Burton Memorial Lecture Series

Toot, Toot Goes Mary Anne: Theorizing Voice, Narrative and Post-Industrial Loss in Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton


What follows is an annotated excerpt from the talk given by Professor Betty Wilkins, Asistant Professor of Narratological Studies at the University of [name withheld upon request]. 

 In the speculative, exploratory endeavor that follows, I foreground the most important manifestation of the imbrication of technological advance and the capacity for emotive expression, and attempt to establish a coherent theory of assemblage and affect. So it is with this in mind that I will take up Virginia Lee Burton's classic Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel as both an inspiration and a cautionary tale, and will try to describe ways in which a positive approach to the voice (or voiceless voice) of the steam shovel Mary Anne refocuses the reader's attention to the period's uneven, quotidian efforts to improvise with work, labor, and social narration in a post-steam power industrial world. 

[This essay talks about Mary Anne, who has a remarkably expressive face for a shovel, and needs a job, because along came the new gasoline shovels and the new electric shovels and the new Diesel motor shovels and took all the jobs away from the steam shovels--which made Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne very VERY SAD.]   

With its emphases on bodies, emotions, pleasures, tactility, rhythms, steam, textures,  pain, sensation, and economic punishment, the work's necrotechnological present-future narrative deems it imperative to rearticulate the metatheories of "realpolitiks" of and around steam power  and the second-use, post-imperialist expansion, possibilities open to steam shovels that retained the work-capital functionality and input-output economic potentialities of generalized man-as-labor paradigmatic earth-versus-progress manifestations. 

[The professor means steam shovels that could still dig as much in a day as a hundred men could dig in a week.] 

Hard times require even harder modalities of thought, analysis, creativity, and expression in order to elaborate on what to do about the intersection of Mike Mulligan's economic incentive, the work-as-constraint rubric, and the undeniable absolutism of gravity and friction. 

[Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne had dug so fast and dug so well, that they had quite forgotten to leave a way out! Henry B. Swap wasn't going to pay Mike, but then the little boy suggested why not leave Mary Anne in the cellar and let her be the furnace for the new town hall and let Mike Mulligan be the janitor!]  

In conclusion, I want to posit a narrative argument that delineates a focus on steam shovel as assemblage enables attention to ontology in tandem with epistemology, affect in conjunction with representational economies, within which bodies, such as the human Mike Mulligan and the mechanical Mary Anne, interpenetrate [a few muted giggles run through the audience, followed by a sharp glance from the podium], swirl together, and transmit affects to each other. Through affect and ontology, the not-necessarily-outmoded Mary Anne in particular, I argue, as a new-furnace assemblage, is reshaping the terrain of the post-steam mechanical-digger diaspora. 

[The little boy's solution seems to work pretty well. Even Henry B. Swap smiles in a way that isn't mean at all!]

Copyright 2013 Paul J. Rasmussen