In the Sigma Tau Delta English honor society’s final lecture of the semester on Wednesday April 25, Distinguished Teaching Professor of English Beth McCoy took on early American history and contemporary fiction through the prism of race and moral agency.
The lecture, entitled “The Great [White] Wail: Percival Everett’s The Water Cure and Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia,” examined the Founding Father’s work in terms of its horrific representation of race. It also explores the novelist Percival Everett’s implicit critique of Jefferson in his popular 2007 novel.
The first portion of McCoy’s essay toured the terror of Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, in which the third president of the United States revealed the extent of his racism and dehumanization of his fellow black Americans.
Jefferson reduced black and Native peoples to being naturally animalistic, like “the caribou or moose,” according to McCoy. In doing so, McCoy argues Jefferson excused himself and others from the bodily and psychological harm that his compatriotd were subjecting black and Native peoples to.
McCoy brought Jefferson’s horrific racial theorems to extreme relevance for members of the Geneseo community by noting the role Jefferson played in the proliferation of public universities.
“[To Jefferson,] blackness is restrained within ‘Query 14,’ imprisoned within the laws and figuratively tortured … Jefferson ends ‘Query 14’ with a call to start public universities,” McCoy said. “This is truly unnerving to think about as we are here at a public university, that the very germ and heart of public higher education in this country [comes from] this . . . theory.”
In a 2007 novel called The Water Cure, a man named Ishmael Kidder enacts brutal revenge on the man who he believes murdered his daughter. In this work, Everett takes on the immorality of the Iraq War and perceived tyranny of George W. Bush. With the focus on Kidder’s method of torture, waterboarding, and its resemblance to the tactics of the American government, Everett critiques how the country has dehumanized people.
McCoy argues that Everett critically invokes Jefferson’s own immorality and tyranny. In Everett’s novel, Jefferson appears as an apparition who smokes weed and quotes his own platitudes to Kidder as he manages his various immoral decisions.
“The Founding Father appears only once as a pot-smoking ghost of himself in the backseat of Kidder’s car. At one level, Jefferson’s ghost serves as a heavy-handed device and curious metaphor to reinforce the truth that . . . violence pulls at the heart of the human,” McCoy said.
McCoy enraptured the audience of around 25 students for almost an hour, confounding them with the moral complexity and racial dehumanization that has underscored American history.