Peter West, Trying the Dark: Mammoth Cave and the Racial Imagination, 1839-1869

Interesting examination of role-playing, illusion, identity, and power in Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave, one small branch of which was the inspiration for the 1976/7 computer game Colossal Cave Adventure.

In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave was a popular tourist destination for travelers from around the United States and beyond. The cave also functioned during these years as a dynamic symbol in the national imagination, appearing in travel books, lyric poems, private diaries, love letters, gothic novels, and even a moving panorama. Peter West examines this diverse body of cultural artifacts against the backdrop of Mammoth Cave as a site of American slavery. As this essay reveals, black slaves such as Stephen Bishop were the cave’s most popular guides and its most celebrated explorers.

While writers have often depicted Bishop and his fellow guides as heroic figures of slave self-determination and power, West complicates this interpretation by revealing how the symbolic authority of the Mammoth Cave slaves served the white imagination. The theatricality of antebellum cave tourism — which included costumes, optical illusions, sing-alongs, and complex games of racial and sexual role-playing — emerges here as a way of containing the haunting spectacle of black authority and reaffirming conventions of white domination. Peter West, Southern Spaces