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Products for grant FA-252385-17

19th-Century Literary and Scientific Inquiry on the Nature of Marine Life
Michele Navakas, Miami University

Grant details:

Coral Lives: Literature, Labor, and the Making of America (Book)
Title: Coral Lives: Literature, Labor, and the Making of America
Author: Michele Currie Navakas
Abstract: Today, coral and the human-caused threats to coral reef ecosystems symbolize our ongoing planetary crisis. In the nineteenth century, coral represented something else; as a recurring motif in American literature and culture, it shaped popular ideas about human society and politics. In Coral Lives, Michele Currie Navakas tells the story of coral as an essential element of the marine ecosystem, a cherished personal ornament, a global commodity, and a powerful political metaphor. Drawing on a wide range of sources, including works by such writers as Sarah Josepha Hale, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and George Washington Cable, Navakas shows how coral once helped Americans to recognize both the potential and the limits of interdependence—to imagine that their society could grow, like a coral reef, by sustaining rather than displacing others. Navakas shows how coral became deeply entwined with the histories of slavery, wage labor, and women’s reproductive and domestic work. If coral seemed to some nineteenth-century American writers to be a metaphor for a truly just collective society, it also showed them, by analogy, that society can seem most robust precisely when it is in fact most unfree for the laborers sustaining it. Navakas’s trailblazing cultural history reveals that coral has long been conceptually indispensable to humans, and its loss is more than biological. Without it, we lose some of our most complex political imaginings, recognitions, reckonings, and longings.
Year: 2023
Primary URL:
Primary URL Description: Publisher website
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Type: Single author monograph
ISBN: 9780691240114

"Antebellum Coral" (Article)
Title: "Antebellum Coral"
Author: Michele Navakas
Abstract: Coral circulated through the everyday lives of antebellum women and men (free and enslaved) as beads, necklaces, bracelets, reef specimens, and other objects. And antebellum coral was almost always more than merely ornamental. Coral has captivated people, across many cultures and centuries, because of its unique physical nature that combines animal and plant, living and nonliving matter, and that grows continually and unpredictably from the interaction of many small and sometimes invisible forces. Coral’s fluid, composite, indeterminate nature and growth set it apart from other natural materials, and it has historically raised new questions, prospects, and possibilities about the natural world as a whole. Yet the many prospects coral raised across centuries and cultures, I argue, share a central feature that enthralled antebellum Americans: coral provoked the recognition that there are limits to our capacity to know, describe, predict, classify, and rank nature, both human and nonhuman. “Antebellum Coral” assembles several written and visual reflections on coral beads and reveals how the cultural and natural history of these small everyday objects challenged the taxonomic thinking that increasingly structured antebellum life. Charting some of the challenges to knowledge, description, and classification raised by the polysemy of coral, I show that coral ultimately gave antebellum Americans new ways to imagine and evaluate an unpredictably fluid material world.
Year: 2019
Primary URL:
Format: Journal
Periodical Title: American Literature
Publisher: American Literature

Rachel Carson Center for Environment & Society Fellowship (Staff/Faculty/Fellow Position)
Name: Rachel Carson Center for Environment & Society Fellowship
Abstract: Four-month fellowship awarded for completion of book, Coral Lives: Literature, Labor, and the Making of America.
Year: 2021
Primary URL:

"Coral, Labor, Slavery, and Silence in the Archives" (Blog Post)
Title: "Coral, Labor, Slavery, and Silence in the Archives"
Author: Michele Navakas
Abstract: In the long U.S. literary history of imagining coral and labor, reefs both illuminate and dangerously elide the exploitation of laboring bodies by imagining that they had a choice and a reward. If we wish to assess the stakes of our present-day desire to imagine ourselves and society as a reef, then we should turn back to a time when coral and its nature were a more regular part of life.
Date: 4/1/2019
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