Reviewed by Julie Feng
In Franklinstein, Susan Landers tells the story of Germantown, a Philadelphia neighborhood. The mixed-genre volume starts as an elegy for a closing church in Germantown. It is at once an ode to this place and a critical scouring of how the history of such places are made.
With multiple references to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the hybridity of Landers’ literary “monster” is centralized. She weaves poetry and prose into a collection that feels more like an ongoing project than a finished product. Landers says of history, “Always there will be coming more and more of it.” The insinuation is that her work, now part of the historical landscape of Germantown, will continue to develop. She draws heavily from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans—but the parts of the poems and pieces that are most salient are the parts about race and colonization. The title of the work itself is a one-word allusion to these three sources by Shelley, Franklin, and Stein—made obvious by Landers’ choice to start the book with quotes from these writers.
Franklinstein seems comfortable in its multiplicities. For instance, criticism of the dangers of nostalgia is often cut with rosy nostalgia itself. Furthermore, it interrogates the process of historicizing a place while also becoming a historical record itself. Existence in multiplicity is the strongest aspect of Franklinstein. It allows open and evolving interpretation for the reader.
“This is part of the history of this place and its people—
how they were always beginning—how they
were always changing—how they were always forgetting
and remembering they were beginning and changing.”
Still, there are moments of the text when the author, a white woman, seemingly unearths the racism of other white people without interrogating her own privilege. For instance, when talking about White Flight, she focuses on her family’s exceptionalism:
“The old neighbors flew like birds from the new neighbors, the
neighbors fleeing a fever, a flu that shared its name with a bird.
They flew, the old neighbors, to houses next to houses with people
who looked like them. But we didn’t fly with them. We didn’t fly
away the way other white people who looked like us did.”
Yet another cringe-worthy moment arises when she writes:
“What a storyteller called,
an Indian file of houses.”
She transmits the racist phrase to some unnamed storyteller, and then follows it with:
“A story that is repeated in the history of this place.
A story that means something to history so I tell it.
A history of all the endings
that make up so many of our beginnings—”
There is indeed the glimmering of a beginning there. The ongoing, forthcoming feeling of Landers’ work is to her advantage here, because the lack of a finished-product feeling allows the reader to be more forgiving. On telling other (presumably white) people that she is from a poor, predominantly Black neighborhood, Landers writes: “How should I prove my impossible origins?” Impossible? Perhaps a loaded, unclear word. However, the stronger echoes of Franklinstein are words like “parts” and “pieces.” Landers writes over and over again about things being held together, as she cobbles together sentences with long-dashes and long spaces. Franklinstein feels ongoing because the work itself seems to be telling the reader that it is only one part or one piece of a larger history.
So uncomfortable moments exist alongside the achievements of Franklinstein—its seam-full hybridity, its dualities, its direct address of the racism and colonialism in which American cities are rooted. It has the feel of a poetic documentary—with footage deliberately edited, but with the obvious goal of authenticity. In the moments when Landers writes about childhood in Germantown, I feel the clear authenticity. However, as deftly as Landers creates the portrait of a place, we must ask: in this story about a place inhabited by predominantly Black citizens, a place built on stolen indigenous lands, a place with a long complex legacy—whose voices are centered?