SEA Scholar of the Month for June 2018: Jason Payton
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
I studied philosophy and theology as an undergraduate and came to my graduate studies in literature knowing very little about early America. I first became interested in the field during seminars with Andy Doolen on colonial American literatures and the early U.S. novel. Those seminars advanced trenchant critiques of colonialism and nationalism, and as someone interested in ethics and society, this seemed like vital work. I wanted to be a part of it. During the course of those seminars, I discovered Ralph Bauer’s The Cultural Geography of Colonial American Literatures, which inspired me with the breadth of its vision and with its critical engagement with empire and modernity. That book led me to pursue doctoral work in the field.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
I find myself drawn to texts that reckon with the violent, traumatic kernel of early American experience. I return regularly in my teaching to texts such as The Broken Spears, the Letters from Mexico, and the Short Account. They aren’t favorites in the usual sense, but I value them because they keep my teaching grounded in a fundamental recognition of the terror of it all.
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on a book on the literatures of piracy in early America and the Atlantic world from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. I’m primarily interested in how literary representations of piracy help define the contours of early modern subjectivity and in how early modern ideas about subjectivity in my archive get reprised in nineteenth-century fiction. The Dutch pop up in various places in this project: as merchants, smugglers, pirates, jurists, and philosophers. I’m picking up Dutch as I gear up for a second project that attempts to think through how early American literary studies might look differently if these figures were given a more central role in our disciplinary metanarratives.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
I just read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, which pressed me to think about the connections between the questions I’m asking about subjectivity in early modernity on the one hand, and the contemporary rhetorics and politics of belonging and unbelonging on the other. I wish I had come to this book sooner, but I’m grateful for how it is shaping my thinking about the stakes of the work.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
There are many. My own work involves some creative thinking about the spaces of early American literature, from the hemispheric to the global and from the terrestrial to the oceanic and maritime. In that connection, I’ve been inspired by the work of Hester Blum, Anna Brickhouse, Michelle Burnham, and Elizabeth Maddock Dillon.
Jason Payton is Assistant Professor of English at Sam Houston State University, and will be taking up a position at the University of Georgia in the fall term.