March 26, 2012

Editorial Transitions

Hi everyone--we have a couple changes to announce in our editorial staff. First, we're very pleased to welcome Stan Thayne as a new co-editor for the blog. Stan's first post is below -- make sure you read it, because it's super-cool. Second, Brandi Denison is taking a leave of absence from editing for a while. (She will continue to contribute posts.) We are sorry to lose her, however temporarily, but we thank her for all her hard work (since this blog was born!!) and we wish her very well indeed.

Death and Immortality in the American West

by Stan Thayne

Two vignettes:

Vignette 1: Frozen Dead Guy Days

“Are you here for the frozen dead guy?”

A question like that takes you back, especially when you are not there for the frozen dead guy. You’ve never heard of the frozen dead guy. You came into the small-town Colorado diner for a little breakfast before another day of skiing. And now the waiter is asking if you are here for the frozen dead guy. Is that on the menu?

The frozen dead guy, you learn, is Grandpa Bedo Morstoel, who died in Norway in 1989. After his death, his grandson packed his body in dry ice and shipped him to the Trans Time center in Oakland, California, where, through a process known as cryonics, the body was preserved in liquid nitrogen. In 1993 Grandpa Bedo was moved to Nederland, Colorado, where he is kept constantly on ice in a Tuff Shed in his granddaughter’s backyard. Keeping Grandpa Bedo cryonically preserved takes not only dedication but 1,600 pounds of dry ice every month and a lot of cold cash to pay for it. Accordingly, an annual Frozen Dead Guy Days festival was got up to raise funds for Grandpa Bedo’s icing. It has become the major event of the town: three days of partying, usually in early March, complete with casket races, live music, a parade, and a polar plunge. But Grandpa Bedo will not be kept forever on ice. Someday, when science has finally figured out how to revive the dead, Grandpa Bedo’s indefinitely great grandchildren will thaw the old man out so he can finally live again.

Vignette 2: The So-Called Death of Edith Peshak

“She is not dead—there is no death!”

A statement like that also takes you back. It surely took aback San Juan County, Utah, Attorney Donald T. Adams in 1935 when he was sent out to the Home of Truth settlement in Dry Valley, Utah, to investigate claims that they were harboring a dead corpse and refused to bury it/her. He had been contacted by the Utah attorney general who had been contacted by the daughter of the corpse in question requesting investigation into the matter. So he went out to Dry Valley and met with the community’s leader, Marie Ogden. “She told me the woman wasn’t dead,” he later recalled. “She said there is a cord that connects the hereafter and the present life and this cord had never been severed. She [the “deceased,” Edith Peshak] had the option to stay in this life or to sever the cord and go back, but she [Ogden] kept the nurses there taking care of this woman all the time.”

Marie Ogden had arrived in southern Utah in 1933, having migrated there from Newark, New Jersey, with a small group of followers. The nurses Adams mentioned were two of Marie Ogden’s followers: Home of Truth members Mary Cameron and Aletheia Chamberlain. Cameron was one of Ogden’s original followers who migrated out to southern Utah’s desert country from the eastern United States, in 1933. She was a registered nurse and a graduate of Boston City Hospital; she served on the editorial staff of The American Journal of Nursing from 1906 to 1916 and as a nurse in the Army Reserves during WWI. Chamberlain, a trained nurse from New York arrived in the valley in 1934.

Two other nurses soon became involved in what was quickly becoming a legal imbroglio. Ogden had refused Adams a view of Peshak’s body on his first visit and did so again when he returned with the sheriff. Ogden apparently informed him, however, that she would allow the local doctor, I. W. Allen, to have look. So Adams went to Dr. Allen’s clinic, found two of his nurses there, and asked them to assist him in one more effort to examine the body. Once again, Adams, the nurses, and a group of curious tagalongs who accompanied them were denied access to the body. Finally Adams was able to contact Dr. Allen and convince him to go out to the community to determine whether Peshak’s unburied corpse posed a public health hazard (which would have provided legal means for a coerced burial). After wrapping things up for the day at the clinic, Dr. Allen made his way out to Dry Valley, once again assisted by his two assistants, nurses Leda Young and Dorothy Bayles.

Leda Young later recalled what happened: Ogden met them on the road and only allowed Dr. Allen to go in to examine Peshak’s body. Fifteen or twenty minutes later he emerged from Ogden’s cabin, “chuckling all over” as Ogden escorted him back to the car. After “considerable persuasion,” Allen finally convinced Ogden to allow his nurses to examine the body to see if they could detect a pulse—something he apparently had failed to do. This is what Leda Young remembered:
We found the two nurses had everything well in hand. Twice a day they gave the patient a salt bath, and a milk enema. The milk was to give her nourishment and replace the dead cells in the live tissue, and the salt baths kept her clean, and well preserved. The nurses instructed us to press our fingers in the soles of the patient’s feet, and when we could not detect any pulse they had us press our fingers on the crown of her hear head. Since we could not find a pulse the nurses determined we did not have a sixth sense, something they professed to have. Dorothy and I were not fooled. We knew poor Mrs. Peshak was a corpse, well preserved and very clean. She has skin stretched over small bones with no muscle or fat, as she had died of cancer, no telling how long ago. However, there definitely was no public health hazard, so we drove away exited [sic] over what we had seen.
The issue was, for the time being, laid to rest, even if Edith Peshak’s body was not.

Several obvious themes unite these two vignettes.  But a question I want to explore here: Is there something western about these encounters with—these denials of—death? Or are they both simply incidents that happened to occur in the West? Of course, Grandpa Bedo’s death occurred in Norway, but the body was then moved to the West—to the Oakland Cryonics center—for preservation, and then settled in the Rockies for the deep freeze (a movement similar in some thematic ways to Maynard Dixon’s migration: roving east from California to see the “true West”). Similarly, Marie Ogden’s movement began on the East Coast but then moved west in their quest for a site for a metaphysical community that would allow them to transcend death and live forever. Marie Ogden’s writings about the Home of Truth are full of rhetoric about the desert and the West—“our desert home” our “Western abode”—such that they seem to be crucial elements in her thinking about the apocalypse and survival into the new age. Granted, these are only two examples, not enough to make any firm conclusions, and there are surely counterexamples—eastward movements to defy death—but the movement still intrigues me. South and West: the directions of Thoreau’s Walking, the direction of freedom. Is escape from death—to the Western mind (if I can posit such a thing)—the ultimate freedom? Is there a certain strain of American religious thinking in regards to death and immortality that, at least for a portion of the population, suggests—and often leads to—a westering movement: a migration? Westward the quest of immortality takes its way?

March 19, 2012

Is the RAW Cooked?

An enquiry into the significance of a category that is perhaps past its due date
By Mary L. Keller

At the meeting of the Religion in the American West (RAW) Seminar in San Franscisco, 2011, a question was posed that got my interloper gears turning. I’ll begin with that question, explain why I might best be considered at interloper in RAW, and propose what might be a cooking of the RAW.

The question was raised by a historian who asked from her position as a specialist in the southern geography of the U.S., “Why would you work so hard to define a field called Religion in the American West given that many of us have been working hard for years to get out of the confines of something called ‘the American South’? And if there is something called Religion in the American West, what is it?” Let me note two things: 1) I am paraphrasing and if others can restate that question more accurately, please do so; and 2) The collegial atmosphere of this meeting was so generous and engaged that this very important question was delivered and received in the best spirit of rigorous and respectful discussion. That discussion has continued on this blog; I hope that my post perpetuates that spirit.

This question appealed greatly to me in part because I am an interloper. Having watched RAW from a safe distance for the past several years, but not really being an Americanist or an American Westist, I was participating with a sense that perhaps I didn’t really belong there. Yet I was compelled by the theoretical and evidential depth of the group; so perhaps I was hoping that I might belong. But as the “not-a-southern-historian’s” question registered itself across the length of our corporate table, I wondered whether maybe this question of why one would carve out a geographical regional identity, and how one would attempt to articulate what was meaningful about such a category, maybe this question would solve my identity crisis by cooking the RAW, so to speak, or if not cooking it, exposing it for closer scrutiny. My fundamental concern was this: If you say “American West” have you not already employed the “mindscape” of manifest destiny? The mindscape serves as a mask that orients Euro-Americans to their eastern homelands and obscures the reality that for 12,000 years the Indigenous inhabitants had been networking north and south along the spines of mountains and veins of rivers.

I was trained in history of religions with an emphasis on critical theory as it was applied to meta-theoretical frameworks across the university. Located as I was, it was the “hermeneutics of suspicion” upon which I had focused, from Edward Said and Talal Asad’s respective critiques of Eurocentric orientalism, to Charles Long’s theoretical reorientations begun in Significations, to French feminism’s linguistic turn, and postcolonial theories of raced and hybrid identities. I arrived at the RAW seminar thinking that the fundamental issue was how this group imagines “human centers” on the cultural geography of North and at least Central America. Does RAW begin with 12,000 years of human ecology moving nomadically along the spines of the Continents, moving with rivers and seasons, for which the ancient civilizations of Central America serve as the natural “center” from which to orient one’s studies? Or does RAW replay the Eurocentric re-centering of meaning by placing the “origins” of meaning in the conquest and settler cultures as they moved north from Mexico and west from the east coast of the U.S.?

My experience of listening to the papers of the RAW seminar was of being very impressed by the authority, rigor, and insight of the presenters—I would like to work with such intellectuals! These are, I hoped, my people for future AAR meetings. But then the question was cast out across the waters of our plastic wood grain veneer table, like a wooly bugger, and I bit.

This is a wooly bugger.
West of what? If we are West, we are west of the East Coast of the U.S. And from a postcolonial perspective, why would any people imagine themselves any more differentiated by their relationship to a landscape than any other people? While each landscape will have a unique impact, why would this landscape exert a bigger impact unless a people was imagining themselves to be bigger people? Is that not a repetition of the Romantic impulse to imagine the sublime as the source for a uniquely “whole” human? Does the moniker RAW reflect more than anything else the desire to imagine that a landscape was empty until conquest arrived? Does RAW exert the cartographic reasoning of Eurocentric meanings described by Gunnar Olsson in Abysmal that necessitate the masking of what we are really up to? To make the Marauder’s Map come to life in Harry Potter, you must tap it three times while saying “I’m up to no good.”

I’m thinking of animal and geological metaphors as an alternative organizing moniker that would not, in the end, provide regional specificity but rather would relate the American West to the newest zones of contact between Indigenous and settler populations on the globe. This would be a shift from “The Home on the Range” that I fear is intrinsic to the name RAW, toward a nomadic political economy of the sacred as people adapt to Climate Change. The seminar would make better sense to me as a traveling feast, a place that would draw together Indigenous rights advocates seeking to articulate new modalities for self-governance and sovereignty from South America, to David Chidester’s work on the shifting political economy of the sacred in South Africa, to circumpolar responses to global warming. Would there be a way to maintain a glocal attentiveness in this group—allowing for both the focus on regional specificity and relationships of contiguous space on the one hand, always paired with an outreach toward global “frontiers of contact” on the other? Could we call it Frontier Zoology? Did you notice how I just invoked the first person plural, as though I belonged?

March 15, 2012

REMINDER: AAR and ASCH Proposals Due Today!

Hi everyone -- your friendly blog editors here, reminding you that proposals for the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting are due today.  For the Religion in the American West Seminar call for papers, see our blog post here; for full details and the complete AAR call for papers, head over to their CFP

Also, proposals for the American Society of Church History 2013 Winter Meeting are due today.  To see the call for papers and get more details, go to our blog post here, or click on over to the ASCH website.  Happy Thursday!

March 12, 2012

AAR Proposal Deadline Postponed

The AAR has postponed its proposal deadline. Proposals are now due on Thursday, March 15. For the Religion in the American West Seminar call for papers, see our blog post here; for full details and the complete AAR call for papers, head over to their CFP. So now you have time to read Sarah Imhoff's excellent post on Purim at the L.A. Kabbalah Centre before putting the finishing touches on that proposal...

Celebrating Purim Like a West Coast Mystic

By Sarah Imhoff

Discussing the Jewish holiday of Purim last week, I offhandedly described it as a combination of Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day. In retrospect, it wasn’t a bad comparison: Purim has the costumes, the overwhelming number of sugary snacks, and the drinking. Drinking is not just a tradition associated with Purim; it’s a mitzvah, a commandment. The Babylonian Talmud (Megillah 7b) transmits the authoritative tradition in the name of a fourth-century rabbi: “Rava said: A person is obligated to drink on Purim until he does not know the difference between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordechai.’”  Yes, it is a religious injunction to drink yourself silly. Come to think of it, I’m surprised it hasn’t become a widely observed college holiday.

Traditionally on Purim, Jews go to synagogue and hear the book of Esther read aloud. Whenever the reader says “Haman,” the name of the villain, listeners boo, hiss, stomp, and use noisemakers in order to “blot out Haman’s name.” Synagogue can be a raucous affair at those times, while everyone—dressed in a dizzying array of costumes—loudly denounces Haman and more quietly roots for protagonists Esther and Mordecai.

But at one Purim scroll reading in Los Angeles, there is no stomping. There are no noise-makers. There is only silence when Haman’s name is read. At the Kabbalah Centre, Haman’s name is met by silent meditation on three Hebrew letters, which are projected onto a screen. The letters symbolize dispelling negativity.

In Kabbalistic philosophy of language, it is the divine name (the tetragrammaton) that serves as the very foundation of language. Without it, there could be no letters or words, and so all language is dependent on and part of the divine name in some way. Correspondingly, focused reflection on texts, words, and even letters is a traditional part of Kabbalistic practice. 

The Los Angeles Kabbalah Centre, from
The Los Angeles Kabbalah Centre markets itself to all religious seekers, not just Jews. While the teachers and religious functionaries it employs are mostly Jewish, its members reflect the diversity of its Southern California environment. This Kabbalah is only loosely tethered to Judaism. In fact, the website never identifies Kabbalah as Jewish. Instead, it is a “secret” that is “the magic that will transform your life too.” This brand of esoteric religious knowledge has attracted celebrities (Madonna, Britney Spears, and Ashton Kutcher, to name a few) and other seekers of enlightenment. And, in addition to a number of weekly classes, members and others gather at the Centre on Purim.

On its face, the Scroll of Esther is not a text about God; in fact, God is never mentioned. It is a text about peoplehood and holding fast to community and identity in the face of persecution. So what does a text celebrating the strong ties of Jewish peoplehood and a historical victory over some nasty Persian officials mean to an audience that is primarily interested in uncovering mystical secrets in order to transform their lives? The simple answer is that Kabbalists believe that every biblical text also has an esoteric meaning available only to those initiated into special reading practices. But, in another sense, the meaning of the text isn’t the right question at all. The peacocks, astronauts, Mexican wrestlers, and disco queens filling the seats on Purim are there because they imagine themselves as having a certain spiritual disposition and spiritual goals, and they see this particular version of popular mysticism as a path toward those goals.

While there are Kabbalah Centres in other cities, the Los Angeles community is particularly high-profile. I suspect that a combination of factors created the environment for it to thrive. One of these factors is the larger ethos that Jeffrey Kripal has referred to as “West Coast mysticism” (Mutants and Mystics, 29). A host of New Age movements and adaptations of “Eastern” religions have taken hold on the West Coast from the 1960s (and even before) to the present. Whether it’s “in the air,” a reflection of different cultural values, or something else, the West Coast in general and California more specifically has been a rich environment for new modes of “spirituality” and religious practice.

Another factor is the more widespread recovery of Kabbalah within more mainstream Jewish circles. In the early twentieth century, Reform synagogues would never have considered having Kabbalah classes in their schedules alongside Sisterhood meetings. But today literacy in Jewish mysticism is quite respectable—even desirable—in Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaisms and a central piece of movements like neo-Hasidism and Renewal. Even though the Kabbalah Centre is explicitly universalist in its approaches, the renewed Jewish interest in Kabbalah as part of tradition has added to its accessibility and popularity.

As for Purim, its accessibility remains. Since Rava in the fourth century, it has been occasion to act silly and drink too much. Religiously.

March 5, 2012

Book of the Month:

James J. Kopp, Eden Within Eden: Oregon’s Utopian Heritage

Review by Anne Blankenship

When I pulled Eden Within Eden (published in 2009 by Oregon State University Press) from the shelf, I discovered two related projects: a narrative placing Oregon’s utopian heritage within the context of American history and a 100+ page resource guide of primary and secondary sources related to the nearly 300 communal and utopian groups Kopp’s study unearthed.  Why Oregon?  The book offers a reasonable argument for its exceptionalism: Acknowledging that colonists, immigrants and citizens have long envisioned America, its frontier and other domestic locations as chosen, sanctified spaces for perfected communities, Kopp writes that most attempts to recreate Eden in America were transitory and often unassociated with a specific location in the nation.  In Oregon, however, the formation of utopian communities that consciously aligned their aims with the landscape has continued unabated since the earliest settlers arrived.  Kopp’s book fills a regional gap left by two books on British Columbian utopian societies and two classic (outdated) studies of communal groups in California and Washington.  The numerous similarities beg for a comparison, but this is not it. 
The volume’s first half provides a thematic and roughly chronological narrative of conceptions of utopia throughout Oregon’s history.  Kopp defines “utopian heritage broadly to include pioneer journals and government posters depicting Oregon as a new Garden of Eden, as well as religious communes, farming cooperatives and intentional living communitiesBrief commentary on historical patterns and types of experimentation links the series of relatively independent organizational histories.  Kopp observes how the search for Eden changed in response to national events—the Civil War, the Great Depression, world wars and the social revolutions of the 1960s.  The book argues that Oregon’s natural landscape and welcoming political and cultural environment drew people at nearly every moment in the country’s history Kopp concludes his narrative by stepping beyond pioneers, cooperatives and communal groups to consider “utopian undertakings” found within city planning and modern literature.
After summarizing the Christian origins of Eden and utopia, the study largely forgets about religion.  The choice to describe Holy Rollers and Rajneeshpuram as cults indicates how this American Studies scholar treats concepts of religion.  A few groups are monolithically religious but religion does not generally play a role in the seemingly secular category of utopian communes.  Religiosity was rarely discussed and no groups were analyzed as or in the context of new religious movements. 
The volume’s greatest contribution, and the reason I want to share this book with parties interested in religion in the American West, rests in its glorious appendix.  Kopp is a librarian and here his work shines.  In addition to a bibliography of general academic works, the appendix catalogues hundreds of communes and cooperativesThe listings provide basic data for each group (location (often street addresses), founding date, website and cross-references to communal living directories) and an extensive list of additional sources, including archives, newspaper and magazine articles, masters and doctoral theses, videos, pamphlets, oral histories, collections of photography and art, legal documents, etc.  The inclusion of secondary material may guide researchers to more productive paths and provide useful contacts.  Entries range from 12 pages to a few lines.  My only frustration was not knowing the size of the communities or their current status. 
Kopp’s inclusive study stops short of including the post-World War II formation of suburbs as a fulfillment of the American Dream.  In perhaps the only noticeable value judgment in the book, he argues that the materialistic, competitive drive of suburbia bars it from his study.  However, rhetoric of 1950s America resembled the hopeful language of many pioneering, utopian communes.  Like Kopp’s other groups, suburbs are widespread in but not particular to Oregon.  These “façades of utopianism” share numerous characteristics with earlier communities: a defined vision of perfected life, faith that determined efforts could build that dream and tensions between “reality and the dream of Eden.”  The absence of this discussion relates to my main disappointment with the book.  Kopp offers abundant examples of groups and individuals that corroborate his proposed thesis, but fails to press his argument beyond the introduction.  This may have been intentional since Kopp designed the book as a resource for scholars to excavate utopia.  I say, go to it.  

Editors’ note: Have you read this book? What do you think about it? Join the conversation and leave your thoughts in the comments! If you have a suggestion for a future book of the month, or if you would like to review a book for the book of the month series, please contact us. Next month, Sarah Imhoff reviews Bryan Edward Stone’s The Chosen Folks: Jews on the Frontiers of Texas (University of Texas Press, 2010).

March 1, 2012

Workshops and Awards You Might Be Interested In

(I guess that should be "Workshops and Awards In Which You Might Be Interested," but our title is shorter.) Welcome to March! A couple of announcements have come across our desks lately that we think might interest you, dear reader. First, if you're a grad student, there's a Western History Dissertation Workshop that looks like all kinds of fun and really helpful, too. Second, whether you're a student or not, if you're working on intermountain west stuff, there is financial support available for that from the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies. The information we received about these things starts two sentences from now. Go forth and apply! (And if you get any of these things, be sure to write us and let us know!!)


The Institute for the Study of the American West at the Autry National Center, the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, the Research Division of The Huntington Library, the Hemispheric Institute of the Americas at the University of California, Davis, the Howard R. Lamar Center for the Study of Frontiers and Borders at Yale University, the Bill Lane Center for the Study of the North American West at Stanford University, the Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University, and the Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest at the University of Washington invite applications for the seventh annual "Western History Dissertation Workshop," which will be held on June 15, 2012 at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles.

We will pay travel expenses for up to five graduate students working on dissertations exploring the history and culture of the American West. Participants will have the opportunity to present a chapter at the workshop and to receive feedback from other participants and from scholars affiliated with the sponsoring institutions.

To apply, please send a cover letter and the abstract of the dissertation to Stephen Aron at Please also arrange for your dissertation adviser to send a letter of recommendation by email to the same address; that letter should describe how much of the thesis has been completed to date. Applications are to be received by March 23rd; participants will be notified of their selection by April 27th.


The Charles Redd Center for Western Studies is pleased to announce multiple awards for 2012 that are available for scholars conducting research related to the Intermountain West (defined as: Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming). Please see the descriptions below or click here for further information and instructions for applying for each award. Applications for 2012 are due March 15.

The Redd Center offers the following awards:

Faculty Research Awards provide up to $3,000 to faculty members at any academic institution to conduct research on any topic related to the Intermountain West. Research may be conducted at any location.

Independent Research and Creative Awards provide up to $1,500 to researchers studying the Intermountain West who are not connected to an academic institution. Research may be conducted at any location.

Summer Awards for Upper Division and Graduate Students at any academic institution provide up to $1,500 for research support for any topic related to the Intermountain West. Research may be conducted at any location.

Annaley Naegle Redd Student Award in Women's History provides up to $1,500 for research support concerning any aspect of women's history in the American West (not limited to the Intermountain West.) Research may be conducted at any location.

Public Programming Awards provide up to $3,000 to any organization planning a conference, museum exhibit or lecture series on a topic related to the Intermountain West.

Fellowship Awards in Western American History provide up to $3,500 in research support for scholars who travel to BYU to use the L. Tom Perry Special Collections in the Harold B. Lee Library.

Visiting Scholar Program provides a housing stipend and office facilities for 2-4 months to enable university faculty of all ranks, independent scholars, freelance authors and other public intellectuals to visit and conduct research at BYU.