Friday, April 24, 2009

Truck Stop Chapels

Why would a medieval architectural historian post on airport chapels or truck stop chapels? Good question. Although most medieval architectural historians focus on churches and mosques, I prefer vernacular forms, secular buildings, productive installations, houses and landscapes. My archaeological method defines me, but it also encourages me to think diachronically. Although I have never excavated in the "New World," I am a devout follower of Dell Upton and the study of material culture as defined by Henry Glassie, James Deetz and others. Whenever possible, I use Upton's unorthodox textbook Architecture in the United States (Oxford, 1998) in conjunction with Deetz's In Small Things Forgotten (1st ed., New York, 1977).

Teaching in South Carolina (where I also lived as a kid) has sensitized me to the region's unique history and the occasional stupidity by which some "Yankees" dismiss the South as hick, racist, or backwards. After the Civil War, th
e victorious North administered the South as a colony-- exploiting its natural resources and managing its bureaucracies. Creating a subhuman caricature of the Southerner hick is classic colonialist strategy. So I'm amused to hear enlightened post-colonialist specialists from the obvious colonies (India, Congo, etc.) forget about the American South. Liberals in general have grown hostile to the South because of its conservative dominance. A new anxiety with the South has grown in the last few decades because Southern culture has dominated American culture for the first time since the Civil War. See Richard King," The Regions and Regionalism," in The Cambridge Companion to Modern American Culture ed. C. Bigsby (Cambridge, pp. 53-72).

One of my favorite books on Southern history is Jack Temple Kirby,
Rural Worlds Lost: The American South 1920-1960 (Baton Rouge, 1987). Kirby documents the southern modernization especially in the transition from agrarian to industrial modes of production. As Deetz reminds us, even bluegrass is a modern musical form (In Small Things, 2nd ed., pp. 180-182).

A couple of years ago I got a chance to meet Shane Hamilton, an American historian of technology who now teaches at the University of Georgia in Athens. We met, thanks to our commuter wives, who both happened to be teaching at Vassar College the same year. Hamilton takes the lessons of agrarian modernization and applies it to a rich case study, the abandonment of farming for trucking. Hamilton's dissertation has just been published, Trucking Country: The Roads to America's Wal-mart Economy (Princeton, 2008). The book answers a lot of questions and explores the southern agrarian origins of trucking culture.

And today, I just learned that there is a graduate student at Yale who studies Truck Stop Chapels. Dana Byrd is a PhD candidate in Art History at Yale University. I have not yet contacted her, but I am truly excited that someone is documenting such vernacular forms of devotion and architectural space. In 2005, Byrd gave a paper at the Center for Material Culture Studies at the University of Delaware, entitled "Way Finding: Work, Space and Evangelism at a Truck Stop Chapel." I look forward to its publication.

I learned of Dana Byrd through the power of blogging. One of my students in the House History course at Wesleyan read my Airport Chapels blog. Katherine Chabla is an American Decorative Arts specialist at the Yale University Art Gallery and a constant source of information. Katherine also wrote one of the most amazing House Stories, see From 100 to 99. Once I learn more about Dana Byrd's project, I will post some details. Keep on truckin'.

No comments:

Blog Archive

Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States