SEA Scholar of the Month for September 2019: James M. Greene
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
As an undergrad, I read one of Greil Marcus’s books on Bob Dylan that made several references to F. O. Matthiessen and American Renaissance. Reading Matthiessen (well, skimming—I was still just an undergrad!) led me to take a class my senior year with Dana Nelson that explored images of manhood in early national and antebellum literature. From there, I was hooked. I became fascinated by the different paths US culture could have taken during those formative years. Early American literature preserves that sense of possibility, and tracing out those divergent lines remains my main motivation as a scholar.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
While I love teaching Charles Brockden Brown, I have to say my favorite early American writer is Joseph Plumb Martin. Martin was an ordinary soldier in the Revolutionary War, but he served in nearly every major campaign and he recorded his experiences with a casual elegance and wit. Martin recalls how most of his hardships in the army were not from fighting the British, but from dealing with the incompetence of officers and the indifference of civilians. He looks back on that suffering with a sardonic humor and recalls how he and other soldiers did their best to carry on, even when their stomachs were empty and their feet were bare. In 2019, with the constant anxiety of climate change and political dysfunction weighing on us, there’s something comforting in Martin’s blend of cynicism and resilience.
What are you currently working on?
I just completed my first book, The Soldier’s Two Bodies: Military Sacrifice and Popular Sovereignty in Revolutionary War Veteran Narratives, which will be published by Louisiana State U P later this year. While I’m looking for the next long term project, I’m currently working on an article exploring the 1778 treaty of Fort Pitt between the Delaware people and the United States. The treaty offered the Delaware the chance to form a state in the American confederation. Obviously, that was a false promise, but I’m curious what we could learn from imagining it as a genuine one, and how that might reorient our view of early US-indigenous relations.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
I’ve been reading Shout!, Philip Norman’s biography of the Beatles. It struck me in the early chapters how so many people who knew the band as teenagers in Liverpool remarked that they were just awful back then. Knowing that even George Harrison used to struggle to play a simple F major chord is a good reminder that the early stages of any creative project are always rough.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
Paul Downes’s work has been a major influence on my own thinking about popular sovereignty, and a major example for how to balance the different strands of literary analysis, historical scholarship, and political theory in my own writing. His most recent book, Hobbes, Sovereignty, and Early American Literature, is such a great illustration of how early American texts speak directly to contemporary political and social challenges. Downes imagines a highly pragmatic and realistic understanding of how sovereignty would need to change to create a more egalitarian society. It’s a such a good book.
Jim Greene is currently Assistant Professor of English at Indiana State University.
*This feature has been created by Stacey Dearing, Siena College.