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Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives

Tuesday, January 22, 2019 - 12:00pm to 1:00pm
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Members Free and Non-members Free with admission ($10)

Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives

Jane Brox

Conceived in Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia home and fueled by the Quaker ideals of late eighteenth-century America, Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary was introduced as a humane alternative to brutal colonial punishments that took place overseas. Inspired by the spiritual practices of the monastery, the penitentiary’s early promulgators believed that prisoners could find redemption in silence, “wherein God speaks with the soul.” But what they neglected to anticipate was the ways in which it could be abused.

Although the monastic world served as a moral blueprint for solitary confinement, the monastery housed a silence that was far from the one imposed in the penitentiary. For twentieth-century monk Thomas Merton, silence was a carved-out space for stillness and contemplation. But as Merton gained renown, even he came up against its strictures and questioned his place within it. In juxtaposing these stories from the monastery and penitentiary, Brox draws fascinating—often startling—parallels between the constructs of faith and punishment. Her compelling history prompts inquiries into how silence masks and perpetuates injustice within the prison system and how we may rethink the ways in which its employed in our own lives.

Brox illuminates the place of silence in society, as both a means of liberation and oppression, and how the extremes it gave rise to continue to reverberate in our culture today.

Jane Brox’s most recent book, Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light, was named one of the top ten nonfiction books of 2010 by TIME. She is also the author of Clearing Land, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in nonfiction; and Here and Nowhere Else, which won the LL Winship/PEN New England Award. She has received the New England Book Award for nonfiction, and her essays have appeared in The Best American Essays, The Norton Book of Nature Writing, and the Pushcart Prize Anthology. Brox has taught at Harvard University and Bowdoin College, and is currently on the faculty of Lesley University’s low-residency MFA Program. She lives in Brunswick, Maine.

Eastern State Penitentiary of Pennsylvania opened in 1829. Learn about its first two years of operation as documented by inspectors who made a report to the state legislature by making an appointment in special collections to read First and Second Annual Reports of the Inspectors of the Eastern Penitentiary of Pennsylvania. And dive deeper into the nineteenth-century attitudes on solitary confinement in Extracts from the Second Report (William Crawford and Whitworth Russell, Esqs.), the Inspectors of Prisons for the Home District.

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