SEA Junior Scholar of the Month for August 2018: Alex Mazzaferro
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
I entered the English graduate program at Rutgers knowing I wanted to study American literature, but like many of us I found myself gravitating “early.” This began during my first grad seminar, an incredible survey of early American literature offered by my eventual dissertation director, Chris Iannini. A second turning point came when I realized I needed to periodize my dissertation as either a seventeenth- or an eighteenth-century one in order to do justice to my proposed topic: the representational history of New World rebellion. The importance of novelty and new beginnings to the project, along with a newfound love for classical and Renaissance political thought, committed me to studying the earliest Anglo-America. At both moments, I found that the issues I was most interested in—be they questions about knowledge-making and disciplinary overlap or about the ruptures caused by Native American dispossession and the slave trade—were present in a more live, exciting, and enduring way in the early period.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
There are tons of contenders here, but I’m going to say Oroonoko, since it’s a text I teach a lot and am gearing up to write about. Aphra Behn’s novella accomplishes a lot in a short space. It’s belletristic, which is always nice for the literary scholar focused on more practical genres, yet it draws unmistakably on the tradition of eyewitness settlement reportage and scientific writing that I study. Oroonoko’s place in genealogies of the British novel also offers satisfying evidence of New World colonialism’s powerful influence on metropolitan culture—and of the ways that gender complicates that relationship. Finally, the novella correlates British political history and the history of race slavery in unexpected ways that thwart easy interpretation. Like my favorite early settlement texts, it is never saying quite what it seems.
What are you currently working on?
I recently began a postdoctoral fellowship at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, where I’m creating a master bibliography and DH research tool containing all publications by APS members elected between 1743-1865. The project draws on my training in book history, dovetails with my scholarship on the intersecting histories of science and political thought in early America, and has already yielded some fascinating archival finds. My other main project is a book manuscript based on my dissertation and tentatively titled, “No Newe Enterprize”: Empirical Political Science and the Problem of Innovation in the Colonial English Americas.The project recovers the transatlantic career of the term “innovation,” a pejorative early modern synonym for rebellion, and argues that the provocation of New World novelty gave rise to an empirical approach to political knowledge modeled on Baconian natural science. Finally, I am revising an article on the circulation of verbal and visual representations of the 1831 Nat Turner slave revolt and the question of rebel slave exceptionality.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
I just finished reading Zora Neale Hurston’s beautiful and devastating Barracoon (2018). Published for the first time this year, the book recounts Hurston’s 1927-28 interviews with Oluale Kossola or Cudjo Lewis, one of the last people to endure the Middle Passage. In 1860, more than fifty years after the abolition of the slave trade and one year before the outbreak of the Civil War, Kossula was taken from his West African homeland and transported into slavery in Alabama onboard the Clotilda, the last ship known to have made the by-then-illegal transatlantic slaving voyage. Both the continuities between earlier and later forms of American slavery and the proximity of Kossola’s mid-nineteenth-century enslavement (and the ordeal of his post-emancipation life) to our own moment are powerful reminders that past atrocities are still very much with us. Likewise, Hurston’s sympathy for her subject and her faithfulness to his voice model a responsible mode of historical recovery, characterized above all by compassion.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
Many, many scholars come to mind (Chris Iannini, Meredith McGill, Jared Hickman, Sarah Rivett, among others), but I want to single out Kathleen Donegan as a particular source of inspiration. Kathleen has been a generous mentor and an energizing interlocutor, and her work is a crucial reminder that academic prose can be beautiful and that early Americanists are, above all, tellers of great stories.