SEA Scholar of the Month for July 2019: Kathleen Donegan
Created by Stacey Dearing
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
This may sound funny, but I was interested in early America from a young age. I grew up in a central Massachusetts town called Holden, which was founded in 1741. I was always very conscious of its history – not necessarily its actual history, but a history I imagined for it. The farmers who built the stone walls. What people did in winter. How they made everything for themselves. I thought about those things as a kid as we drove through wooded areas of town. I was also in grade school during the Bicentennial, so there was a lot of early American hoopla. They had us sewing bonnets and white collars in school. Then there were all the place names – Wachusett, Quinapoxet, Quabbin, Quinsigamond. These were everyday words in our mouths but spoke to a much older history. So, by the time I encountered the literature, I already had a long and formative imaginative relationship that I kept tapping into, even as the world of early America grew more and more complicated.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
My first really favorite text was The Coquette, one of my earliest introductions to the field. I fell in love with Eliza Wharton’s voice. It was this novel that began to pull my studies of American literature into an earlier period. Eliza was the person in the room I wanted to sit next to. But this is a hard question in general, because “favorite” means you like it, and a lot of the early American texts I read are brutal. They are not favorites, but I feel they are necessary. Even things like Richard Ligon’s precise architectural graphs of the ingenio, which literally laid out the workings of the Caribbean sugar industry at its start. There are texts we just need to sit with. I’ve recently returned to Mary Prince’s The History of Mary Prince, and am struck by how stark and true her language is, and how its poetry bores into experience that seems inexpressible. A house whose stones are not as hard as its owner’s hearts. A description of an earthquake that makes all nature rage against whipping an innocent child. The simple and profound repetition of words when syntax no longer suffices. Prince knows and wields the power of her telling, even when its content is overwhelming. It is a fearless thing to say: “This is slavery. I tell it.”
What are you currently working on?
I am working on a project about departures from the plantation that don’t have to do with physical escape. I am interested in psychic departures, or ways of being that exist outside total captivity. Some of these lean toward death, and some lean toward life. So, I am thinking about madness, haunting, obeah, and music – all modes of “other-worlding” for people who have been “un-worlded” by their enslavement. I’m calling this project The Spectral Plantation: The Other Worlds of Slavery. It’s difficult to research because I’m interested in inner states that, of course, were not recorded as such. But still, these things existed within plantation life and I’m exploring them. The other project I have going on is quite different – a book about shipwrecks and casting away. I’ve been collecting these narratives for some time, and have a group that I’d like to write about. The ones I’ve selected have to do with performance, resistance, conspiracy, and opportunity. I’d like to show that the shipwreck narrative is as distinctive a genre as the conversion narrative, the captivity narrative, and other first-person forms in early America. These are amazing stories that have by and large sunk into the archive, and that deserve a new reading.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
I’ve been reading works by Maggie Nelson, and have been very interested in alternative ways of making intellectual work visible, especially ways connected to personal experience. This seems to me to be an important, generative, human exploration, and a brave one. Why is it considered brave to speak of the life from which thoughts and studies arise? I’m interested in writers like Nelson who extinguish that gap. I’ve also been reading Marisa J. Fuentes’s Dispossessed Lives. Fuentes provides a model for how to think about and work in an archive that is violent and hostile to your inquiries. Her deep readings make the most of what might have been considered only traces of lives lived under slavery.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
I am, and have long been, inspired by Elizabeth Maddock Dillon. She is doing really energizing work right now with Nicole Aljoe and a team at the Early Caribbean Digital Archives (ECDA) at Northeastern University. They are engaged in what they call “remixing the archive”, which includes extracting narratives of enslaved people from European-authored texts and giving them their own autonomous form and bibliographical status, instead of always and forever existing under the mantle of despotic forces. Beyond being a game-changing scholar herself, Elizabeth is a tireless mentor to young scholars from across the country who gravitate to her for her ready insight and generosity. She is always asking the most interesting questions, stirring things up, putting things taken as givens on the line. Even as she is innovating, she immediately makes sense. Elizabeth has been a guide to me and, like many others, I’m better for it.
Kathleen Donegan is Associate Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley.