By Max Saltman
Mark Twain once wrote that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” I thought about that as I read Gerald Smith and Sean T. Suarez’s 2008 article “The Loveliest Village” on town-gown relations in early Sewanee, published in Sewanee Perspectives.
Smith and Suarez describe how the University founders chose this spot in part due to the Cumberland Plateau’s reputation as a summer refuge from yellow fever and malaria. Classes extended far into the summer as the sons of the Southern upper class made their way up the Mountain to escape the sweltering heat and epidemics of the cities. Sewanee was a “towered city set within a wood” where the wealthy scions of the Southeast could learn and live far from illness’s reach.
Indeed, Sewanee has strived to #ProtectTheBubble since it was a twinkle in Leonidas Polk’s eye. The perceived need to safeguard the University from scary outside forces is even enshrined in a particularly shocking passage from our charter. Section Ten reads in part that the University may acquire land in order to protect students and Sewanee as a whole from “evil-minded persons who may settle near said Institution.”
To people like Allen Doyle (T’20), the notion that Sewanee is a “bubble” reeks of the same classism and elitism that would classify local people as “evil-minded.” Doyle grew up an hour away from Sewanee, in Shelbyville, but worked in Tracy City as a seminarian before graduating last year. Last week, he wrote a post on Facebook deeming the #ProtectTheBubble campaign “the same approach [Sewanee] has used for 150 years to ignore everyone else that calls the Mountain home.” Intrigued, I reached out to him to hear more.
“It’s perpetuating a myth,” Doyle said of the slogan. “Sewanee’s not a bubble. Sewanee’s campus is a destination for tourists and travelers from the region. People are always coming to campus. The majority of staff persons don’t live in the bubble and come from a community that might not take COVID-19 as seriously.”
When I asked whether the phrase could be viewed purely by its intentions, Doyle agreed, but clarified that he sees it as a kind of “doubling down” on the myth that Sewanee somehow exists entirely outside of its surroundings.
“By using the phrase ‘Sewanee Bubble’ in particular,” he said, “Instead of ‘stay safe, Sewanee’ or something else less confrontational, it just further draws this division that once you step on this campus, you’re safe. You don’t have to worry about ignorant people anymore. You don’t have to worry about poor people anymore.”
Reading deeper into the history of the University’s relationship with local people, it becomes more and more clear how viewing Sewanee as a bubble is abrasive and combative. Sewanee’s founders viewed the establishment of the University as a kind of civilizing mission and godlike act of creation, set apart from the people who lived here first.
“We are the first,” insisted South Carolina politician John Preston at Sewanee’s first founding in 1860. “We are primeval here. Our only calendar is the annulation of the oak. Our only history is the bud.”
Smith and Suarez note the irony of Preston’s speech, considering he spoke to a crowd of which several hundred were locals who had lived on the Mountain their entire lives. Not to mention that these people were themselves descended from settlers who ousted native peoples from the region a generation before. By no means were we “the first.”
Yet Preston’s statement that this land exists as a kind of tabula rasa for the University’s designs persists in the idea of the Sewanee Bubble, an imaginary alternate dimension sequestered from the wider world and the “evil-minded” people therein. By thinking of ourselves as part of a “bubble,” we openly ignore the people who live alongside us and upon whom we rely for much of our labor and land. Though we might invoke it to spread a valuable lesson, the illusion of the bubble remains a classist fantasy that excludes more than it protects. But, recognizing that the intentions of the campaign are pure, I end here on Allen Doyle’s alternative phrase:
Stay safe, Sewanee.