SEA Junior Scholar of the Month for October 2018: Stacey Dearing
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
I became interested in early American literature as an undergraduate during Jennifer Dawson’s early American literature survey course. I ordered the books early and read Zabelle Stodola’s edition of Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives before the semester began. I was completely hooked; the texts we read consistently subverted my expectations (much to my delight). Instead of being dull, the class included panther attacks and ventriloquism, strong, sassy women and murder most foul, transatlantic adventures and euphemistic stormy nights! Early American literature is consistently funnier, more interesting, and all around more bizarre than I expected. A friend of mine referred to early Americanists as “ambassadors to the strange” and I think that sums up some of what delights me about early American literature— it constantly challenges me to consider new perspectives and re-think preconceived notions of early American people, texts, and cultures.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
Probably my favorite text at the moment is Increase Mather’s An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences (1684) because it incorporates so many interesting elements. In his effort to document God’s providences in the world, he records shipwrecks, storms, lightning strikes, Indian captivities, disabilities, injuries, demonic cures, witchcraft, and new technologies, to name a few. To support his work, he compiles evidence from a wide variety of sources including Native people and women. In my research and teaching I find myself pondering some of the same questions as Mather: how do we ascertain and document facts? And, perhaps more importantly, how do narratives help us create meaning for seemingly incomprehensible events, and what do those narratives reveal about our underlying value systems and power structures?
What are you currently working on?
I am currently revising my dissertation into a book project investigating patient agency in seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century letters, diaries, missionary tracts, and medical treatises. My project offers a literary history of the field of narrative medicine; I argue that patients in the early Atlantic world employ narrative strategies across multiple genres in order to assert agency—in other words, if the sickroom was a marginalized space, then patients from diverse backgrounds used writing to articulate meaning for their conditions and to maintain connections with larger religious, social, familial, and tribal networks. Because disease and disability were not demarcated the way they are today, my project also explores how early American communities recognized and intentionally accommodated disabled, injured, and afflicted individuals. Next summer, I will be working with the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, MA to add a chapter exploring how mental health was understood and treated in colonial New England. Ultimately, my analysis of early American medical narratives reveals alternate ways of understanding, constructing, and articulating power, authority, and knowledge through religious, scientific, and literary discourse.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
I’ve spent the summer relishing the opportunity to read for pleasure, and have enjoyed Madeline Miller’s Circe, Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians series, as well as a variety of true crime/white-collar crime books such as John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood and Ken Bensinger’s Red Card. Two books that I find myself coming back to again and again are Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories and Terry Pratchett’s Nation. Both books challenge readers to re-think dominant cultural narratives and consider alternate ways of constructing, articulating, and enacting shared values and knowledge.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
There are many scholars in the field who inspire me, including my mentors Hilary Wyss and Kristina Bross. I’m so grateful that they always saw me as a person first, and that they valued my potential as a scholar. I also think that Kelly Wisecup deserves all the praise in the world—her generosity as a human and a scholar epitomizes what makes our field great.
Stacey Dearing is Teaching Assistant Professor of English at Siena College.