On Oct. 10, the Center for the Study of American Democracy hosted its second John Adams Colloquium on the Pulitzer-winning novel Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver. The John Adams Colloquium Series is sponsored by former chair of the Kenyon Review Board of Trustees, John W. Adams P ’93, P ’13, GP ’21.
The event, which is scheduled to happen once a semester, brings together faculty, students, staff and community members to discuss a book chosen for its insights into current issues. Demon Copperhead takes place in Lee County, Virginia, a town in the southern Appalachian mountains devastated by the collapse of the coal industry and the spread of oxycontin. The characters’ experiences with addiction reflect modern American struggles, such as the devastation felt in rural communities as a result of the opioid epidemic.
The colloquium was divided into three parts, beginning with three short presentations that reflected and expanded on themes explored in the book. The first presenter was Professor of Biology Wade Powell, who spoke about industries such as logging that have systematically depleted the resources of areas like Lee County by providing short-term jobs and pushing people off of the land. Next, Associate Professor of Sociology Austin Johnson spoke about the complex emotions that the reader may feel toward the main character, Demon Copperhead. Johnson emphasized that the reader may feel discomfort over the realization that Copperhead struggled to escape his circumstances because of the structural disadvantages he faced, rather than his lack of effort.
The final presenter was Associate Professor of English Sarah Heidt, who shared insights about the book’s inspiration, Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. Heidt noted that Dickens wrote David Copperfield to express his horror toward how England treated the poor, especially children; this point resonated with many of the themes explored by Kingsolver.
The second portion of the event featured small-group discussions of both the presentations and the book, and the third portion of the event, which took place at The Alcove, provided participants with the opportunity to continue discussions over appetizers, drinks and dinner. While the event was focused on a single book, the resulting conversations spread into the broader themes and applications of Demon Copperhead.“I had a great conversation with everyone at the event,” Caleb Newman ’24 wrote in an email to the Collegian. “Usually when students interact with professors, it is in a classroom or office hours where professors are sharing their expertise with students. I really appreciated that in the Cheever Seminar Room and The Alcove, students, staff and faculty were all able to talk mostly as equal members of the community.”