SEA Scholar of the Month for July 2018: Drew Lopenzina
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
I was a grad student when the event we call 9-11 ruptured our national complacency, directly followed by long military engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq. I was struck by the rhetoric of nationalism that cohered around these events, and what I perceived as some of their imperialist/racist underpinnings. It led me to seek the source of such rhetoric, which I discovered to be deeply ingrained in America’s colonial origins. As I continued to pull on that thread, it led me to think in new ways about how America’s indigenous peoples were being constructed in the colonial archive and what kind of rhetorical strategies were needed to teach this old literature in new and generative ways.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
Choosing favorites is kind of a thankless task. Nevertheless, I am always drawn to the works of William Apess—his courageous lifelong attempts to grapple with the grammar of empire and reverse its ugly conclusions. Because I am currently trying to learn something of the Algonquian language, I am also very appreciative right now of Roger Williams and his apparent faith in the idea that cultural understanding might be furthered through language outreach. Williams, particularly in his Key into the Language of America, strikes me as someone who struggled against the constraints of his own discourse community to envision something better—choosing to learn from his Narragansett neighbors rather than reflexively vilify them.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently finishing up my third book, an Introduction to Native American Literature for Routledge Press. I have also been working to have an historical marker placed in the town of Colrain, Massachusetts, marking it as William Apess’s place of birth in 1798 and the location where Apess began his ministry in the 1820’s. When doing research for my biography of Apess, I was astounded by the complete silence surrounding this Native son in the place of his origin. It occurred to me that we can do more in the public sphere to raise consciousness of Indigenous peoples and presence in our physical landscapes. Public space is so often used to tell history, but it typically serves very narrow agendas and I feel one contribution we can make as scholars is to reach out to challenge and transform the way history is presented in these spaces. The Apess marker will go up this fall and I hope to use the event to further awareness of Apess’s presence there and his enduring contributions.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
I was recently handed a copy of a book called Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling, by the Australian aboriginal writer, Larissa Behrendt. It tells the story of Eliza Hunt, a woman shipwrecked on an island off the Australian coast in 1836 and subsequently “captured” by the Butchulla people. The book follows the tangled thread of how this event was narrated, historicized, and used as anti-aboriginal propaganda for (at least) the next 150 years. Early American scholars will be struck with how closely the dynamic follows that of our own historic fascination with captivity narratives, dating back (at least) to Mary Rowlandson’s 1682 The Sovereignty and Goodness of God. The parallels are even more fascinating when read alongside Lisa Brooks’ important new book on King Philip’s War, Our Beloved Kin.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
I would rather choose a favorite text. But I continue to be inspired by Lisa Brooks who has done painstaking research to help us rethink some very entrenched old narratives like those surrounding Mary Rowlandson, Weetamoo, and King Philip’s War. I am invigorated by scholars in the field who are working closely with indigenous communities to complicate and enrich our store of historical knowledge—scholars like Hilary Wyss, Kelly Wisecup, Birgit Brander Rasmussen, Katy Chiles, Christine Delucia and others, all of whom know what difficult work it is and the kind of challenges it hits up against in unexpected places. And I am inspired by a whole lot of people out there who just keep doing the work, year after year, modeling great patience, rigor, and the desire to advance understanding in a time that seems to want so little of it.
Drew Lopenzina is Associate Professor of American Literature at Old Dominion University.