SEA Junior Scholar of the Month, August 2019: Andy Ross
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
I wrote part of my master’s thesis about the “chrono-culture” of Thomas Cole’s series of paintings The Course of Empire, which got me interested in early American visual and literary landscapes. But my interest really took off when I took Mike Branch’s seminar on early American nature writing at the University of Nevada, Reno. I grew up in the backyard of some of the writers we studied that semester, but it took me living nearly three thousand miles away in the surreal high desert to see how delightfully contemporary in politics and aesthetics early American culture can be.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
I love to read early American autobiographies with students—Rowlandson, Franklin, Douglass. I find they produce really compelling conversations about identity, politics, and American culture. But I think my favorite early American text to read is William Bartram’s book Travels. There’s something about its quirky, effusive—literally flowery—aesthetic that I’m drawn to. It’s a book that has changed the way that I look at the world around me.
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on a book about the aesthetics of scientific observation titled A Natural History of the Eye: American Scientific Arts Before the Civil War. It argues that knowing the political and economic significance of early American natural history requires fully understanding the modes of vision—and visual production—the field promoted. Chapters cover topics like how the nation’s first natural history museum was designed to promote happiness, the “visual imperative” in William Bartram’s approach to narrative, the ethics of thinking about how animals from moles to mollusks see (or don’t see) their world, and what impact sentiments like pleasure, delight, and anticipation have on a very big book of birds. Google has decided to name its undersea cable connecting Portugal and Africa “Equiano,” which has me thinking about infrastructure and early American colonial legacies. That project will become a part of a larger scholarly undertaking about infrastructure and environmental aesthetics.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
I’m interested in the ways that early American history and tropes re-emerge in contemporary literature/film, and so I’ve been revisiting Richard McGuire’s graphic novel Here which “tells” (there’s not much text; “shows” might be more accurate) the history of one family property/home through various storylines—from 8,000 BCE to the distant future—except it does it through a clever visual design that allows time to fold and overlap itself. Ben Franklin shows up in the 1990s. It doesn’t have anything to do with early American literature, but I highly recommend reading (outdoors in a public garden, ideally) Jenny Odell’s new book How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
The Early Americanist community is inspiring to the point that that I hesitate to name names and leave many out, but I want to give a special shout-out to Marion Rust and the entire editorial team at Early American Literature. Every time I open the journal, in addition to the beautiful production and careful editing, I am blown away by the insight and creativity on display!
Andy Ross is currently a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Delaware