SEA Scholar of the Month for March 2018: Betty Booth Donohue
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
A graduate course taught by Norman Grabo was my introduction to early American letters, and Grabo’s rigorous and comprehensive approach to the field presented myriad intriguing possibilities for further research. In addition to the usual English or Puritan writers, his course readings included selections from Indigenous people, the Spanish, and the French so that students got a coastal and panoramic view of early American letters. Because Indigenous American literature is my other specialty, and because early American works encapsulate that period when Natives and Europeans first met and influence flowed freely and reciprocally between them, this period is the place to be for scholars interested in citing evidence of Native markings in American literature.
Who is you favorite early American writer and why?
For several reasons, William Bradford is my favorite early American writer. His history records important information about American Indians and their cultures. Even though his understanding of Native practices is often incomplete, it nevertheless gives Native readers fairly accurate insight into what was happening in the Indian camps. More important, Bradford, in prose that is stately, dignified, and occasionally poetic, effortlessly melds both Indigenous and English poetics and thus creates the prototype for later American literature. While it is true that a significant number of other early writers also subconsciously absorbed and expressed Native poetics, only Of Plimoth Plantation displays so much so thoroughly.
What are you currently working on?
Documenting Native influence in early American novels is my project for the moment and is preparatory to an examination of major canonical novels of the nineteenth century. A thread of Native influence in works by Royall Tyler, Samuel Woodworth, and Charles Brockden Brown leads eventually to well- developed examples of Native influence in works by James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving. From The Pioneers to Wolfert’s Roost, it’s a straight path to Moby-Dick.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally
I just finished William Gilmore Simm’s Yemassee (1835) and found it quite engaging. Because Simms was writing about tribes I am unfamiliar with—tribes that early American settlers would have encountered—I began researching them. This digression led to a very useful volume: Statistics of South Carolina: Including a View of Its Natural, Civil, and Military History, General and Particular (1826) by Robert Mills. Mills was a well-known architect who designed the US Treasury building and worked on the Washington Monument and the White House. In his lengthy description of South Carolina, somewhat reminiscent of Johnson’s Wonder-Working Providence minus the theology, Mills includes his personal perception of Indian leaders and various tribal practices along with official census information, treaties, etc. Some of this information comes from records supplied by the War Department while other observations seem taken from his own experience with men like Attakullakulla, Oconostota, Moytoy, and Dragging Canoe. Mills implies that he had met several of these leaders and he records, or more likely summarizes, their speeches. He also records tribal word lists. Much of his anthropological information is accurate and predates a significant amount of 20th century “new findings.” It is likely that Simms referred to this volume while he was writing Yemassee.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
The Society of Early Americanists is composed of outstanding scholars and lovely, congenial people. Joanna Brooks, Matt Cohen, Carla Mulford, Laura Stevens, Zabelle Stodola, and Hillary Wyss, to name only a few, have been particularly helpful to me. ᏩᏙ, ᏧᎾᎵᎢ [Phonetically: Wa do, Tsu na li i]
Betty Booth Donohue is an independent scholar, author, and member of the Cherokee Nation.