SEA Junior Scholar of the Month, April 2022: Eagan Dean
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
I’m not really sure I could give a genealogy of this interest, partially because I’ve tried on a lot of periods through undergrad and grad school. (I didn’t turn out as a medievalist, but I still think about Margery Kempe all the time!) American literature always pulls me back in, and I always have something else to say. I think a really important point for me was reading Charles Brockden Brown’s Alcuin: A Dialogue during coursework. It highlights how much the very concept of gender is in crisis during this period, and it got me thinking about how intertwined gender is with the imaginative production of American-ness as a deeply stratified, racialized national concept.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
This seems like a popular choice, but my favorite text is probably David Walker’s Appeal because I love to teach it. It just sets students on fire, especially early on in a class about early American literature. Students often say that it makes the lived reality of the period concrete. I also find it gets them invested in the stakes of the class around historical issues of power, justice, and racialization that can seem remote from contemporary versions of these problems–especially when students are more accustomed to period readings which come from the perspective of power (e.g., high school readings from “founding fathers”). The fire in Appeal and its work in theorizing enslavement’s national impact still ring true for students and help them understand the continuities between early America and today. It also has a major influence on later rhetoricians–Maria Stewart and Anna Julia Cooper–whom I write about myself.
What are you currently working on?
Right now, I’m revising a dissertation chapter about Last of the Mohicans and Hope Leslie which is in conversation with work about Two-Spirit history and indigeneity. I’m really interested in the relationship between the white gender non-conforming characters and the colonial work of the “Vanishing Indian” trope. I had the opportunity to present an early version of this work at an SEA panel in November! I’m grateful to Theresa Gaul and the SSAWW audience for their exceptional feedback on the early version of the project. I’m also working on an article manuscript about gender theorizing within free Black women’s literary societies, which is very much inspired by Elizabeth McHenry. I’m hoping to spend some of my summer in the archives working on that.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
I’ve just started reading Dr. Erica Edwards’s new book The Other Side of Terror: Black Women and the Culture of US Empire. I’ve had the privilege to learn from her at Rutgers, and I’m inspired by her sharp ear for the way American culture talks about itself. This book is also just so readable, even for someone whose expertise is as far afield as mine. I want to write like her when I grow up.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
I am really inspired and influenced right now by recent work by Jen Manion, specifically her book Female Husbands: A Trans History. Female Husbands looks at people who took on the social/economic/kinship/romantic/gender role of “husbands,” even though they were understood to be women by certain authorities at different points in their lives. The book takes a fascinating look at the historical and class contingencies of gender, and I think its model of transness from a historical perspective is super generative and needed. I also really love the way she talks about newspaper and sensation-novel versions of female husbands as part of the development of these ideas–it’s like she’s developed another model of what Benjamin Kahan might describe as “vernacular sexology,” except it’s more like vernacular gender theory.
Eagan Dean is a PhD candidate in English at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.