SEA Junior Scholar of the Month for December 2019: Blevin Shelnutt
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
During an undergrad class on nineteenth-century American fiction, I had trouble engaging our readings with studious distance. Rather, stories by Irving and Poe became for me a way to experience the kind of absorptive immersion that had defined my relationship to reading growing up. Still, that reading pleasure sparked my interest in the field—I wanted to study what I most enjoyed—and in questions about the nature of reading more broadly. A graduate seminar with Patricia Crain on readers and reading in early America, which met each week in New York University’s rare book library, cemented my fascination with the material and cultural circumstances that shaped readers’ experiences of written texts. I pursued these interests in material culture, book history, and popular reading in a dissertation exploring the development of the literary marketplace in nineteenth-century New York City and the material and imaginative influence of Broadway on literary production of the period.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
It’s always changing, but over the past couple of years, I have loved teaching Caroline Kirkland and Lydia Sigourney, exploring with students the relationship in their texts between women’s work and women’s writing. Sigourney’s “To a Shred of Linen” was a favorite with my students this semester. They enjoyed tracing the materiality of this mundane object and then noticing anew the materiality of the poem itself.
What are you currently working on?
Right now, I’m working on a monograph, Print Capital: American Literature and the Marketplace in Nineteenth-Century New York City, which examines the development of the publishing district around Broadway and City Hall Park. I look at the relationship between the neighborhood’s street life, the material conditions of publishing, and new genres of mass print coming out of the area. Reconstructing the literary marketplace as an actual place, I argue, allows us to recover a body of writing that runs counter to literature seeking to distance itself from commercial exchange or obscure the conditions of its production. The writers I focus on not only embrace the image and influence of the expanding publishing industry but use it to claim literary value for their work, and in doing so complicate key understandings of literary genre and the autonomy of art.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
I’ve been spending a lot of time recently reading and thinking about the work of a once popular but now relatively unknown writer—Frances Eliza Ellis, an English transplant to New York who wrote under the pseudonym Julia Francesca. During the first decade of the nineteenth century, she was contributing to a range of periodicals on both sides of Atlantic and in a range of genres, from neoclassical poetry to topical puzzles. What’s interesting to me, though, is the way she describes the city. She’s writing at the same time as Washington Irving and James Kirke Paulding and in the same mode of urban satire, but foregrounding her position as a woman walking the street. The significance of that perspective, which counters a tradition of urban writing that imagines women as objects of spectatorship in the city, continues to inspire my interest in the contrast between what early Americans actually read versus the early American literature we often tend to study.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
There are so many! Joseph Rezek is a scholar whose work I’ve admired for a while. I happened to meet him during a residency at the Library Company of Philadelphia, right as I was working my way through London and the Making of Provincial Literature. That work was so helpful for me in thinking about the relationship between book history and literary aesthetics as well as in conceiving geographies of print at different scales.
Blevin Shelnutt is Assistant Professor of English at Concord University.
*The interview was conducted by Kaden Ivy, University of Notre Dame.