SEA Scholar of the Month, November 2020: Laura Stevens
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
I completed my graduate coursework and exams, with a focus on 18th century Britain, but I kept writing seminar papers on literary depictions of Native peoples – Pope’s “Poor Indian,” for example, and of course Crusoe’s Friday. Eventually I settled on a dissertation about missionary writings and depictions of Native peoples, and that topic led me gradually to focus more on early America.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
I will name one text that I have returned to again and again: Samson Occom’s letter of 24 July 1771 to Eleazar Wheelock. This was the letter he wrote when he learned Wheelock was giving up on the project of educating Native youths, and instead was taking all the money Occom had worked so incredibly hard to raise in Britain, redirecting it to establish a college for white boys. I literally tremble every time I read that letter, feeling Occom’s fury spilling over for this betrayal — really also for his years of exploitation and mistreatment — and I am in awe of its rhetorical brilliance, especially when he hurls a Latin pun at Wheelock: “I am very jealous that instead of Your Semenary Becoming alma Mater, She will be too alba mater to Suckle the Tawnees.” It strikes me especially as an important text for us in this national moment of reckoning with racism.
What are you currently working on?
I’m finishing revisions on my book, Friday’s Tribe: Eighteenth-Century English Missionary Writings, which will be published by University of Pennsylvania Press. I’m then completing a short book for the Cambridge Elements series on eighteenth-century guides to reading the Bible, which will have a section on the Mohawk Book of Common Prayer. My next book has the working title “Fostering and Theft: The Hunger for Children in the Atlantic World, 1492-1830.” It will study the stories —and the stories of feelings — that emerged from an era in which children were stolen, given, and lent across the lines of language, culture, religion, and race, through the trade in captive Africans, through Native captivities of colonists, and through the sending of Native children to be educated by missionaries. This book will in part be about who gets to have a family, who gets to be a child.
I’m also excited to be working with Kristina Bross and Marie Balsley Taylor on a (potential) classroom-ready edition of two texts connected with Puritan missions and the Native peoples of New England: Tears of Repentance (1653) and The Indian Dialogues (1671).
What is something you are reading right now (EAL reated or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
I’ve just started reading Andrew Newman’s Allegories of Encounter: Colonial Literacy and Indian Captivities, which is doing smart things with captivity narratives and literacy. I had been feeling for a while that the field had reached a point of exhaustion with captivity narratives, basically run out of things to say, and Drew’s book provides a powerful example of how the scholarly conversation can become re-energized, in this case by bringing together what we in the field had been thinking of as two distinct discourses.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
My doctoral advisor, Julie Ellison, provided a wonderful role model for me as a passionate, sharp, energetic scholar who introduced me to emotion studies and Atlantic studies, and who also taught me the importance of public scholarship.
One thing I have always appreciated about the SEA is the prominence women have had in it. There are many women I could name, but I’ll note six who have inspired me as insightful, ethical, creative scholars, as devoted teachers, and as wonderful human beings: Kristina Bross, Michelle Burnham, Lisa Gordis, Zabelle Stodola, Teresa Toulouse, and Hilary Wyss. They have all done groundbreaking archival research, they’ve helped me think in new ways about religion in early America, and they’ve advanced my thinking about the literature of encounter. I consider all of them also to be the gold-standard of citizenship within the profession.
I have also been deeply inspired by my Indigenous students at the University of Tulsa, who have been really generous in talking with me about their experiences, and who have helped me understand what is at stake when we study literary history with attention to the words of Native peoples. Most of all: Mason Whitehorn Powell (Osage), Jennie Stockle (Cherokee Nation, Mvscogee Creek), and Lexie Tafoya (Cherokee Nation).
Laura Stevens is Chapman Professor of English at The University of Tulsa.