SEA Junior Scholar of the Month for December 2018: Leila Mansouri
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
Creative writing is what got me into literary study. I’m a writer and a scholar – I teach fiction workshops as well as American literature courses. When I was an M.F.A. student, I had all these questions about the “rules” of craft I was being taught. Stuff like, why are these the conventions that we’ve decided create a convincing illusion that there’s a real world on the page? And why do those other techniques come off as stilted and artificial? And where did these rules of craft come from anyway?
The contemporary writing circles I was in didn’t seem especially interested in these questions, so I started taking more literature courses – and each got me looking earlier and earlier for answers to my questions about how representation works. A couple years into my PhD program, I stumbled across Thomas Jefferson’s anecdote about how Benjamin Franklin had soothed him after the Continental Congress edited his draft of the Declaration of Independence. It clicked that to really answer the questions about literary representation I was interested in I needed to look at how those intersected with political and, especially, electoral representation. And, well, here I am!
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
I love all the raucous self-narration that happens in eighteenth-century texts. Franklin is the paradigmatic example of this, and Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography is another favorite. But if I had to pick just one, it’d be Elizabeth Ashbridge’s Some Acount of the Fore Part of a Life. She wrote it after she’d become a Quaker minister, and it follows all the conventions of spiritual autobiography. But even though the form is one of sedate spiritual reflection, she gives such a vivid and charismatic account of her pre-Quaker life – her elopement, her voyage to the Colonies, her life as an indentured servant. And the passages about her life with her alcoholic and very anti-Quaker husband offer a fascinating glimpse into what we’d now think of as an abusive and dysfunctional marriage. In one, he’s getting more and more enraged because she keeps using “thee” – the Quaker form of address – with him, and finally, he just loses it! As Ashbridge puts it, “He flew into a great rage, exclaiming, ‘The devil thee, thee, thee, don’t thee me.’” I love that we get to see this very human, very intimate moment within such a convention-bound spiritual form. There’s something so deliciously petty in what he says – and also in her decision to quote his exact words years after the fact!
What are you currently working on?
My scholarship focuses on the intersection between literature and electoral politics. Specifically, I look at how the aesthetic discourse surrounding written “sketches” of character shaped the ways Americans came to understand electoral representation as representative. My project examines how literary and electoral representation evolved together in the early United States. It turns out that a lot of the ways we think about things like congressional representation, constituencies, gerrymandering, and special interests have roots in the aesthetic conventions of the character sketch genre. And early American writers like Franklin, Washington Irving, and Robert Montgomery Bird were much more closely engaged with these problems of electoral representation – and with the character sketch genre – than we’ve appreciated.
I also do creative work that draws on my background as an Iranian-American. I have some short fiction and essays in the works, and I’m writing a novel as well. Long term, I’d love to bring my creative and scholarly sides together more concretely – maybe in a second project that explores early American contacts with the part of the world we now call the Middle East.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
I’m reading Kyla Schuller’s The Biopolitics of Feeling right now, and I’m just blown away by the meticulousness and precision with which it links the construction of categories like sex and race to nineteenth-century notions of population and polity. I’m eternally fascinated with how categories get constructed and how those constructions in turn redistribute power. And her work has given me new ways to think about the intersection between physical bodies and representational categories in the period I’m focused on.
I’m also really looking forward to reading Tommy Orange’s novel There, There, which came out earlier this year. Part of what draws me to thinking about how categories get constructed is the fact that as an Iranian-American born and raised in Cincinnati, I’ve had to work so hard to untangle my individual experience from the categories and abstractions that get projected onto me. So, to see Orange writing so incisively about how Native American characters in Oakland experience the intricacies of their identities is tremendously inspiring for me, as both a scholar and a writer.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
I’m immensely grateful for incredible mentorship I received from Samuel Otter and Elisa Tamarkin in graduate school, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank them here. I think it’s also fair to say that without Eric Slauter’s The State as a Work of Art, I couldn’t be doing the work I’m doing now. I learned so much from that book – not just about the aesthetic concepts at work Constitutional discourse in the early U.S. but also about how to productively extend the methods of literary criticism to political tracts and other not-obviously-literary texts. And, as someone who’s forever negotiating the creative-critical divide, I’m incredibly inspired by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers and the ways she draws on Phillis Wheatley and early America in her work.
Leila Mansouri is Assistant Professor of English at Scripps College.