SEA Junior Scholar of the Month for November 2018: Joshua Bartlett
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
As a Ph.D. student at the University at Albany, I was immersed in a department that took early and 19th century American literature very seriously. Branka Arsić’s seminar on Emerson and Thoreau during my first semester of coursework helped focus many of my theoretical questions concerning literature and the natural world, ecocritical scholarship, and the environmental humanities – and while my undergraduate and M.A. work was focused primarily on 20th century American poetry, her seminars on Anne Bradstreet, Mary Rowlandson, and Jonathan Edwards encouraged me to look for answers in 17th and 18th century New England as well. At the same time, there were a number of graduate students, both in my cohort and at more advanced stages of the program, with similar enthusiasms, and a range of faculty members who provided guidance, support, and mentorship for our work. For me, it was an environment where conversations about early American literature always felt valuable and timely – and one that introduced me to both the scholarship and the scholarly community that I wanted to be a part of.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
Samson Occom’s A Sermon, Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul immediately comes to mind, both for its rhetorical and theological complexities and for the questions it raises about race, indigeneity, law, and justice, which feel as relevant and pressing today as they were in 1772. Anne Bradstreet’s “Contemplations,” with its “delectable view” of seventeenth-century New England, is both a favorite text and one that guided much of my dissertation research – and for dramatic effect and imagery, I never seem to tire of Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.
My answer would be incomplete, however, without mentioning Michael Wigglesworth. I first read The Day of Doom in Ronald Bosco’s graduate seminar on “The Calvinist Inheritance in American Culture” – which led me to Wigglesworth’s wonderfully strange diary entries and the meditative poems of Meat out of the Eater. My favorite text of his, however, remains the jeremiadic “God’s Controversy with New-England,” which narrates the environmental consequences of the “great & parching drought” of 1662 – burnt fields, epidemic diseases, mourning cattle – while insisting on continued devotion to the “dearest land.”
What are you currently working on?
One current project is a book manuscript, based on my dissertation, entitled Before Nature’s Nation: Ecological Thought and Early American Poetry. This project challenges conventional narratives of early American antagonism toward the “howling wilderness” by foregrounding ways in which 17th and 18th century verse considered the natural world in terms of intimacy, affection, and wonder. I’m currently revising a portion of this project into an essay on Phillis Wheatley that explores the various oceans, ocean storms, and coastlines that frequent her work. At the same time, I’m working on a project that surveys the lives and afterlives of historically significant American trees in terms of both their literary and artistic representations and their material culture histories. As a 2018-2019 Last Fellow in American Visual Culture, I spent the month of July at the American Antiquarian Society researching Hartford, Connecticut’s Charter Oak – and I’m interested in how such trees function nostalgically, as well as in the environmental implications of such nostalgia. I’m also teaching a new course on Native American literature next semester that focuses predominately on eighteenth and nineteenth-century texts – and am particularly looking forward to teaching William Apess’ Eulogy on King Philip for the first time.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
I recently read Sherwin Bitsui’s Dissolve, a book-length lyric sequence that evokes the geographies and landscapes of the American Southwest in beautiful and uncanny ways. I had the opportunity to hear him read from his previous book, Flood Song, several years ago at the New York State Writers Institute, and his portrayals of the natural world as active and vibrant matter are especially inspiring to me in my own work – there’s an amazing moment in Dissolve, for example, in which “This mountain stands near us: mountaining/ it mistakes morning for mourning.”
Having moved from Albany, New York to Ankara, Turkey in early September – and given the cost of international shipping and excess baggage fees – most of the books that traveled with me were poetry collections, so I’ve also spent time lately reading and re-reading some of my favorite work by Beth Ann Fennelly, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Natasha Trethewey, and Natalie Diaz. I’ve been searching for more modern and contemporary Turkish poetry to read as well, and several of my students have been kind enough to provide a variety of recommendations – though they frequently warn me that their favorite poems aren’t as good in translation!
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
From her scholarship on early American literature, including her work on The Occom Circle, to her support for scholars of all levels and students of all backgrounds – and as the leader of the best Futures of American Studies Institute seminar group ever! – I’m continuously inspired by the kindness, dedication, and intellectual generosity of Ivy Schweitzer.
Joshua Bartlett is an Assistant Professor in the Department of American Culture and Literature at Bilkent University.