Virtual Event: Alicia Puglionesi


In Whose Ruins:
Power, Possession,
and the Landscapes of American Empire

in conversation with MEGAN KATE NELSON


April 14, 2022
7:00 PM ET


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Free - $5 contribution suggested at registration

Harvard Book Store's virtual event series welcomes writer and historian ALICIA PUGLIONESI for a discussion of her newest book In Whose Ruins: Power, Possession, and the Landscapes of American Empire. She will be joined in conversation by MEGAN KATE NELSON, historian and author of Saving Yellowstone.

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About In Whose Ruins

Popular narratives of American history conceal as much as they reveal. They present a national identity based on harvesting the treasures that lay in wait for European colonization. In Whose Ruins tells another story: winding through the US landscape, from Native American earthworks in West Virginia to the Manhattan Project in New Mexico, this history is a tour of sites that were mined for an empire’s power. Showing the hidden costs of ruthless economic growth, particularly to Indigenous people and ways of understanding, this book illuminates the myth-making intimately tied to place. From the ground up, the project of settlement, expansion, and extraction became entwined with the spiritual values of those who hoped to gain from it. Every nation tells some stories and suppresses others, and In Whose Ruins illustrates the way American myths have been inscribed on the earth itself, overwriting Indigenous histories and binding us into an unsustainable future.

In these pages, historian Alicia Puglionesi ‚Äčilluminates the story of the Grave Creek Stone, “discovered” in an ancient Indigenous burial mound, and used to promote the theory that a lost white race predated Native people in North America—part of a wider effort to justify European conquest with alternative histories. When oil was discovered in the corner of western Pennsylvania soon known as Petrolia, prospectors framed that treasure, too, as a birthright passed to them, through Native guides, from a lost race. Puglionesi traces the fate of ancient petroglyphs that once adorned rock faces on the Susquehanna River, dynamited into pieces to make way for a hydroelectric dam. This act foreshadowed the flooding of Native lands around the country; over the course of the 20th century, almost every major river was dammed for economic purposes. And she explores the effects of the US nuclear program in the Southwest, which contaminated vast regions in the name of eternal wealth and security through atomic power. This promise rang hollow for the surrounding Native, Hispanic, and white communities that were harmed, and even for some scientists. It also inspired nationwide resistance, uniting diverse groups behind a different vision of the future—one not driven by greed and haunted by ruin.

This deeply researched work of narrative history traces the roots of American fantasies and fears in a national tradition of selective forgetting. Connecting the power of myths with the extraction of power from the land itself reveals the truths that have been left out and is an invaluable torch in the search for a way forward.

Praise for In Whose Ruins

"Few books by historians, particularly historians of science and technology, are page turners, but In Whose Ruins is just that. This is an elegantly written narrative of the mythologies and horrors of settler-colonialism in the founding and expansion of the United States, exterminating or displacing the Indigenous nations of the continent. It is a history of the present." —Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States

"In Whose Ruins is a haunting meditation on how white Americans have dug into the earth to uncover the past and secure their own power. Alicia Puglionesi takes readers across the nation to these sites of excavation, places seized from Native peoples and turned to ruin. Compelling and insightful, In Whose Ruins gives us a new way to understand how Americans created an empire out of destruction." —Megan Kate Nelson, author of Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America

“Original, illuminating, and bristling with insight, In Whose Ruins is a thought-provoking exploration into the meaning of the American land.  By focusing on some largely forgotten episodes of the quest for power in the nation’s past—and the swindlers, scientists, and visionaries who populated them—Alicia Puglionesi has delivered a timely, deftly written, and convention-challenging book.” —Scott Ellsworth, author of The Ground Breaking: An American City and Its Search for Justice

Alicia Puglionesi
Alicia Puglionesi

Alicia Puglionesi

Alicia Puglionesi is a writer and historian. She earned a PhD in the history of science, medicine, and technology from Johns Hopkins University in 2015 and has taught at Johns Hopkins and MICA. Her first book, Common Phantoms: An American History of Psychic Science, explores how the practices of seances, clairvoyance, and telepathy both questioned and reinscribed social boundaries. She lives in Baltimore.

Megan Kate Nelson
Megan Kate Nelson

Megan Kate Nelson

Megan Kate Nelson is a historian and writer, with a BA from Harvard and a PhD in American Studies from the University of Iowa. She is the author of four books, including Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America (Scribner 2022; winner of the 2023 Spur Award for Historical Non-Fiction) and The Three-Cornered War: The Union, the Confederacy, and Native Peoples in the Fight for the West (Scribner 2020; finalist for the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in History), as well as Ruin Nation (Georgia, 2012) and Trembling Earth (Georgia, 2005).

She writes about the Civil War, the U.S. West, and American culture for The New York Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Smithsonian Magazine, Slate, and TIME. Before leaving academia to write full-time in 2014, Nelson taught U.S. history and American Studies at Texas Tech University, Cal State Fullerton, Harvard, and Brown. She grew up in Littleton, Colorado, and now lives in Boston with her husband and two cats. 

Photo Credit: Sharona Jacobs

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Event Series: Virtual Event Series

Harvard Book Store’s award-winning event series continues online! Named "Best of Boston: 2020 Best Virtual Author Series" and "2021 Best Virtual Author Series" by Boston magazine.

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