SEA Junior Scholar of the Month for May 2019: Jessica Taylor
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
As a high school kid, I attended the Pre-Collegiate Summer Program in Early American History at the College of William and Mary. It changed everything for me. Early America was not what I thought it was. I still remember reading selections from Daniel Richter’s Facing East from Indian Country for the first time and learning about William Byrd’s secret and very scandalous diary. I decided that I was coming back to William and Mary for college, and it was so fulfilling to be around other students who loved history as much as I did.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
It’s hard to pick a favorite, but a source related to southeastern Native history that I keep coming back to again and again is The Travels of Richard Traunter, which details the movements of an English trader through Indian territories at the end of the seventeenth century. You can find it at the Virginia Historical Society in the Lee Family Collection. It contains fabulous, Native-centered insights into politics and war during the evolution of the Indian slave trade in Carolina and Virginia. I also love showing students the awkward and clumsy nature of English exploration and colonization. My favorite moment comes when Traunter and his men discharge their weapons in the dark to scare off Native people they heard in the distance, and overcompensated for their lack of numbers:
“I ordered him to load his Gunn againe when he swore he’d make them hear him and I discharged my Gunn alsoe But he having put such an extravagant Charge in his Gunne that when he discharged it, it knock’d him downe where he lay senselesse A considerable time.”
What are you currently working on?
I’m editing and conducting research for my first manuscript, Certaine Boundes: Indian Peoples, Nations, and Violence in the Seventeenth-Century Chesapeake. It’s a look at how Native people and non-elites on plantations undermined colonial leaders’ legitimacy by ignoring attempts to draw mapped boundaries between property owners, counties, and colonies.
I’m primarily a public history person, though, so I’m also excited to be developing a grant-funded open access primary source reader that students will be able to access on their smartphones and computers, for free. We are developing a pilot project this summer with the Virginia standards of learning in mind, but I hope it finds some use in college classes as well—especially in classrooms where the cost of textbooks can be a hardship.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
Although I feel like it’s easier to connect with individuals and historical moments in microhistories, I’m in love with the current trend towards sweeping, thematic histories. Books like Ibram Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginningand Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United Stateshonor historical actors AND tell the uninitiated reader why their experiences are relevant today. So, right now, I’m listening to Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People—I was bummed when the narrative started in Ancient Greece instead of seventeenth-century Virginia, but this is the kind of medicine we need to make connections to material outside of our subfields!
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
At the SEA conference in Eugene, I was overawed by Lisa Brooks’s plenary address and snatched up her books right away. Part of her fieldwork, strolling mindfully and picking up on changes in a landscape she knows through her own experience, is something we could all incorporate.
Jessica Taylor is Assistant Professor of History at Virginia Tech University.