Lindsey A. Freeman’s book This Atom Bomb in Me (Stanford University Press, 2019) presents a compelling insight into American nuclear culture, through a sociological interrogation of the ‘atomic cosmopolitanism’ immanent to the city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. At the same time, this narrative is also a thoughtful exploration of the author’s personal history, organized in the form of personalized ethnographic vignettes, which flow seamlessly between different spaces and time frames. In this way, Freeman’s historicization and politicization of her Appalachian childhood successfully highlights the contradictions and negotiations associated with the atomic culture associated with Oak Ridge.
The following is an excerpt, published by permission.
My grandfather was an atomic courier…My atomic immersion began when I visited my grandparents as a child and encountered the vibrant matter of Oak Ridge. As an adult, I write about the place to try to untangle its mysteries — feeling a magnetic pull and mnemonic push to do so. For me, Oak Ridge is not just a city but also an organizing system of thought, a structure of feeling, a place full of nostalgically charged objects and a magic geography that I can’t shake. In Empire of Signs, Roland Barthes questions our ability to “contest our society” without challenging the limits of language in understanding our situatedness in the world, calling this practice “trying to destroy the wolf by lodging comfortably in its gullet.” To test these limits, Barthes writes about the Japan of his imagination — a place far removed from his culture and a site for decentering thought.
Here I follow a different path through the woods from Barthes in Empire of Signs. I write as an atomic exile about the spaces of my childhood. I put on my favorite red hoodie and climb deeper into the lupine maw, only to discover that the wolf has swallowed my grandmother, and even though she is not what she once was, I do not wish to destroy her. I want to understand this place that shaped her life, my mother’s and mine. I want to study how its aliveness and its history suffused my childhood. So I write carefully about atomic materiality and sensuality as it sticks in and irradiates my memory. I compose a sociology of what I came to sense and to feel about the place before I began trying to interpret it as a scholar by tracing spaces, objects, affects, and memories of the ordinary, the fantastic, and the atomic uncanny…
My methodology relies on imperfect data, even “woefully imperfect,” as W.E.B. Du Bois writes in his essay “Sociology Hesitant”; my data “depends on hearsay, rumor and tradition, vague speculations, traveller’s tales, legends and imperfect documents, the memory of memories and historic error.” Using this methodology and working with suspect data, I want to revive a peculiar genre — sociological poetry. “Sociological poetry” is the term C. Wright Mills used to describe James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and the style he tried to replicate in Listen, Yankee. Mills was deeply inspired by Agee’s account of 1930s Alabama sharecroppers; he went so far as to describe the book as “one of the best pieces of ‘participant observation’” he had ever read. Agee’s writing gave Mills an example of a new way to think and do sociology. In an essay in the journal politics, he described sociological poetry further:
“It is a style of experience and expression that reports social facts and at the same time reveals their human meanings. As a reading experience, it stands somewhere between the thick facts and thin meanings of the ordinary sociological monograph and those art forms which in their attempts at meaningful reach do away with the facts, which they consider as anyway merely an excuse for imaginative construction. If we tried to make up formal rules for sociological poetry, they would have to do with the ratio of meaning to fact, and maybe success would be a sociological poem which contains the full human meaning in statements of apparent fact.”
Mills was working toward something similar in his own writing. He was preoccupied with finding a methodology for sociology that would be a way of telling compelling stories with “full human meaning” that allowed for the inclusion of the author’s personal feelings and emotional connections toward the objects of study. He wanted to show the vibrations of social worlds and to communicate the reverberations of those worlds as felt in the writer. Throughout his career, Mills tried to convey what he called the “tang and feel” of experience. In a letter to his parents, Frances and Charles Grover Mills, dated December 21, 1939, he wrote: “From my mother I have gotten a sense of color and air. She showed me the tang and feel of a room properly appointed, and the drama about flowers.”
This is a lesson we could already have learned from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, where the drama begins with Clarissa Dalloway’s announcement that she will “buy the flowers herself.” And with this simple assertion of a task to be completed for a party, we are flung into the atmosphere of a social world. The problem for the sociologist is that this is a fictional world — it doesn’t get us to sociological poetry but to a poetics that blooms with sociological knowledge. Instead of studying an actual person or group of persons, as we would in sociology, Woolf invents Mrs. Dalloway and her social network. Of course, Mrs. Dalloway and her world are not created in a vacuum, but are constructed from Woolf’s fictive and sociological imaginations. Woolf tosses us into an ocean of timespace already in motion, in which over the course of a day when the action of the novel takes place, we feel how each moment is suffused with anticipations, desires, dreads, and memories. In this way, my study of an atomic childhood at the tail end of the Cold War is like Mrs. Dalloway: it is an attempt to write how it feels to be caught up in something ongoing, like a surfer in a wave or like someone remembering. I’m trying to write how it feels to be tossed into towns, swept up in historical flows, and coasting along with or overwhelmed by culture.
I am also inspired by the ways in which sociology and poetry are coming together in the twenty-first century. I almost leapt out of my chair when I heard Fred Moten describe his method of “critical poetry” as a “mode of sociology that is in turn only achievable by way of and as an expression of an active experimental poetics.” Moten is also thinking about Du Bois’ essay “Sociology Hesitant,” as well as his own suspect “data.” Moten reverses Du Bois, even as he thinks with him, in order to create critical poetry, and a form of sociology, that hesitates, breathes, and takes the time it needs to get close. This is the kind of writing that can capture what it feels like to be inside a sensorium.
Like Mills and Woolf, I too am working toward a way of writing that takes emotions, senses, colors, and microclimates seriously. And also like Mills, I am thinking with forms of knowledge passed down to me from my mother and grandmother, combined with my sociological training. Like Moten, I am after a method of thinking and writing that tries to perform both the visible and invisible things that rule our lives. I reverse Barthes, as I think with him, in order to remember what it was like to sit inside the wolf’s gullet with the atom bomb inside me…. and I do so through vignettes that pile.
During civil twilight on warm August evenings, I set to work collecting lightning bugs in a jar. The labs in Oak Ridge would pay you for a Mason full of then — scientific research, they said. As my grandparents lounged, I flitted around their yard, chasing the red and black flying beetles with their magical glowing ends. This was my duty as an atomic citizen.
On Melton Lake, a couple of miles from my grandparents’ house, rowers kitted out in tight spandex suits of every color glide past Canadian geese that have never heard of radiation. Melton Lake not only plays host to visiting crews but also houses its own — the Atomic Rowing Team. Their symbol is the circle with the fan shape inside that warns of radiation. I loved seeing the Atomic Rowers train, bodies and muscles working in unison as they sat in their long, sleek, ruby-colored boat, dipping their lemon-yellow oars in the lake. I stood on the shore rapt, watching as they slid the radioactive symbol in the water, drawing it out, dipping it in, drawing it out, dipping it in, drawing it out…
Captain Atom’s Suit
The first time I saw Captain Atom, I might have swooned. He had great legs and a flare for dressing. He was a super-dandy. When he went critical, his hair turned a silvery-white blond. He wore candy-apple red tights and royal-blue boots that reached midcalf. His chest was marked with a bright-yellow circle containing an atomic symbol radiating action lines in every direction. Under his skin he wore a suit of liquid metal, which according to the comic books protecting those around him from his toxic super-body that radiated radiation. The suit was a gift from President Eisenhower.
Captain Atom was an example of the new humanity that people the atomic sensorium created in the wake of Hiroshima. He was a successor to Max Weber’s vision of early twentieth-century folks enclosed in their iron cages and steel casings. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber, with a melancholic tone, notes that the material world of commodities and irrational rationalism had wrapped around people with a tightness previously unknown. It had changed them. The new casings, fabricated since the summer of 1945, were not like the iron traps or steel skins that Weber imagined; they were now inside us, no longer an outside layer but another layer before the muscle and the fat, liquid metal, fast like mercury, powerful and toxic, and nearly impossible to shed. When Weber was writing at the turn of the twentieth century, it was already too late to toss the cloak of the material world off our shoulders with ease. By Captain Atom’s time, we had entered a new sensorium. The cloak was now irradiated, and we absorbed it into us; no longer something light or heavy that lies upon us, the cloak is us. Captain Atom’s suit is yet another example of how the atomic — fantastically, terribly — re-enchanted the world.
As a kid, I went through a phase when sometimes after school I smoked clandestinely behind the 7-11. Stallion was my brand of choice. The packaging had two black beauties galloping across an open white expanse under a solid stripe of red. The logo was a bit crude, and one of the horse’s legs was bent at an impossible angle. Still, the running equine image combined with the illicit activity made me feel free. With a stallion in my hand, I had the perfect prop to act the detective, the rebel, the spy.
My mother didn’t allow candy cigarettes; later they were banned by the state. Those in favor of the ban argued that candy cigarettes romanticized smoking and that playing at smoking could provide the gateway to the real and dangerous practice. When I could no longer pretend at smoking, I took up Atomic Fireballs as my candy of choice. Atomic Fireballs were bright-red cinnamon-flavored jawbreakers with a corpse-white core. “Red. Hot. Flavor. The original super intense cinnamon candy! 15 million of these spicy gems are consumed every week around the world. Kids dare each other to eat them…one after another after another. How much hot can you handle? This was the dare of sweet proliferation that the Ferrara Pan company pedaled.
The experience of eating these candies was often one of too-muchness, a tingling, burning sensation on the tongue. Those little spheres would get too hot, and I would have to take them out of my mouth for a break, holding them between my thumb and forefinger. Atomic Fireballs were never banned, never even controversial. My mom thought they were fine, but that it was tacky to take half-eaten candy out of your mouth and put it back in. The cinnamon candies, which I imagined to be radioactive, were part of my atomic socialization, part of how I came to understand that the atomic was a wild challenge to win. Through my little candies, I learned that with practice and perseverance, the atomic could be controlled. The benefits outweighed the costs. How much hot could I handle?”
I was born under the atom-acorn totem of Oak Ridge. As an adult, I mover through the world with its image inked on my left forearm. Following my grandfather, I am also a kind of atomic courier; I carry and disseminate the secret messages of atomic Appalachia through living, speaking, and writing about where I am from.
This excerpt from “This Atom Bomb in Me” by Lindsey A. Freeman, is published with permission from the Redwood Press (An imprint of Stanford University Press), by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University 2019. (All Rights Reserved ). It is available for purchase on the SUP website here, and on Amazon here.
Lindsey A. Freeman is a writer and sociologist interested in atomic culture, memory, and poetics. Freeman is author of This Atom Bomb in Me (Redwood/Stanford University Press) and Longing for the Bomb: Oak Ridge and Atomic Nostalgia (UNC Press). Originally from Appalachia, Freeman teaches sociology at Simon Fraser University on top of a sci-fi mountain in British Columbia. She writes in order to form blocks of text against oblivion.