How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
My interest in pre-1865 American literature started as an undergraduate, when I took a fantastic seminar from Barbara Packer on Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. She not only helped change how I viewed those poets, but also helped develop my understanding of poetry as a genre. However, when I first entered graduate school I was sure that my main area of specialty would be late 19th-and 20th-century American literature. As my interests developed through graduate seminars with Michael Colacurcio and Chris Looby, I moved solidly into the pre-1865 framework of literature. And, as my dissertation project began, I found that my interests kept moving back further, decade by decade. I became fascinated with the tumultuous years following the revolution and the ratification of the constitution, and the literary and political life of the early republic has held my attention since that time.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
If I have to choose a single author, I’d have to say that my favorite early American writer is Charles Brockden Brown. His novels are such a compelling combination of weird and wonderful, and every time I bring his work into the classroom my students are enthralled (and occasionally a bit befuddled). In terms of specific texts, one of my favorite is Samuel Jackson Pratt’s novel about the American Revolution, Emma Corbett. Emma Corbett was first published during the war in 1780 in Bath and London, and successive editions were published throughout Ireland, France, and the U.S. Pratt’s novel—full of the overwrought sentiment and languishing emotion endemic to so many eighteenth-century texts—is a thought-provoking literary take on a range of different individuals caught in the midst of the conflict. Pratt represents American sympathizers living in England, patriot soldiers eager to help British subjects in distress, figures of neutrality, as well as wounded veterans who survived the trauma of war yet live on in hospitals. I love introducing students to this text, especially because so many of them have pre-conceived notions about what the war meant, and this novel upends a lot of those.
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently at work on a book manuscript tentatively titled American Fragments: The Political Aesthetic of Literary Ruins in the Early Republic. This study examines the history of literary fragments in colonial and early national United States from the 1770s to the 1830s. The project assembles an archive of unstudied literary fragments, and presents a case for their significance in political and aesthetic traditions. I argue that in the late eighteenth century authors used the material form of a “fragment” of paper to represent marginalized individuals as varied as slaves, prostitutes, beggars, and disabled figures. At the same time, the prevalence of the fragment form reveals an underlying interest in partial works, an aesthetics that contests the primacy of closed genres like the novel.
In addition to working on my monograph, I’m also working on a literary history of erasure in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by looking at the use of bread crumbs and pumice stones to erase pencil markings, as well as the inauguration of rubber erasers (dubbed “India Rubber”) in the late eighteenth century. I’m also collaborating with Matthew Pethers on a collection of essays on parts and wholes in early America.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
I recently finished Siân Silyn Roberts’s Gothic Subjects: The Transformation of Individualism in American Fiction, 1790-1861 (2014), a book that I found brilliant and thoughtful in its examination of how the American gothic posits a distinct kind of identity that breaks away from the British tradition of the genre. Another text I read recently (and am now teaching) is Suzan-Lori Parks’s play Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2, & 3 (2015). Parks sets her play in the Civil War, and the action follows a slave who goes to the war as a valet for a Confederate Colonel. The play is deeply illuminating both in its treatment of race in 19th-century America as well as the way those immoral structures of thought persist into our current moment.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
There are many people who serve as my inspiration on a day-to-day basis, but I would be remiss not to mention my former dissertation mentor, Chris Looby, who has had a profound influence on my academic interests and my professional life. He is a model, for me, of scrupulous scholarship and generous mentorship. In addition, the scholarship of both Ed Cahill and Matthew Garrett has been instrumental for my work, and has helped me to see how deeply early American culture was invested in aesthetic structures.
Daniel Diez Couch is Assistant Professor of English at the United States Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs