SEA Scholar of the Month for December 2017: David Shields
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
My interests in early American literature emerged out of a fascination with early American material culture when I was an undergraduate at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg. I belonged to a group of students who worked as archaeological excavators, and became fascinated with the built environment of the 17th and 18th century English colonies. But during those years historical archaeological became smitten with cliometric analysis, and the statistical obsessions of the field made its discussion of the past unreadable. I turned to texts . . . which I studied as material objects and emblems of social organization. I also loved poetry so became interested in how lyric, georgic, epic, and mock forms spoke. My dissertation was a history of New England diary writing—I wanted to learn how the most private of forms of writing became conventionalized in the absence of published examples or instruction manuals. This study, which I never published, was my education in a way of study that in time would be named The History of the Book. What was challenging about Early American Literature was how its contents remained largely unknown. One could read entire corpuses of writing without anyone having commented on them. It all had the novelty of terra incognita. So I wrote summary view of entire discourses: the poetry of empire, the literature of sociability, manuscript satire. So much remains unremarked to this day. It is well known that my interests range beyond early American literature. When I received tenure, I decided I would develop an expertise for each of my senses: hence my scholarship on performing arts photography, food studies, my collection of Russian-Soviet music, my current work on the physical culture movement.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
My favorite Early American Writers in English: 17th century, the poet Benjamin Tompson, 18th century poet, Susanna Wright, prose writer, Dr. Alexander Hamilton. But I have favorite Spanish language, Dutch, German, and French authors as well.
What are you currently working on?
I have a new book out this past week: The Culinarians; lives and careers from the first Age of American fine Dining—the first collection of biographies (175 of them) of American chefs, caterers & restaurateurs from the first restaurant (1793) to Prohibition. I am writing a book now called TEMPLE OF FLESH about the physical culture movement in American and the attempt to visual and create the ideal body. In the early American field, I have been writing an essay about the SC Council’s inquiry into a fake slave revolt circa 1750. It is about how slaves played on the paranoia of the plantocracy. A topology of fear.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
Recent books that impressed me: Paul Downes, Hobbes, Sovereignty, and Early American Literature (Cambridge), Pat Crain, Reading Children: Literacy, Property, and the Dilemmas of Childhood in 19th-C America (Penn)
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
Since my undergraduate years my friend Bernard L. Herman—Tindall Professor of Southern Studies at the University of North Carolina—has been my intellectual other, the one whom my arguments must convince. He has the questing curiosity, lyric sensibility, learning, and volcanic wit that stands as a challenge He has trained many of the people who do art, material culture studies, and architecture in SEA. My dissertation advisor, the late Robert Ferguson, was my mentor in terms of a moral vision of professional action. I have known some great allies and collaborators—deep friends—Carla Mulford, Fredrika Teute, Catherine E. Kelly, the late Frank Shuffelton, Dan Williams, Ralph Bauer. J. A. Leo Lemay was the senior scholar who first welcomed me into this conversation.
David S. Shields is Carolina Distinguished Professor and McClintock Professor of Southern Letters in the Departments of English & History at the University of South Carolina, as well as Chairman of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation.