Alex McGuire

Over a dozen faculty members, graduate and undergraduate students from the English department gathered at Tawes Hall Thursday night to hear about the uncommon literary past of  a contemporary crime: blackmail.

Leon Jackson, esteemed author and associate professor of English at the University of Southern California, was introduced by our own Professor Robert Levine, a highly visible figure in the world of African American and other racially-charged literary areas. Jackson, who was regarded as a “legendary reputation in the profession,” spoke to a curious group of students and faculty about how the meaning and significance of blackmail has changed over time in various literary works.

The word blackmail never appears in old literary or historical texts because the word had a different meaning then. It used to refer to protection money that farmers would pay to hired servants to make sure that their cattle was kept safe while they went away. The first documented case of the contemporary use of blackmail can be traced back to the medieval age.

“During the strong military eras of the Crusades and Middle Ages, personal manipulative tactics were used by knights to attain land or other desirables,” Jackson said.

Jackson argued that blackmail is mostly ignored in many popular literary texts.

“In many works, including those by Edgar Allan Poe, the actual act of blackmail is mostly overlooked, but it is a very important plot device,” he said.

The ultimate paradox of a person engaging in blackmail is that the blackmailer exists on both sides of the law. “In most cases, the blackmailers are both the lawbreakers and law enforcers,” Jackson said. “They make sure that their rules are followed while they are also breaking the rules that they need to follow.”

While most of the works Jackson referenced were beyond their course requirements, some of the students found his messages and concepts clear enough to understand.

“He’s a very respected guy in his field, so some of the stuff he said was over my head,” said English graduate student Chelsea Massari. “But I can definitely identify his blackmail ideas in a lot of my readings.”

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