SEA Scholar of the Month for October 2018: Sari Altschuler
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
I have heard it said that early Americanists are not born but made and that was certainly true for me. Like many of us, I think, I started out wanting to study later nineteenth-century literature, but when I got to graduate school I realized that the answers to the questions I wanted to ask were so much more interesting (and weirder!) the earlier I looked. The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries help me understand so much about how today’s world came to be. Also, the early Americanist community is so welcoming! SEA drew me right in.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
Writing my first book I got really into the strange and delightful literature written by early American physicians. I’m not sure I have a favorite text, but right now I’m particularly partial to a little poem written by the physician Samuel Latham Mitchill called “The Doctrine of Septon” in which he conjures gnomes to help him imaginatively explore how human health works.
What are you currently working on?
I just published The Medical Imagination: Literature and Health in the Early United States (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018), which offers a history of the medical imagination. It traces the practices of doctors and writers who used the imagination and literature to craft, test, and implement theories of health. In reframing the historical relationship between literature and health, the book provides a usable past for contemporary conversations about the role of the imagination—and the humanities more broadly—in health research and practice today.
Almost since I started that book I’ve had another project growing alongside it—a book about disability and early US literature and culture. I’ve published pieces connected to it over the years, but it’s been really great to dig in this summer.
Finally, I’ve been working on a related project with David Weimer—a public digital project called Touch This Page! Making Sense of the Ways We Read in collaboration with some folks at Northeastern (Waleed Meleis, Dan Cohen, and the Enabling Engineering group) and the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, MA. This January (2019) we are launching a handful of exhibits in different locations that invite people to think about the multisensory nature of reading. The exhibit features 3-D printed surrogates of pages from the earliest US-printed texts for blind and low-vision readers. In the next few months we’re also looking forward to launching a web version of the exhibition where people will be able to download and print the pages themselves, and we ultimately hope the methods we’re developing will help make the archives and histories of visual impairment in the US more accessible for everyone.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
One book I really loved reading this summer was Georgina Kleege’s More than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art. Kleege writes so elegantly about what she knows will be an unexpected subject—what blindness has to offer visual art. It’s that very unexpectedness, based in Kleege’s own research, knowledge, and experience, that makes the book so richly provocative. Like all the best books, it really pushes you to think differently about the world.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
The SEA is full of fantastically warm and wonderful scholars, but, if I had to choose one, it would be Cristobal Silva. His work is stunning, and he has long been one of the most generous scholars in the field. Early American studies owes so much to his exacting and expansive scholarship and to the example he provides for how to nurture a field and support junior scholars.
Sari Altschuler is Assistant Professor of English at Northeastern University.