SEA Scholar of the Month for February 2020: Sandra Gustafson
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
During my undergraduate years at Cornell, I specialized in Romanticism and wrote an honors thesis on the poetry of John Keats. I knew that I wanted to shift my focus to American literature when I started graduate school at UC-Berkeley. The early period was an expanding field, with exciting research opportunities.
At the time there was rising interest in the eighteenth century, and multiculturalism was taking hold across American literary studies. I had the opportunity to study early African American literature with Katherine Clay Bassard, and I was also fortunate enough to have the MacArthur-winning historian Lawrence Levine, author of Black Culture and Black Consciousness, on my exam and dissertation committees.
For my dissertation topic I chose to write on early American oratory, a genre that exists in every human culture. I was able to develop the dissertation into my first book, Eloquence is Power: Oratory and Performance in Early America, with the help of a postdoctoral fellowship at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. The OI has an outstanding record of work on early African American and Native American history, and I learned a great deal during my time there.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland — would someone please make a film version?
What are you currently working on?
I am nearly finished drafting a book called “A Just and Lasting Peace”: Reimagining the Republic in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction that includes chapters on Cooper, Stowe, Hawthorne, Henry Adams, Albion Tourgée, Helen Hunt Jackson and Simon Pokagon, and Charles Chesnutt. I’m working with Bob Levine on a proposal for an edited collection of essays on Tourgée, stemming from a conference in September. I’m also finishing two essays: one on Jonathan Edwards’s literary influence for the Oxford Handbook of Jonathan Edwards (edited by Jan Stievermann and Doug Sweeney) and another on the town meeting tradition for a proposed volume on democracy, edited by Greg Laski and Bert Emerson, now under consideration at Oxford UP. My next short piece will be on “The Statesman’s Address” for Hunt Howell and Greta Lafleur’s volume for the new Cambridge UP series on the Nineteenth-Century American Literature in Transition.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
I am re-reading Simon Pokagon’s Ogimawkwe Mitigwaki (Queen of the Woods: A Novel), in the splendid scholarly edition with essays by John N. Low, Margaret Noori, and Kiara M. Vigil, and an introduction by Philip J. Deloria. It’s a fascinating text that raises all kinds of possibilities for future projects.
I recently read David Remnick’s fabulous profile of the singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen that appeared in the New Yorker a few years ago. The issue had been sitting on my nightstand, and when I finally got around to reading it, I was glad that I had saved it. Remnick’s prose is precise and evocative, and his portrait of Cohen (who died soon after the piece appeared) is deeply human.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
I’d like to recognize Shirley Samuels and Bob Levine. They are both energetic, brilliant scholars who are also generous with their professional support. They are forces for good in American literary studies.
Sandra Gustafson is a Professor of English and Concurrent Professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame.