The Modernist Writer and the Criminologist


Gemma Goodale-Sussen

Gemma Goodale-Sussen, a PhD candidate in the University of Iowa’s English Department, is completing her dissertation under the supervision of Professor Harry Stecopoulos. She writes here about the work she is carrying out this summer with the support of a Next Gen summer internship.

My dissertation project analyzes the ways that turn-of-the-century criminology intersects with and influences American modernist literature. As writers struggled to interpret the modern world, many focused their artistic work on the sprawling, chaotic city—commonly thought of as the great hub of modernism. But several influential writers explored instead groups of people in bounded communities, such as the small town or the artistic coterie. Their engagement with these enclosed groups, I argue, is influenced by criminological thought and practice in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an era when police detectives and prison wardens sought to assemble archives of criminal data in order to render the heretofore untrackable vagrant class more legible. In the work of Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, and Carl Van Vechten, we can see attempts to cordon off sets of humanity for more detailed study, part of an effort to cope with anxieties about the possibility of “knowing” other people and about the archive/collection as artistic product.

Back in 2006, as a Grinnell undergraduate, I began volunteering with the Liberal Arts in Prison Program, which ran student-led courses in Newton Correctional Facility. It was probably the defining experience of my college years. Later, as a graduate student, picturing myself as that invigorated undergrad, and describing that experience to Professor Linda Bolton, reminded me of the hours I’d spent in the prison library talking about short stories and poetry, culture and representation. I began volunteering with the Writing Workshop at Oakdale Prison in Coralville. For my final paper in Professor Bolton’s Art, Ethics, and Justice class, I wrote about prison photography books and about the ethical limitations/possibilities of representing an under-represented “other.”

That paper became the seed of my current work. I went on to enroll in Professor Rachel Williams’ Feminist Theory course. Professor Williams introduced me to an emerging group, headed by Mark Fullenkamp, that was seeking to preserve and digitize a vast photographic archive of prisoner portraits from the old Iowa State Penitentiary. The collection (now housed in the University of Iowa Main Library Special Collections, thanks in large part to Fullenkamp’s herculean efforts), is incredible. Inspired by the faces that gazed out from these nineteenth-century photographs, I began to research the criminological apparatus of the era that had fostered the exhaustive documentation and collection of data on the so-called criminal man. I also began to imagine a dissertation that would honor the long-dead faces in the penitentiary archive and that would also reach into narratives written by prisoners of that  criminological era.

Interestingly, however, I started to veer away from writing about prisoners of the past when I began discussing my work with prisoners of the present. An informal committee, comprised of writers incarcerated at Oakdale, generously reviewed my dissertation plan. The discussion it prompted helped me view criminological thought in less literal terms. At Oakdale, we talked about the ways that the criminal justice system can affect one’s mind, one’s worldview, even the way one sees and interacts with other people. This helped me to see how all people are affected by the categories of meaning in which we are culturally submerged, especially those categories dealing with deviance, surveillance, and “others.” I began to wonder whether, like prison writers, early twentieth-century authors also internalized and reflected their criminological era.

I now spend my time thinking and writing about the consanguinity of the modernist writer and the criminologist, the ways modernism depicted the prison without depicting a prison, the ways writers assembled Rogues’ Galleries from creative coteries. The most exciting finding I’ve made this summer is the discovery of a similarity between nineteenth-century Bertillon cards (designed to identify criminals) and modernist visual and literary artwork. Because the Bertillon card was intended to offer both a subjective and objective view of the person in question, the subject was photographed in both front and profile view, accompanied by a smattering of empirical measurements and personal data. Modernist artwork, too, sought to present a “full” portrait of another person. It was the supposed limitation of portraiture that led Picasso to depict many of his portrait subjects in both front and profile view, and that led Gertrude Stein to create verbal portraits that attempted to represent an (un)knowable other through simultaneously typological and intensely personal renderings.

The Next Gen summer internship is helping me hone my rhetorical skills so that a dissertation which bridges actual and artistic worlds, which addresses the history of incarceration and the development of modernist aesthetics, can communicate effectively with readers both within and beyond the academy.