Erik Mortenson, Ambiguous Borderlands: Shadow Imagery in Cold War American Culture
Southern Illinois University Press, 320pp, $35.00, ISBN 9780809334322
reviewed by Douglas Field
The shadow was one site where these issues were negotiated, where they were allowed to surface in cultural forms… The use of shadows cast doubt on the seemingly bright future that Americans were promised. Instead, they offered an alternative space where social assumptions could be reconsidered, questioned, and even challenged.
Mortenson traces the genealogy of the shadow in Western culture from Plato to Derrida but argues that the ‘postwar period bred a type of thinking that shadows captured perfectly’ adding that ‘by reading their ambiguous outlines we can better appreciate the wishes and fears of the age.’ The bomb was of course ‘the underlying cause of the fear and uncertainty of the post-war era,’ but as Mortenson shows, ‘it was also an endless source of
fascination.’ In the aftermath of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as John Hersey wrote in a widely-read New Yorker article in 1946, ‘the bomb had, in some places, left prints of the shadows that had been cast by its light.’ More disturbingly, human shadows were branded onto the sides of buildings. As Hershey documented, ‘One story told how a painter on a ladder was monumentalized in a kind of bas-relief on the stone façade of a bank building on which he was at work, in the act of dipping his brush into his paint can,’ while a man and his cart who were underneath the explosion ‘were cast down in an embossed shadow which made it clear that the man was about to whip his horse.’ These descriptions, part of what Mortenson calls ‘the nuclear sublime,’ were examples of an eerie reversal wherein ‘the body . . . fled while the shadow remained.’
While clean-cut superheroes like Superman and Wonder Woman represented stability and moral order in Cold War America, Plath, Kerouac and Baraka were all drawn to The Shadow, a crime-fighting comic-book and radio hero from the 1930s and 1940s, who blurred the boundaries between good and bad, hero and vigilante. In a fresh reading of Plath, Mortenson explores the motif of the shadow in her prose work, including The Bell Jar, where, after undergoing electro convulsion therapy, Esther observes that ‘the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadows, the million moving shapes and cul-de- sacs of shadow.’ As Mortenson concludes in a perceptive reading of her work, Plath’s ‘use of shadow imagery traces a burgeoning understanding not just of the way the world works but of the way that the postwar mentality of fear and suspicious works as well.’ Plath is rarely grouped together with LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) but in Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961), a collection published before the poet-playwright severed his ties with the Beat milieu of Greenwich Village, he employs The Shadow to explore the racial conditions of post-war America. In the most engaging section of the book, Mortenson provides an illuminating reading of Doctor Sax (1959), Kerouac’s gothic novel about lost childhood innocence. Lowell, the often referenced town of his youth, becomes a place where ‘the waving hedges hid a ghost, a past, a future, a shuddering spirit spectre.’ Mortenson points out that Kerouac and his close friend Allen Ginsberg shared a dream about a ghostly apparition they called ‘The Shrouded Stranger’, which enabled the poet ‘to confront the rational assumptions of American culture at mid-century.’
In the final three chapters, Mortenson explores the figure of the shadow in photography, late film noir and television. As he explains, although the styles of noted photographers Robert Frank, William Klein and the rarely-discussed Ralph Eugene Meatyard differed greatly, ‘they all ended in the same place—with vague, ambiguous, shadowy images that challenge viewer expectations,’ and which captured post-war anxiety. In a perceptive reading of late film noir, including a discussion of The Night of the Hunter (1955), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), and Touch of Evil (1959), Mortenson makes a compelling case for reading the use of shadow imagery in these late noir films as “a placeholder for the inconsistencies and paradoxes that defined the postwar world,’ arguing that these films exposed Cold War dichotomies of good and bad and light and dark as dangerous myths. In his final chapter, Mortenson examines Rod Sterlings’s acclaimed long-running television series The Twilight Zone (1959-64), illustrating how the ‘concept of a “twilight zone” of undecidablity’ had entered the popular American imagination, creating a space to critique Cold War ideology.
Ambiguous Borderlands is an erudite but extremely readable work; it succeeds in grouping together a cluster of works that are rarely studied together, and it does so by providing deft and original readings of myriad cultural forms. As such, it is not only a welcome addition to Cold War studies by creating ‘a nexus of readings that gestures toward a way of understanding what shadows signify’ during post-war American culture, but Ambiguous Borderlands also draws attention to the wide use of this pervasive visual metaphor across periods and genres. Mortenson acknowledges that ‘The shadow is much too common and ubiquitous to be relegated to a single moment in history,’ but he provides a compelling case for its deployment during the Cold War. As Mortenson observes, ‘the shadow is such a powerful trope because it creates a space where multiple, and even sometimes contradictory, meanings can coexist.’