Sunday, June 23, 2024

Julie Carr. (Photo: Laird Hunt)

A poet at heart, Julie Carr stretched her limits with “Mud, Blood, and Ghosts,” a nonfiction book released in May that dives into populism and spiritualism with eye-opening accounts of the horrors that history hides, including eugenics and Native removal. Originally from Cambridge, Carr traces her family history back to Nebraska and her great-grandfather, Omer Madison Kem, who served three terms in Congress as a member of the American Populist Party. The book is available online via Carr’s website and can be found in bookstores and on Amazon. We talked to Carr on April 27 through Zoom; the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


What inspired you to write “Mud, Blood, and Ghosts”?

I knew that my great-grandfather had been a member of the original Populist Party and had been the Nebraskan representative for the Populists in Congress. In 2016, everybody in the media was referring to Donald Trump’s supporters as “populists.” As this word gained popularity, I became curious to what it meant in U.S. history and what populism had to do with my great-grandfather. The stories of my great-grandfather in our family were ones of some pride, because the 1890s Populists had been defenders of workers rights and poor farmers. They also worked really hard against political corruption. This is quite different from populism today, and I wanted to learn what happened between then and now. The other thing that was going on was the civil action of young Native Americans at the Standing Rock Reservation, eventually bringing about the largest meeting of Native Americans since the 19th century treaty councils. I knew that my father’s side of the family had been homesteaders in the West and so directly participated in settler colonialism. Standing Rock made me want to know more. The third factor motivating me to create this book was that an archive existed with my great-grandfather’s 2,000-page autobiography in a library in Creighton University, Nebraska, and no one in my family had read the whole thing. There was just a sort of curiosity to open it up and to learn my family history.

What surprised you throughout the writing process?

Everything, because this book relied on so much research, and I’m not trained as a historian. I had never written a book that delved so deeply into U.S. history, and there was a lot that I didn’t know. The homesteaders were poor farmers, often on the edge of starvation, who had been offered pretty much free land from their government to get them out West; what I didn’t realize is that they knew that they were supplanting the people whose land it really was, and this knowledge was complicated for them. They often felt guilty, but supported legislation that horribly affected the Native Americans and continued their removal.The other thing that surprised me was learning about eugenics. I didn’t know that my great-grandfather was a eugenicist. A lot of people were, but he was incredibly passionate about it, and wrote hundreds of pages in support of eugenics. I also didn’t know how deeply eugenics was connected to immigration and Jim Crow segregation laws.

What was your greatest challenge during the writing?

I had to delve into some of the deepest ethical problems in history. I had to be clear about eugenics, not forgiving it, not accepting it, just seeing it for what it really was – a fascist way of thinking. Eugenics was a belief that some people are genetically worthy of reproduction and also therefore worthy of life and others, for genetic reasons, are not. Confronting that in my family was emotionally difficult. There were definitely times when I felt physically nauseous. There were times when I cried. When I was typing the “Blood” chapter, I developed really bad carpal tunnel syndrome. I actually injured myself, because I was just typing with so much tension. The ethical problem, of course, is balancing all of that: Everyone is responsible for their own choices and belief systems, but one also has to understand the time and context behind their choices. Today we do things that are terrible, especially in relation to the environment and the housing crisis. Yet we just live with that knowledge, and so we are also terrible in ways. It was very important for me to recognize that I wasn’t going to just point fingers and accuse, but I was also going to have to look at the really big ethical questions that the book made me confront in myself as well.

How did your family members react?

It was hard for our family to confront the eugenics, especially once we understood the huge influence American eugenicists had on the Nazis – American theories eventually led to the development of the Nuremberg sterilization law and other marriage laws in Germany. Eugenics here often is presented as a quirky scientific mistake, and it is a lot more than that. Knowing that U.S. eugenics had such a direct influence on what became the Holocaust puts the whole thing in an even more painful light. I’ve also come to understand that racism, anti-Black racism in my great-grandfather’s case, was threaded through eugenics. Everybody in my family accepts and understands the necessity to confront U.S. history head-on, and nobody’s interested in holding up mythologies. But nonetheless, especially for my father, who knew and loved my great-grandfather, finding out these painful contradictions was hard.

Was there anything you had to leave out?

One of the Populists’ obsessions was to remonetize silver. I spent some time trying to understand what that meant and trying to figure out the financial history of the 19th century, and I just couldn’t go there. I couldn’t find what was poetic in it. I love the word silver. I wanted a chapter called “Silver,” but I couldn’t get past the technical questions that I had to help me understand the human story and the poetic narrative underneath it. So I left that out. Secondly, I wanted to include the railroad. This was absolutely central to the whole story of the settlement of the West and to racism and racist immigration laws as they developed through the latter half of the 19th century into the 20th century. In fact, anti-Chinese racism was expressed in eugenic terms before eugenics. It was just beyond the scope of what I could manage.

Do you feel more of this history should be taught?

All of this. One example that is very close to home is the almost total removal of the Ute people from Colorado. While I grew up in Cambridge, I now live in Denver, and I have three kids that went through the public school system here. They never learned that story, not in detail. It’s important to understand the characters, the motivations, the really intense anti-Ute stance from the first mayor of Denver, the senators, the people who ran the newspapers in Denver. People know about the Sand Creek Massacre, when federal troops attacked Cheyenne and Arapaho Native Americans, but they don’t know about the Meeker Incident, where the Ute Native Americans attacked Nathan Meeker, who had been trying to convert them to Christianity and farmerhood, as well as the U.S. troops that were called in for backup. This resulted in the forceful removal of most of the Utes from their land. It’s an important story, and if you live in Colorado, one you really should know.

What else did you learn?

There’s this book called “In the Lion’s Mouth: Black Populism in the New South, 1886-1900” by Omar Ali. In this book, he really exposes and delves into Black Populism in the South and parts of the Midwest. That was a historical narrative that I hadn’t known a lot about before and I found to be really eye-opening. And one aspect of spiritualism beyond the usual seance stories was the idea that Native spirits would speak through white spiritualists. People had imagined spirit guides of different kinds – they were sometimes Native Americans, sometimes Muslims, or any other sort of strange projection of somebody from somewhere else in the world. Blackface minstrelsy, the idea that a white person can appropriate a fantasy of a person of color, or of a Native person in this case, definitely ran through spiritualism in different ways. It points to the anxiety white settlers had about their ownership of the land.

This post was updated May 8, 2023, to correct details about the “Meeker Incident” and to emphasize that spirit guides of different races were “imagined.”