Erik Mortenson, Ambiguous Borderlands. Review by Rona Cran

978-0-8093-3433-9-frontcoverErik Mortenson, Ambiguous Borderlands: Shadow Imagery in Cold War American Culture (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2016)

In March 1954, in an America steeped in McCarthyism and Cold War paranoia, Frank O’Hara wrote a poem called ‘Homosexuality’—a remarkably brave move given the era, particularly in light of the fact that, to borrow from Christopher Richards, ‘like a fat cartoon bear hiding behind a birch tree, [O’Hara’s sexuality] was plainly there to see.’ In the poem, which speaks of his heart (‘that proud cur at the garbage can in the rain’) and freely confesses that ‘it’s wonderful to admire oneself / with complete candour,’ O’Hara takes an age-old trope—the shadow—and turns it on its head. Marshalling the oppressive homophobic rhetoric of the Cold War to his own ends, O’Hara begins the poem with the following lines:

The song of an old cow is not more full of judgment
than the vapors which escape one’s soul when one is sick;

so I pull the shadows around me like a puff
and crinkle my eyes as if at the most exquisite moment

of a very long opera, and then we are off!

The arresting image of a homosexual, opera-loving poet dramatically pulling the shadows around himself, not in an act of shame but, rather, as a gesture of self-esteem, evokes powerful connotations of both fairytale and camp, and signals a wider trend toward the innovative and subversive use of shadow imagery by artists during the first phase of the Cold War. In deliberately, even ostentatiously, claiming to put on the very shadows to which, as a gay man, he and others have previously been unwillingly confined, O’Hara reclaims the tyrannical metaphor and compels his reader to see it in a new light.

This kind of subversion and reclamation of the figure of the shadow is methodically explored in Erik Mortenson’s Ambiguous Borderlands: Shadow Imagery in Cold War American Culture. Although O’Hara does not feature in the book, his use of shadow imagery is very much of a piece with Mortenson’s key contention, which can be applied widely across the period: namely, that the invocation of shadows by numerous maverick artists, from Sylvia Plath to Orson Welles, functioned as a process of navigation between and subversion of established binaries—the false Scylla and Charybdis or ‘us vs. them’ of Cold War rhetoric and reality. Whilst American democracy and freedom of expression was espoused internationally, private lives on home soil were threatened with severe disruption on account of widespread calls for political, social, sexual, and domestic conformity. As a result, Mortenson argues, ‘postwar artists invoked shadows in an attempt to expose the culturally occluded and, in the process, used this in-between space to offer their own imaginative solutions to the paradoxes the Cold War created.’

Mortenson acknowledges early on both the extensive lineage of shadow imagery in literature and culture, from Plato to Hegel to Derrida, and that the image of the shadow is frequently invoked in the context of Cold War analysis, citing numerous studies that use the word in their titles. And yet, he persuasively demonstrates, although Cold War artists used the figure of the shadow in compelling new ways, ‘the vast majority of studies that employ the figure of the shadow in their titles do so without giving thought to the rationale behind their choice’: in other words, though ubiquitous, the shadow is increasingly being treated uncritically. By contrast, Mortenson’s book ‘operates by creating a nexus of readings that gestures toward a way of understanding what shadows signify’ within the Cold War period, arguing that ‘the shadow is such a powerful trope because it creates a space where multiple, and even sometimes contradictory, meanings can coexist.’ His aim is not to show that Cold War artists were the first to use shadows, but that they bequeathed ‘a particular way’ of using them, namely ‘as a productively ambiguous space that questioned rather than answered,’ and that, much like the majority of collage works produced during and between the First and Second World Wars, shadows create an ambiguity that ‘has ramifications for the subjectivity of the viewer, who becomes forced to confront such difficult images and try to make sense of them.’

Mortenson begins his book by examining the ‘nuclear sublime’ and its aftermath, whereby in the wake of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki an ‘initial fascination with the brilliance of the blast’ soon gave way to doubt, and ‘images of piercing light were replaced by a darkness.’ He delineates the peculiar allure of the shadows of Hiroshima, a phenomenon first documented in the New Yorker by John Hersey (1946), in which shadow images of bomb victims were discovered to have been burnt on to the city streets, breaking down ‘the traditional relationship between human and shadow’ by enabling the body to depart ‘while the shadow remained.’ This phenomenon casts its own long shadow throughout the text, both in the sense that there is an unsettling but unmistakeable appeal in the idea of leaving behind an imprint in death, but also in the way that many of Mortenson’s subjects are shown to use shadows to explore the traces that experience leaves behind, whether in the form of lost childhood innocence, vanishing human ‘interconnectedness,’ or the disappearance of ‘normal rules and expectations.’


Promotional photograph of Orson Welles dressed as The Shadow, dated 1937 or 1938.

Ambiguous Borderlands covers an expansive field of reference, beginning with an examination of the ways in which Sylvia Plath, Jack Kerouac, and Amiri Baraka made use of the 1930s-1940s crime-fighting radio and cartoon hero the Shadow, an ambiguous quasi-vigilante with the dubious privilege of knowing ‘what Evil lurks in the hearts of men.’ For Kerouac and Plath, the Shadow facilitates a commentary on the dawning ‘complexities of adult life,’ while for Baraka, the character enables him to address the word ‘shadow’ as a racially charged trope and to ‘investigate the tension inherent in being a black poet in a racist American society.’ For all three, the Shadow is ‘a haunting made literal.’ The young Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac also experienced a shared haunting, this time by a recurring dream of a shadowy figure, the ‘Shrouded [or ‘Shroudy’] Stranger,’ who Mortenson addresses via archival accounts. For both Ginsberg and Kerouac, he argues, this figure represented a means by which to overcome the anxiety of influence—in particular, to interrogate and move beyond the shadows cast over their work, and their era, by the ideas of Freud and Jung. Less a symbol than an object, a force rather than an abstraction, Ginsberg and Kerouac’s versions of their Shrouded Stranger came to ‘inspire, stimulate, provoke—not in order to make whole but to disrupt being in the search for new modes of existence.’

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Untitled, 1962

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Untitled, 1962

In the latter half of his book, Mortenson moves away from literature to discuss shadow imagery in film and photography, while continuing to demonstrate the prevailing desire among Cold War artists to force the viewer or reader ‘to confront the difficult questions of the period.’ The photographers Robert Frank, William Klein, and Ralph Eugene Meatyard are shown to have taken a political stance in subverting photography’s ‘direct claim on the real.’ Rejecting similitude, ‘these photographers strove to awaken the anxieties and difficulties of the age,’ drawing attention to the constant possibility of nuclear annihilation by using shadow and blurring effects to highlight ‘the disintegration of the human figure in their work.’ Turning to late film noir—The Night of the Hunter (1955), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), and Touch of Evil (1959)—Mortenson shows how different Cold War noir is from the genre’s earlier iterations. Arguing that it is crucial to view these films in light of their context—namely ‘the fear of infiltration that characterized the discourses surrounding 1950s containment culture’—he reveals the numerous ways in which they address issues of trust, mutual deterrence, survival, and Cold War geopolitical consequences. An absorbing ‘journey into the shadows’ takes place in Mortenson’s final chapter, as he provides a reading of The Twilight Zone as ‘a Cold War critique that resonates straight into the American home.’ Positing Rod Serling, the show’s creator, as ‘a maverick who was determined to make his own decisions regardless of what others felt,’ Mortenson demonstrates with aplomb the various ways in which The Twilight Zone used shadows to create a ‘site of critique’—a shifting space, or series of spaces, in which fixed Cold War binaries were forever destabilized.


Sylvia Plath, sitting sideways to the camera (Giovanni Giovannetti/Grazia Neri)

Although ‘the complex longings and fears that permeated American society at mid-century’ are arguably already well-understood, this book persuasively reiterates them by comprehensively illustrating the many ways in which writers, photographers, and filmmakers mirrored and used the ambiguities and uncertainties of the period in their work. Where Mortenson’s book stands out is in its meticulously crafted series of individual case studies, which succeed in saying something new and fascinating about artists (Plath and Kerouac in particular) about whom it had seemed almost impossible to do so. Like Frank O’Hara (who only two years before writing ‘Homosexuality’ was making reference in ‘Hatred’ to his ‘youthful fear of shadows’), the artists whose work Mortenson explores all reveal a desire to embrace and to dwell in the shadows, and even, in the case of Plath, Baraka, Kerouac, and Welles, to become them. For artists working during the 1950s and 1960s, shadows ‘became an opening for the imagination to think beyond the actual.’ Drawing on ‘a history of shadow imagery to question a world that both frightened and captivated them,’ the subjects of Mortenson’s study (and, as is made clear, many others whose work didn’t make it into the pages of his book) understood that ‘the shadow could mean more than simply a false sign or a precarious soul’ and so ‘crafted shadows into images that drew on all these associations simultaneously.’ By shifting the connotations of the word ‘shadow,’ they were able to figure darkness as appealing and revelatory rather than threatening and oppressive: in other words, the appeal of shadows is that ‘once glimpsed, their vague outlines give rise to an anxiety that sends the mind racing for answers.’