that Freymark is asking Helen to remember, it turns out he is not asking her to remember his love or devotion, as we might expect from a suitor; instead he is ordering her to remember the fact that he will always be ordering her to remember, no matter where he is and even after his death. By ordering her to remember him, he is, in other words, inserting himself into the act of memory itself.

How does Cather’s representation of Freymark—as one who belongs to a culture that should be a memory but instead controls the process of memory-making—work with or against the historical erasure of the Chinese within the United States? The recursivity of Freymark’s command to Helen to remember memory speaks [End Page 163] to a pervasive apprehension within the story that the narrative’s attempts to contain the Chinese by categorizing them temporally as premodern have already failed and will continue to fail in the future. As Lisa Lowe argues in Immigrant Acts, assimilation into the US nation-state has always meant “adopting the national historical narrative that disavows the existence of an American imperial power” (27). Lowe argues that “narratives of immigrant inclusion” are “driven by the repetition and return of episodes in which the Asian American, even as a citizen, continues to be located outside the cultural and racial boundaries of the nation” (6). Cather’s determination to represent Freymark and the Chinese as a memory strikes me as an attempt to control or contain Chinese racial difference by insisting upon a certain place for them within the national narrative; if the Chinese are a memory, then they cannot be relevant to the present. The problem with this strategy, as the story makes clear, is the gnawing worry over what Chinese past-ness means about American present-ness. Despite the attempts to immobilize and eliminate the literal and figurative presence of the Chinese, the story professes profound anxiety that they will always be remembered, against the collective will of Americans such as Rodgers or Miss Masterson, and that their experiences will not and cannot be forgotten or eradicated as intended.


Cather’s consistent linkage of the Chinese with mnemonics, as exemplified in this story, seems to contradict a history that has striven to erase the experiences of the Chinese, particularly in relation to labor. While there is no evidence to suggest that Cather herself was aware of the role of Chinese labor in the completion of the railroad (none of her Chinese characters actually work to lay tracks), her story—and its linkage of the Chinese and the railroad with themes of memory—nevertheless opens up the question of what it means to forget the Chinese. In closing this essay, it seems important to try and wrestle with the question of how a story like this interacts with the nation’s amnesia around the Chinese, the railroad, and labor.

Freymark’s association with the railroad inevitably recalls to the modern reader’s mind the history of Chinese labor in the United [End Page 164] States, specifically the extensive use of Chinese workers by the Central Pacific Railroad to complete the transcontinental railroad in 1869. (Ironically, the story notes that Freymark uses the Union Pacific Railroad to escape the authorities.) Nowhere is the erasure of Chinese labor more notable than in the history surrounding the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Perhaps the most notorious example of this expunction is the famous photograph taken at Promontory Point, Utah, in 1869 to mark the joining of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific lines. The Central Pacific Railroad put on a special celebration in Sacramento, California, to commemorate the completion of the track, and once again the Chinese, who had “constituted four-fifths of [the Central Pacific’s] entire work force” (Chan 38), were not invited, despite the fact that of the 13,500 workers listed on the Central Pacific’s payroll, 12,000 were Chinese (Swartout 370).

What is striking about the consistent omission of the Chinese from the histories surrounding the railroad—even those penned in the last several years—is the symbolic value that the transcontinental railroad held in the United States as the ultimate illustration of US ingenuity and manifest destiny.13 In “Passage to India” Walt Whitman imagines himself traversing the country on the railroad, which he calls a “modern wonder” (4) that spans the “New World” (6). “[S]urmounting every barrier” (50), Whitman celebrates the “continual trains of cars winding along the Platte, carrying freight and passengers,” “the locomotives rushing and roaring, and the shrill steam-whistle” (51–52), and being able to hear “[their] echoes reverberate through the grandest scenery in the world” (53). Into such a scene of majesty and narrative of continual progress the Chinese—who were, as Gossett explains, “the most debased people on the face of the earth,” who were “without nerves [or] digestion,” and who will eventually come to “overwhelm the world”—have no place (290, 291).

Although the story calls to mind an erased history of Chinese labor, I am not suggesting that we should read “The Affair at Grover Station” because it offers us clues about the actual lived experiences of those Chinese who worked on the railroad. Rather, I want to suggest that the railroad offers itself as a potential way to think of the relationship between the material history of Chinese labor and [End Page 165] exclusion (a history that has been nearly erased if it ever existed at all) with a discursive history of Chinese representation that is well documented in a variety of sources. In this vein I think of my reading of “The Affair at Grover Station” as part of an excavation, not to recover the lives of the “real” Chinese who populated the West and the frontier, but to get a better sense of the mechanisms by which they were excluded as a group and then imagined as individuals. It is important for that reason to note that “The Affair at Grover Station” begins with our unnamed narrator on a geological expedition “digging for fossils” (339). Digging through the nation’s geological past is an apt metaphor for thinking about how “The Affair” wants to forget and then imagine the Chinese: uncovering the nation’s bones means uncovering the representational mechanisms that first contained Chinese bodies and produced Chinese figures like Freymark. Thus, the search through the nation’s buried past also necessitates bringing to light the means by which laboring, racially othered bodies were transformed into figures of anxiety and fear. In its representation of Freymark “The Affair at Grover Station” does not so much echo the erasure of Chinese labor from the annals of US history as it reveals the logic behind that erasure and the nationalist anxieties that pervaded it. In other words, “The Affair at Grover Station” lifts the veil of US racism to reveal the rules that operated behind the curtain of Chinese exclusion and erasure. In its attempt to contain the memory of the Chinese, the story unveils the discursive formations that governed the construction of the Chinese. These rules can never be acknowledged but nevertheless define the racialized system under which the Chinese lived. Works such as Cather’s “The Affair at Grover Station” should be reexamined not because they contain a hint of an authentic Chinese American character or experience (as if such things could exist). Rather these texts enable us to trace the conditions under which Chinese American identities came to be constituted; for better or worse they offer a genealogy for the formation of Asian America.

Julia H. Lee

Julia H. Lee is an assistant professor of Asian American studies at the University of California at Irvine. Her first book, Interracial Encounters: Reciprocal Representations in African and Asian American Literatures1896-1937, was published by New York University Press in 2010. Her current project examines how the railroad shaped narratives of racial conflict and formation in late-nineteenth-and twentieth-century American cultural productions.


1. The only bound volume that contains all three of Cather’s Chinese short stories is the edition called Willa Cather’s Short Fiction, 1892–1912, edited by Virginia Faulkner and published by the University of Nebraska Press in 1965. All of the parenthetical citations of Cather’s stories in this essay are taken from this edition. [End Page 166]

2. A young girl later tells Rodgers that she overheard O’Toole having a conversation with a man whose face she never glimpsed but who had “red lips”; while this is enough to damn him in the story, it would hardly stand up in a court of law.

3. Bhabha argues that Fanon “uses the fact of blackness, of belatedness, to destroy the binary structure of power and identity” (237). This notion of temporality is important to both Fanon and Bhabha, who recognize the central role that history plays in the articulation of the relationship between whiteness and blackness. Bhabha goes on to state that “[Fanon] too speaks from the signifying time-lag of cultural difference that I have been attempting to develop as a structure for the representation of subaltern and postcolonial agency” (237). This “time-lag of cultural difference” constitutes a moment of potential resistance for Bhabha, one that is worth stopping over and considering. Bhabha goes on to note explicitly that Fanon “rejects the ‘belatedness’ of the black man because it is only the opposite of the framing of the white man as universal, normative—the white sky all around me: the black man refuses to occupy the past of which the white man is the future”(237–38).

4. See J. Lee 36–37 for further analysis of this cartoon.

5. Of course, other discourses proved potent in rationalizing Asian exclusion. The accusation of Chinese paganism was particularly potent in a nation that fervently imagined itself as Christian (and continues to do so to this day). African Americans residing in California worked to distance themselves from the Chinese in a state that was experiencing more anxiety about Chinese emigration than about Black migration from the South. Philip Alexander Bell, editor of the Black San Francisco newspaper the Elevator, echoed the sentiments of many white nativists when he wrote that the Chinese were “unacquainted with our system of government, adhering to their own habits and customs, and of heathen idolatrous faith.” The negro, on the other hand, was a “native American, loyal to the government and a lover of his country and her institutions—American in all his ideas; a Christian by education and a believer of the truth of Christianity” (qtd. in Johnsen 61). Americans recoiled from the Chinese because they were perceived as being unclean, un-Christian pagans—it was their lack of Christianity, many argued, that made them undesirable as potential citizens.

6. Although I do not have the space to explore the issue in the detail it deserves, the connection that the story draws between Jews and the Chinese demands some analysis. Freymark’s attempt to pass is obviously governed by the belief that the age of Jewish and Chinese cultures has blended the phenotypical features of their citizens to such an extent as to make them indistinguishable. Given the shift in the characters’ treatment of Freymark after they learn of his Chinese ancestry, it seems clear that the story considers Jewish blood preferable to Chinese, but what is striking about the comparison is that it seems to equate Jewishness with passing. That the story compares the two groups to each other is an indicator of the extent to which racial identities are intersectional and “constantly being shaped . . . by a panoply of forces” (J. Lee 6). While the formation of their identities within the United States has operated along very different paths [End Page 167] and been influenced by a distinct set of historical, geopolitical, and social factors, Asians and Jews in America are often compared because both groups have functioned as “model minorities” (whose success “proves” the ultimate justness of American democratic principles) or economic “middle men,” who open businesses and serve other racially marginalized communities. Jonathan Freedman argues that the connection can be traced back to the late nineteenth century and New York City’s Lower East Side, where newly arrived Jews and Chinese mingled. Unlike Jewish immigrants from the earlier part of the nineteenth century, who hailed from Central and Western Europe, the latter wave of Jewish migration originated in Eastern Europe and Russia. The “geographical alterity” of these Jewish immigrants and their relative cultural propinquity to the “Near East” made inevitable the link between Jewish bodies and the “Orient” (74). Freymark’s use of a Jewish name and background to explain his “Oriental features” thus makes sense given how the two groups were often imagined as exotic, sexually deviant, polluting, and intrinsically foreign to American life.

7. The supposed threat that Chinese men pose to US womanhood is a vital part of anti-Chinese discourse. There was a widely held perception that Chinatowns and other ethnic ghettos were places of danger for white women; exposure to these neighborhoods, it was thought, would lead to their corruption. The idea that Chinatowns in particular were exemplary sites of vice and immorality “reinforced and reproduced Euro-American notions of racial and cultural superiority against an immoral and vice-ridden Chinese immigrant community” (Lui 5).

8. As Lucenti states, memory in Cather’s stories “mak[es] us profoundly aware of how deeply we are inscribed by the past that we have forgotten, as well as by the one we sometimes tenuously remember” (193).

9. The question of why the United States passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 is one that does not have an easy answer. There have been two widely accepted theories to explain the act’s passage. The California thesis, first proposed by Mary Robert Coolidge in 1909 and persuasively argued by Alexander Saxton in The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California (1971), suggests that organized labor and politicians in California and on the West Coast were largely responsible for Chinese exclusion. The second theory, of which Stuart Creighton Miller’s The Unwelcome Immigrant: The American Image of the Chinese, 1785–1882 is representative, argues that Chinese exclusion has its roots in national anti-Chinese sentiment and racism, which had been pervasive since the founding of the republic. Both theories rely heavily on the notion that labor movements on the local and national levels were universal in their opposition to Chinese immigration and instrumental in the passage of the Exclusion Acts. Andrew Gyory challenges the ascendency of these theories (as well as pointing out the class prejudices that underpin some of their articulations) by arguing that “national politicians of both parties . . . seized, transformed, and manipulated the issue of Chinese immigration in the quest for votes” (15).

10. In her essay “The Novel Démeublé” Cather makes the case that writing a novel requires a process of “simplification. The novelist must learn to write, [End Page 168] and then he must unlearn it; just as the modern painter learns to draw, and then learns when utterly to disregard his accomplishment, when to subordinate it to a higher and truer effect” (6). Cather’s ideal was prose that had been stripped of “meaningless reiterations . . . [and] tiresome old patterns,” and she scoffs at realist writers’ obsession with “cataloging a great number of material objects” as if such detailed descriptions were “imaginative art” as opposed to a “brilliant form of journalism.” In this sense “A Son of the Celestial,” with its mystical descriptions of the origins of Yung’s carvings (“the mulberry and apricot and chestnut and juniper that grew about the sacred mountain; the bamboo and camphor tree, and the rich Indian bean, and the odorous camellias and japonicas that grew far to the south on the low banks of the Yang-Tse-Kiang” [524]), violates Cather’s own code of artistic excellence

11. The stanza in its original French is as follows: “Rappelle-toi, lorsque les destinées / M’auront de toi pour jamais séparé, / Quand le chagrin, l’exil et les années / Auront flétri ce coeur désespéré; / Songe à mon trist amour, songe à l’adieu suprême! / L’absence ni le temps ne sont rien quand on aime. / Tant que mon coeur battra, / Toujours il te dira: / Rappelle-toi.” (de Musset 111)

12. The verb in the original French is conjugated in the imperative form (“Rappelle-toi”).

13. I am thinking particularly here of Nothing Like It in the World by popular historian Stephen E. Ambrose, a New York Times bestseller. While it does discuss in one chapter the role of the Chinese in the building of the railroad and the racism they faced, the book’s highly celebratory narrative of the railroad transforms such injustices into obstacles that the plucky Chinese were able to overcome. Ambrose notes that “[c]ontrary to myth, [the Chinese] were not brought over by the boatload to work for the railroad” before going on to announce, without any historical documentation, that “[t]hey were glad to get the work. Although they were physically small, their teamwork was so exemplary that they were able to accomplish feats we just stand astonished at today” (21). The description of Chinese ingenuity in building track through the Sierras (that they behaved “superbly” and were clever at solving problems) uncomfortably echoes the model minority discourse of the twentieth century. Ambrose describes the dangerous jobs that the Chinese tackled, noting that some of the men were “lost” in “accidents,” but “we don’t know how many: the [Central Pacific] did not keep a record of the Chinese casualties” (156). Ambrose remains silent as to why the Central Pacific may not have kept tallies of Chinese casualties.

Works Cited

Ambrose, Stephen. Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863–1869. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.
Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Cather, Willa. “The Affair at Grover Station.” Willa Cather's Short Fiction. Ed. Virginia Faulkner. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1965. 339–52. [End Page 169]
———. “The Conversion of Sum Loo.” Willa Cather's Short Fiction. Ed. Virginia Faulkner. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1965. 323–32.
———. “The Novel Démeublé.” New Republic 30 (Spring 1922): 5–6.
———. “A Son of the Celestial.” Willa Cather's Short Fiction. Ed. Virginia Faulkner. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1965. 523–28.
Chan, Sucheng. The Bittersweet Soil: The Chinese in California Agriculture, 1860–1910. Berkeley: U of California P, 1986.
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Johnsen, Leigh Dana. “Equal Rights and the ‘Heathen Chinee’: Black Activism in San Francisco, 1865–1875.” Western Historical Quarterly 11.1 (1980): 57–68.
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Swartout, Robert. “Kwantung to Big Sky: The Chinese in Montana, 1864–1900.” Chinese on the American Frontier. Ed. Arif Dirlik. Lanham: Rowman & Little-field, 2001. 367–82.
Whitman, Walt. “Passage to India.” Whitman: Poetry and Prose. New York: Library of America, 1996. 531–39. [End Page 170]

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