SEA Scholar of the Month for December 2018: Cristobal Silva
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
My path to becoming an early Americanist was convoluted: I grew up in Canada, was trained as a mathematician, and knew very little about US colonial literature or history when I began my graduate work at NYU. I floundered a lot coming to terms with what a literary critic was supposed to do let alone trying to understand the language and methods of criticism (I came close to leaving the program at the end of my first year). It seems strange to say now, but whenever I felt lost, I took refuge in my lifelong interest in the history of disease. I grounded myself by reading everything I could about illnesses in the historical periods covered by my seminars: plague, smallpox, yellow fever, cholera, influenza, polio, HIV/AIDS. It was while writing a term paper about Anne Hutchinson and the Antinomian controversy that I first came across John Winthrop’s use of the phrase “miraculous plague” to describe the catastrophic 1616-1619 epidemics that afflicted indigenous populations in what is now New England. Winthrop’s association of these epidemics with an emerging theory of property rights was staggering to me, and I felt compelled to read more widely about the medical, theological, and legal culture that produced those claims. I had no sense at the time that this interest would become the cornerstone of my dissertation because it felt so unliterary. I kept thinking about the entwined histories of colonialism and epidemics after that semester, but it wasn’t until I heard Sam Otter give a paper on yellow fever and the aedes aegypti mosquito at the 1998 MLA conference in San Francisco that I finally understood that my interest in epidemics had become literary, and that this work had a place in the profession. By the time I returned to New York I had sketched out the framework for a dissertation and firmly settled on being an early Americanist.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
This is a difficult question for me to answer because the more my teaching and research have focused on the narrative legacies of colonialism and imperialism in the Atlantic world, the more I have retreated from making affective judgments about the texts that I read. Rather than naming a favorite title, I’ll say that A Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings, and Surprizing Deliverance of Briton Hammon has become the indispensable text in every version of the early American survey that I teach. Initially, I found the Narrative to be difficult to work with because it is so compact, but as I deemphasized the importance of New England and Virginia in my classes, Hammon became critical to my understanding of the era: in less than fifteen pages his text is a primer on many of the key concepts of Atlantic literary history, touching on enslavement, commerce, mobility, incarceration, indigeneity, theology, numeracy, literacy, publication history, speech, memory, and silence.
What are you currently working on?
I have been collaborating with Julie Kim, Lina Jiang, Stephen Fragano, and Elizabeth Cornell of Fordham University, and Alex Gil, Kimberly Takahata, and Ami Yoon of Columbia on a digital edition of James Grainger’s The Sugar-Cane (1764 ed). This edition will offer teachers and students multiple ways to read and engage with the poem as they explore both its literary and ideological underpinnings, and it will help them trace what we are calling the voices of the counterplantation that emerge at the heart of the poem.
In terms of my individual research, I am finishing a book titled “Republic of Medicine.” When I first conceived of Miraculous Plagues, it was intended as the first of two books. Where it focused on canonical New England writers and texts, the second book was to trace the way that indigenous and African medical narratives shaped the history of Western medicine. Regrettably, I had to set that project aside, so my current manuscript is a study of the relation between the Atlantic slave trade, immunology, and the rise of modernity.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you either personally or professionally?
My daughters and I have been reading the recent Ms. Marvel series written by G. Willow Wilson. Watching them imagine and inhabit a world that makes room for they and their friends has been a powerful antidote to the exhaustion that has come from talking with them since June 2015 about the open hostility of this world.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
I admire many scholars for their generosity, their rigor, and their intellectual creativity. But the person who has had the most sustained and inspiring effect on me is Elizabeth Maddock Dillon. I don’t know if I should admit this, but I remember ordering her dissertation from proquest and reading it in Bobst library at NYU. It taught me what a literature dissertation could look like and what it ought to aim for. In addition to the kindness and support she has shown me since I entered the profession, I have admired how she has been able to teach and mentor so many scholars while maintaining such a strong record of scholarship and service to the profession.