SEA Junior Scholar of the Month for February 2019: Thomas Doran
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
My undergrad early American lit survey took hold of me the moment we started in on Anne Bradstreet and Juana Inés de la Cruz. I remember being captivated by the strangeness of colonial history as read through imaginative literature rather than history books, and my professor (Dr. Andrew Higgins) embodied a kind of curiosity that was endearingly earnest and highly contagious. Exploring that archive made me feel like an eighteenth-century gray squirrel gazing into the hypnotic eyes of an infinitely tangled diamondback rattlesnake. The field held a lot of potential for me then. Like a lot of my students now, I believed early American literature would reveal to me new origin stories for understanding the weirdness, distorted mythologies, and troubling postures of contemporary American identity and culture.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
A few years ago, I would’ve said William Bartram’s Travelswithout hesitation because I spent so much time with it while dissertating. But after teaching for a while, I’ve become increasingly charmed by John James Audubon. As a scholar of the literary-visual arts, I’m intrigued by the question of how Audubon’s dissatisfaction with emerging conventions of scientific illustration and description manifested itself in his art and writing. I’m not a big fan of the rigid boundaries between the sciences and the arts/humanities, so I like how Audubon’s work makes a mess of science in ways that can alter our understanding of how sloppy and inspired scientific knowledge work actually is. And I love how openly conflicted he can be: careless andmeticulous, compassionate and brutal, sober and intoxicated. I’m also fascinated by how his influence has reverberated into the present: the cultish mythology, the financial speculation around his archive, the page-turning ceremonies, the ongoing feuds with Alexander Wilson’s adherents. It’s very entertaining. Aside from his Ornithological Biography, a personal favorite is the 1826 journal, which documents his time in Liverpool, Manchester, and Edinburgh trying to gain support for the publication of Birds of America.
What are you currently working on?
Well, I’m always writing fiction and poetry. But in terms of research, I’m working on some articles and a book manuscript on animal protectionist rhetoric in the indigenous and Euro-colonial natural histories of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, especially among those who were actually studying animal behavior in the field. Lately, I’ve been saying that the book is about the art of animal behavior and the science of animal protection. Outside of my early Americanist work, I also teach comics at RISD, and I’ve been slowly working on a literary-visual history of animal representation in comics art over the past 120 years. This spring, I’m also excited to be teaching a revised version of my natural history course, which is a fun hybrid: part seminar in the art, literature, and history of natural history and part collaborative workshop in analyzing, archiving, curating, and creating works of natural history. Students get to visit local museums, labs, archives, and field sites, and they have a chance to create and participate in archival, curatorial, and field-research projects.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
I just got back from Guyana where I was co-teaching a course on the art and science of biodiversity with wildlife veterinarian Dr. Lucy Spelman. We read exclusively Guyanese environmental literature on the trip, so I’ve been pretty immersed in that field lately, especially the poetry. My two favorite collections right now are David Dabydeen’s Slave Songand Grace Nichols’s I Is a Long-Memoried Womanfor their complex ecological sensibilities, playful engagement with Guyanese Creole, and painstaking work of fusing intergenerational memory and colonial history. Since then, I’ve been working through Lynn Nottage’s plays (Sweat,Ruined, Intimate Apparel, Fabulation). Her work is thoroughly researched but still emotionally potent, and she’s been doing a lot of important work in the world of public theater lately. I’m also reading Michael Tisserand’s biography of George Herriman, Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White. Krazy Kat is one of my favorite comic strips, and Tisserand brings some charming momentum to Herriman’s life story. Finally, I recently picked up the revised (and significantly improved) second edition of Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods, and I’m starting to think a lot about how learning about and practicing fermentation might help us make sense of food cultures and microbial coexistence in the Americas, past, present, and future.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
I’m not trying to pander, but I really enjoy Gordon Sayre’s work. It was scholarship by people like Sayre, Christoph Irmscher, and Susan Scott Parrish that gave me a sense of how to effectively employ my background in literary interpretation to produce specialized historical knowledge, and to then think outside of the historical-knowledge-production model whenever necessary (which is actually pretty often necessary). That being said, I think the people who inspire me the most are my peers: fellow graduate students and early-career academics with whom I’ve organized panels, shared polished work and raw ideas alike, and become close friends (or vital acquaintances). That would be a long list, but I’m sure many will be profiled here if they haven’t already!
Thomas Doran is Assistant Professor in Residence of Environmental Literatures and Cultures at the Rhode Island School of Design.