SEA Junior Scholar of the Month for September 2019: Michael Monescalchi
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
In the summer before my sophomore year at SUNY-Albany, I changed majors and decided to take the first course required of all students who major or minor in English. It just so happened that the English Department offered only one section of that course that summer, and Branka Arsić was teaching it. I became so captivated by her lectures and the texts she assigned that I decided to take her course on “Early American Female Spirituality” the next semester, which introduced me to Anne Hutchinson, Anne Bradstreet, Mary Rowlandson, and Phillis Wheatley. In the semesters that followed, I took every class that Professor Arsić and her Americanist colleagues, Professors Jennifer Greiman and James Lilley, offered. By the time I began my graduate studies at Rutgers University, I knew that I wanted to continue studying and writing about early American literature.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
While Jonathan Edwards is probably my favorite early American writer, I am also particularly fond of Ann Eliza Bleecker. In an American literature survey course, I paired her mostly fictional yet highly sensational captivity narrative, The History of Maria Kittle (first serialized in The New York Magazine in 1790-1791), with Rowlandson’s Sovereignty and Goodness of God. Such a pairing challenged students’ assumptions about literary genres being fixed categories: it helped them realize that genres, like the captivity narrative, transform over time and are products of their historical moment. In an “Introduction to Poetry” course, I assigned Bleecker’s poetry after my students read more “canonical” elegies by Bradstreet, Milton, Wheatley, and Gray. In contrast to these earlier elegies, which encouraged persons to vacate their grief and find solace in God, Bleecker’s elegies are self-indulgent and refuse consolation. Students loved that Bleecker, in her “Lines Written in the Retreat from Burgoyne,” chastised her friends for following these earlier elegies’ theories of mourning and thus not understanding her desire to be entirely captivated by her grief over her daughter’s death. Really fascinating stuff!
What are you currently working on?
I recently defended my dissertation, which traces the evangelical history of a term that scholars typically associate with civic republicanism: disinterestedness. Where civic republicans theorized disinterestedness as an elite white man’s capacity for rational reflection that permits their entrance into politics, evangelicals described disinterestedness as an affective propensity for benevolence that all persons obtain once they align their will with God’s in the conversion process. In arguing that persons of all race, gender, and class backgrounds can become disinterested through conversion, evangelicals were able to encourage persons to exhibit benevolence to those whom the civic republican conception of disinterestedness meant to exclude: free and enslaved African Americans, women, and impoverished persons. The dissertation ultimately argues that this evangelical philosophy of disinterestedness was especially useful to marginalized writers who protested slavery and other forms of oppression, as it allowed them to not only strategically focus on others’ pained conditions over their own, but also formulate their reform philosophies as divinely ordained. An article version of my dissertation’s second chapter on Phillis Wheatley was published in the most recent issue of Early American Literature.
Now that I’ve defended my dissertation, I’m starting work on a project that traces the origins of the genre we now call “true crime” to early American religious texts that interrogate the relationship between providential design and free will.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
As I was finishing my dissertation, I revisited some of the fabulous recent scholarship that has been influential to my work, including Abram Van Engen’s Sympathetic Puritans: Calvinist Fellow Feeling in Early New England, Mark Miller’s Cast Down: Abjection in America, 1700-1850, and Carrie Hyde’s Civic Longing: The Speculative Origins of U.S. Citizenship. When I’m not reading academic scholarship, I’m usually reading poetry, and have recently become fascinated with the Mexican poets Jaime Sabines and Rosario Castellanos.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
I must single out Chris Iannini: he is not just a model scholar and teacher, but also an incredible advisor who is always generous with his time. The mentorship I’ve received from Tara Bynum and John Saillant has also been invaluable; their work on early African American writing and religion continues to inspire my scholarship.
Michael Monescalchi is currently an Instructor in the English Department at Rutgers University.
*This interview, as always, was created by Stacey Dearing.