National Humanities Center Fellowship to support environmental historian Ellen Stroud’s work “Dead as Dirt”

Posted July 16th, 2009 at 2:36 pm.

stroudAssistant Professor of Growth and Structure of Cities and Environmental Studies Ellen Stroud has been appointed a 2009 fellow of the National Humanities Center, where she will pursue a book project titled Dead as Dirt: An Environmental History of the Dead Body.

The National Humanities Center, described as “the only major independent American institute for advanced study in all fields of the humanities,” annually awards between 30 and 40 fellowships to outstanding scholars in a broad range of humanistic disciplines. Fellows spend either a semester or a year in residence at the Center, in Research Triangle Park, N.C., pursuing individual research and writing projects and participating in the lively intellectual exchange encouraged by the Center’s regular lectures and events. As one of only two assistant professors on the roster of 2009 Fellows, Stroud will be one of the most junior recipients of this honor.

Stroud’s proposed monograph, Dead as Dirt, represents a fresh and unusual approach to understanding the relationship between humans and their environments, by examining the human body as “as a literal, chemical and biological component of the natural world, with a complex environmental history of its own.”

“It is in death that human bodies become most clearly components of their environments – as organic material, as commodities, and as health hazards,” Stroud explains. “Dead bodies in the United States have been a resource for business entrepreneurs, a focus of environmental health concerns, and a subject of political conflicts over the location of burial sites. The increasingly limited availability of land for urban burials, scientific advances within the funeral industry, and the changing material composition of dead human bodies have compounded the environmental effects of the corpse.”

Stroud’s interest in the topic grew out of her research into activists’ successful efforts to shut down Manhattan’s only crematorium, which operated in Harlem from the 1970s until the early 1990s.

“Initially, I was analyzing the crematorium protests as merely another campaign against another polluting industry in a neighborhood with more than its share,” Stroud says. “But the low- and middle-income African-American activists were not just protesting bodies being burned; they were protesting the burning of specific bodies—the modified bodies of the wealthy. The protesters argued that these corpses were literally toxic waste—too much mercury in the teeth, too much silicone in the breasts, too many batteries in the pacemakers left in the chests. This was true, and surprising: many dead bodies are toxic.”

Stroud found that investigating the material histories of human bodies revealed new connections “between human bodies and histories of technology, property, politics, and thought.” Her current project expands the scope of inquiry to the 20th-century United States; the “human nature of the subject matter” also introduces new perspectives on the interactions between environmental history and social, political, and intellectual histories.

Grants from the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Science Foundation, and Harvard University’s Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History have supported Stroud’s research for several chapters of the book, and she expects to be able to complete her manuscript by next summer, thanks to the NHC Fellowship.

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