Society of Early Americanists’ Junior Scholar of the Month: Helen Hunt
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
I took a class in early American literature as a masters’ student, and we read all of this literature in which Puritan ministers—all men—imagined themselves with breasts so they could suckle their congregations. And they didn’t always imagine having only two breasts, sometimes they had even more! We also looked at headstones with images of male pastors with (multiple) female breasts. I was fascinated by the fluidity of their sexed bodies and also by the apparent contradictions contained in their Puritan(ical) metonymic love of breasts: the breast as nourishing mother was celebrated while the breast as erotic woman was hidden. But it also seemed impossible to me to invoke one without the other. Reading Charles Brockden Brown’s Weiland sealed the deal. Spontaneous combustion! How bizarre! I wanted to investigate this literature that seemed so different than how I viewed the world, and that (truth be told) didn’t seem to make much sense. That’s how I decided to study this weird and wonderful field.
- Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
That is so hard to answer because there is so much to love. But, I may have to say Susanna Rowson. She was prolific, ambitious, and determined, which makes me admire her as a woman, and there is so much to be said about all of the different texts that she wrote. I teach Charlotte Temple every semester to my general education students. This semester, the day we finished the novel a very masculine man announced to the class in a distressed voice that he hadn’t expected to have his heart ripped out by this book. Success. From a scholarly standpoint, I especially appreciate Rebecca, and I’m excited that Sincerity was recently made available through Just Teach One.
- What are you currently working on?
My current book project argues that early American fiction uses erotic fantasy and dynamics of dominance and submission to celebrate queer pleasures between women. I look at both canonical and obscure novels, as well as short fiction found in literary magazines and pamphlets, in order to demonstrate the wide range of queer pleasures found in early American fiction, which includes female characters that take an intense delight in other women’s romantic suffering, and authoritative women exult in their ability to compel other women to give up their lovers and cleave to themselves. Female characters seek out, relish, and perversely cling to arrangements that cause them emotional pain represented in embodied terms. As such, this book project supplements and expands the long-standing view that early American fiction works almost monolithically to repress women’s erotic pleasures of all sorts, and especially to deny queer desire between women, in order to ensure social stability and national unity.
- What is something you are reading right now (early American or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
I’ve just started Jodi Byrd’s Transit of Empire, which I’ve found to be very thought provoking. I am learning more about tribes traditionally associated with Tennessee, where I live, and I’ve found Byrd’s perspective to be incredibly helpful as I’ve learned about my local colonial history.
- Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
There have been many wonderful people who have helped me get to this point, and I am grateful for all of the support and feedback I have received. Of them all, Kristina Bross stands out to me. She has taught me so much, both in the classroom and through her scholarship. I’m inspired by her ability to be intellectually sharp and personally kind all at the same time, as she works to build community among early Americanist scholars of all ranks and ages. I aspire to her ethic of both intelligence and humanity.
Dr. Helen Hunt is assistant professor of English at Tennessee Tech University.