Going Underground: Race, Space, and the Subterranean in the Nineteenth-Century United States


American Antiquarian Society
185 Salisbury Street
Worcester, MA 01609
United States

First popularized by newspaper coverage of the Underground Railroad in the 1840s, the underground serves as a metaphor for subversive activity that remains central to our political vocabulary. In this talk, Lara Langer Cohen discusses how her recent book, Going Underground, excavates the long history of this now-familiar idea, while seeking out versions of the underground that got left behind along the way. Outlining how the underground’s figurative sense first took shape through the associations of literal subterranean spaces with racialized Blackness, she examines a vibrant world of nineteenth-century U.S. subterranean literature that includes Black radical manifestos, anarchist periodicals, sensationalist exposés of the urban underworld, manuals for sex magic, and the initiation rites of secret societies. Cohen finds that the undergrounds in this literature offer sites of political possibility that exceed the familiar framework of resistance, suggesting that nineteenth-century undergrounds can inspire new modes of world-making and world-breaking for a time when this world feels increasingly untenable.


Lara Langer Cohen is associate professor of English at Swarthmore College. She is the author of Going Underground: Race, Space, and the Subterranean (Duke University Press, 2023) and The Fabrication of American Literature: Fraudulence and Antebellum Print Culture (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), and co-editor, with Jordan Alexander Stein, of Early African American Print Culture (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012). Recent publications include essays on the literature of Mammoth Cave, music in Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, mid-nineteenth-century mourning poetry, and summer jams. Cohen was a Stephen Botein Fellow in 2008-9 and 2010-11. She was elected to AAS membership in October 2016.