SEA Scholar of the Month for May 2019: Miles Grier
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
Like so many, I suppose my first exposure was The Scarlet Letterin high school. Of course, its 1850 publication date puts it long after SEA’s cutoff, but its subject matter—its retrospective look at a sexually restrictive Puritan enclave in colonial Massachusetts, ringed by bow-wielding Indians and haunted by a Black Man in the forest—set in motion many elements of colonial culture that have long fascinated me. Chief among these is stigma, which (from its Greek roots) conjures ink tattoos and slavery. Though I have not written directly about it or taught it, I suppose I am always in implicit dialogue with that blasted red A, looming over American literature! The text’s obsession with literacy and self-disclosure undergirds many of the questions I ask about settlers’ dreams and the realities of intercultural contact.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
I love to teach Thomas Harriott’s A Briefe and True Reporte of the New Found Land of Virginiaas an inaugural text in Anglo-American life. Its glossy promotion of the Virginia commercial venture in the face of contrary testimony from returning Britons and the stubborn fact of indigenous inhabitants helps to show just how fantastical so many of the historical documents of the period are, let alone the creative literature. I find that students immediately grasp its promotional purposes, and the ways those purposes shape when and how indigenous people are depicted. I always hope it will make them equally curious about the purposes, say, of Captain John Smith or Mary Rowlandson.
What are you currently working on?
My current book project, tentatively entitled Inkface: Othello and the Formation of White Interpretive Community, starts from the premise that the blackface worn by early modern English performers was repeatedly compared to an ink. To test the ramifications of this finding for our understanding of the histories of race and literacy, I follow Othelloin print and onstage from its London debut in 1604 to Herman Melville’s dramatic undoing of its premises in “Benito Cereno” (1855). Other chapters feature Aphra Behn, Abigail Adams, colonial American governors, and Cherokee dignitaries negotiating their places in the Anglo Atlantic world’s white-dominated public sphere and unstable performative commons. Through these case studies, I argue that part of Othello’s durability lay in the thrilling and familiar way it solicited audience members to make characters and narratives out of the materials of literature and performance: ink, paper, cloth, dye, skin, and paint. In an Atlantic economy built upon speculation, these indicators allowed for some sense of knowable, predictable human types. This form of characterization, I argue, predated and enabled the forms of legal and scientific racism (written, as they were) by which scholars have typically told the history of race. Given the persistence of racial inequality after the dismantling of legal segregation and the discrediting of scientific racism, the need to locate other roots of the problem is crucial.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL-related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
I am reading the special issue of Boston Reviewon racial capitalism. It is incisive in its claim that capitalism required a racial hierarchy. But in regard to its consideration of labor and productivity, I find myself wondering about those aspects of life under racial capitalism that exceeded exploitation and profit. Is it possible to bring queer understandings of both social life and economics into conversation with the theory of racial capitalism? There are rich veins considering the ethics of profit in light of the metaphor of sexual reproduction in medieval, early modern, and eighteenth-century studies (Diane Cady, Will Fisher, and Mary Poovey among them). This work could be fruitfully brought into dialogue with Hortense Spillers’ classic essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” and the emerging work of scholars doing queer and trans slavery studies (such as Jessica Johnson, Treva Lindsey, and Omise’eke Tinsley). I hope the entire field can be brought to think of the various elements of life under racial slavery—maldistributed profit, pleasure, protection, torture—in one frame, as they were experienced.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
I have a number of close friends and colleagues in SEA, whose work I admire and whose conversations sustain me, including Kristina Bross, Laura Stevens, Jim Greene, Siân Silyn-Roberts, Duncan Faherty, Cassie Smith, Tara Bynum, and Steven Thomas. And there are many whom I wish I knew better. But the person at the Oregon conference who gave the talk I wish I had given was John Funchion. The way that he read images of white men with rifles raised and cocked to pursue an analysis of the social and psychological need for armed protection struck me as exemplary of the ways that history, aesthetic analysis, and political intervention can be combined.
Miles P. Grier is Assistant Professor of English at Queens College, CUNY.