Suckers: A Pineapple Parable

Hello I am Ryan Rebel and I am here today to talk to you about pineapples.



Pineapples are a majestic fruit.  They are the kings and queens of the fruit kingdom.  They used to represent exoticism and royalty and high class in England, and then they represented hospitality and domesticity in America, but now they just sort of represent Hawaii. . .

Are you bored yet?  Wishing I would get to the point?  Asking yourself that existential, universal question: “Why pineapples?”

I had to ask myself the same question at the beginning of the summer.  No, my job has not been Pineapple Guy.  I’ve been working with Professor Laura McGrane, primarily helping her construct a new class she will be teaching in the fall: “New(s) Media and Print Culture”.  That’s been good and all, but it has nothing to do with pineapples, so why should we care?

Well, one of my other tasks was doing background research for an argument Professor McGrane was trying to make in an essay she’d drafted.  That argument involved a very specific reading of a line about pineapples in an 18th-century work, and she needed to know everything about the cultural perception of pineapples at that time to make sure she wasn’t being an irresponsible academic.  Nobody wants to wake up one day and realize that they have become an irresponsible academic.

So as a side task, Laura gave me the following instructions: “Find me ALL THERE IS TO KNOW about pineapples.”  That’s not a direct quote, but that’s how it felt to me; I had never attempted an extended period of research on such a singular topic before.  I was a bit nervous.  I didn’t know anything about pineapples.  I don’t even like pineapples.  I think they’re pretty gross.  Also sort of intimidating, with all those prickles on the outside.

Laura spun me around and pointed me at Jeremiah Mercurio.  I stumbled into his office and he inundated me with the multitudinous possibilities of strategies and tactics that I could use to achieve that nebulous goal of RESEARCH.  It was incredibly helpful.  He took me through the ropes of the library website, JSTOR, English databases, Art databases, History databases, and even the attractive wiles of the citational program Zotero.

In the wake of that glut of information, I began searching for a different glut of information.  It took me about two weeks to gather a satisfactory (both for myself and for Laura) amount of data on pineapples.  I read 18th-century books on how to properly tend pineapple hothouses, essays about Locke’s essay in which he uses the pineapple as a metaphor, websites dedicated to the history of the pineapple, treatises on the pineapple’s unsurpassed excellence, and a rather awful graduate student’s essay about the symbolism of the pineapple.  It was really a lot of reading.

I found ways to amuse myself as I was going along.  My favorite work on pineapples was written by an 18th-century horticulturalist named William Speechly, head gardener to the Duke of Portland.  He went into several hundred pages of precise detail about the best methods of growing pineapples in hothouses, but my favorite passages were those in which he described his hard-learned method for “extirpating” the foreign insects that were harmful to the pineapple plant.  I imagined Mr. Speechly obsessing over the tiny bugs, ranting to all who would listen about his decades-long struggles with the insidious little pests who were ruining his precious pineapples.

Since these were primary source documents, the print style of the 18th century threw me for several loops.  One of the more startling reading experiences I had involved repeated discourses on one particular aspect of the pineapple’s biology: its suckers.  Many times, these authors would mention the suckers, explain what should be done to the suckers, how they should be treated, when and how they should be removed from the plant.  However, you 18th century scholars know quite well that the typographical symbol for the letter “s” was nearly identical to the typographical symbol for the letter “f”.  The “long s”, it’s called.  You can imagine my surprise every time I encountered a phrase such as “remove the suckers” and read it. . . differently than intended.

Is there a moral to the story?  Reading cross-cultural texts can sometimes be confusing!  Research makes you smarter!  18th-century horticulturalists really hated certain types of bugs!  You can find interest in a topic that you previously had no motivation to be interested in!  These are all adequate morals.