SEA Junior Scholar of the Month for March 2018: Hannah Wakefield
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
Initially, I wrote a conference paper on John Winthrop and Anne Hutchinson that led me to my first SEA conference. Later, my dissertation project on African American and Native American encounters with Protestant churches gradually drew me to early American texts. I found that spiritual autobiographies by Samson Occom, Olaudah Equiano, William Apess, and others engaged with churches as integral components of their literary and political projects, so the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries became crucial to my dissertation.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
I’ve recently been fascinated with Richard Allen, whose writing helped to build the African Methodist Episcopal Church. His hymnbook, autobiography, and The Doctrines and Discipline of the African Methodist Episcopal Church all deploy generic conventions in new ways, and they do so in the direct service of a community.
What are you currently working on?
I’m putting together a chapter on Harriet E. Wilson’s autobiographical novel Our Nig. It’s a bit afield from early American literature (it was published in 1859), but, at the same time, it self-consciously reflects on the tradition of black spiritual autobiography in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. For this reason, I see it as deeply connected to early American literature.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
On my own time, I’ve been reading Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko. It’s a sprawling novel about Koreans exiled in Japan. The book addresses global themes like war, immigration, poverty, and discrimination, yet Lee also creates tangible characters with rich inner lives. Her book displays a unique ability to address broad structural issues across a large sweep of time without foregoing the humanity of the individual—a delicate balance I hope to achieve in my own work.
Related to EAL, I’ve been reading Katy Chiles’ Transformable Race. In particular, her chapter on Olaudah Equiano contextualizes his engagement with eighteenth-century discourses of race in a very helpful and very careful way.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
I can’t say enough good about Abram Van Engen, who never ceases to inspire me with his seemingly endless energy, innovative scholarship, and genuine concern for people.
Hannah Wakefield is a PhD Candidate at Washington University in St. Louis.