Mountain research spotlight: Abbie Garrington

This post is part of our ‘mountain research spotlights’ series, sharing the work and insights of colleagues working on mountains across the humanities (and beyond). 

Name and institution: Abbie Garrington, Durham University

Research summary: I am currently finishing the monograph High Modernism: A Literary History of Mountaineering, 1890-1945, which investigates the significance of mountains, the figure of the mountaineer, and wider mountain cultures to the so-called ‘high modernist’ or experimental writing of the early part of the twentieth century (Auden; Woolf; Lawrence; Richardson etc.). I am interested in the intersection of major British attempts in the Greater Ranges, and the appearance of mountains and mountaineers in literary work (novels; poems; drama; essays) by both participant and ‘armchair’ climbers. I explore the ways in which engagement with mountains enables authors to tackle national identities, gender politics, new communication and broadcast initiatives, the loss and grief of war, and medicalised and technologised bodies – all issues crucial to writing in the modernist years. But I’m also fascinated by mountains as metaphors for the act of writing itself – a tendency that is particularly marked in the 1890-1945 period, but also connects modernists to previous eras of writing in hitherto under-investigated ways. I teach, supervise, and broadcast on mountain writing and the wider literary history of exploration, as well as undertaking ‘impact’ and public engagement projects on heroism, exploration, and the mountaineering world.

Do you define yourself as working within the mountain humanities / mountain studies?

I situate my primary scholarly contribution in the area of modernist literary studies, particularly the ‘new modernist studies’ after the ‘bodily turn.’ Much of my writing aims at illuminating the overlooked significance of mountain cultures for scholars of modernist literature. However, my research overlaps in productive ways with historical geography, the history of exploration, and post-colonial and decolonial scholarship, as well as with the environmental and medical humanities, performance studies, sports science, and sports history. My authors of interest in the period c. 1890-1945 were themselves engaged in mountain cultures through a ‘mountain humanities’ lens that understood the compatibility of scientific, social science, medical, and cultural approaches to mountain spaces. My impact and public engagement work has always been interdisciplinary, and part of my PhD supervisory work is organised via the cross-faculty DurhamARCTIC centre (funded Leverhulme Trust). In a past life I was an expedition leader for British Exploring (at the Royal Geographical Society), and before that a postdoc attached to the Cultures of Climate Change research group at CRASSH, Cambridge University. In all of these ways, my history of mountain engagement has been inherently interdisciplinary, even as I hold a place for the particular contribution of literary scholarship to our understanding of the high places of the world.

Are there any links our readers can follow to learn more about your work?

I was interviewed for the BBC Radio 3 Proms programme, ‘Mountains’, in 2018. You can find an archive of the broadcast here. I run a third-year ‘Special Topic’ module on ‘Writing Mountains in the Early Twentieth century’, which is outlined here. I’m also member of the AHRC network ‘Other Everests’.

My chapter ‘Mysterious Gear: Modernist Mountaineering, Oxygen Rigs, and the Politics of Breath’ in eds. David Fuller, Corinne Saunders and Jane Macnaughton, The Life of Breath in Literature, Culture and Medicine Classical to Contemporary: Classical to Contemporary (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021) is freely available here.

‘Mysterious Gear’ was originally a paper presented at the interdisciplinary medical humanities conference ‘The Life of Breath: History, Texts, Contexts’ (Durham, 2018). In it, I attempt to weave together the history of mountain-engaged poetry, and long-running debates about the use of supplemental oxygen to manage the effects of altitude. While the chapter starts by taking seriously W.H. Auden’s apparently flippant poetic satire of the mountaineer ‘type,’ I go on to unravel the ways in which the modern mountaineer ported into poetry the contraption of the oxygen rig, bringing with them a burdensome collection of assumptions about sportsmanship, fair dealing, trench warfare, and the body-become-automaton. The chapter aims to show my process of combining close reading practices with historical research, while centring the abstract philosophical function of mountain spaces in the modernist years.


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