SEA Scholar of the Month, November 2021: Jason Shaffer
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
It was something of an accident, really. I thought I was going to be an early modernist theatre historian, but when grad school came around I needed to find a better way to align my research interests with those of my dissertation director, Joseph Roach, so I took up the pre-1900 history of Shakespeare on the American stage. Then I discovered that there were plays written by actual Americans, and a whole new world opened up for me.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
It’s a well-worn answer, but I still love Royall Tyler’s The Contrast, because it’s a fascinating snapshot of life in the very early United States during a period of immense social upheaval surrounding the Shays Rebellion and the ratification of the Constitution. Every time I go back to it, I find new ideas to explore, or at least new ways of coming at the questions it raises in what could otherwise be mistaken as a very superficial comedy of manners.
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on my long-delayed second book, which will be titled Staging the Republic, 1787-1837. It starts with de Tocqueville’s premise that the theatre is the natural artform of democratic societies and explores what that means for the way Americans represent themselves and the sovereignty of their new government onstage from the ratification of the Constitution to the end of the Jackson administration.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
I’m just finishing a re-read of Roach’s Cities of the Dead, which came out just before fate threw my professional lot in with his 25 years ago. It’s remarkable how well it has held up, and I can only hope my own work will do the same. After this, I’m looking forward to reading Lindsay DiCuirci’s award-winning new book.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
There are so many. Mostly, I’m astonished by the generosity of the scholars in our field compared to what I have encountered in some of the other areas where I work. So, to name just a few people who have lent me their time and talents, I would cite Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, Chris Philips, Meredith Neuman, Lindsay DiCuirci, and Jonathan Beecher Field.
Jason Shaffer is Professor of English at the United States Naval Academy.