SEA Junior Scholar of the Month, January 2020: Jay David Miller
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
I became interested in the field fairly quickly during my undergraduate years. Along with gravitating towards early American texts in as an English major, I took whatever classes about colonial America I could in other disciplines, from history to political theory. The more I learned about the period the more seminal it felt for understanding much of the American literature and cultural history that followed. I have distinct memories of reading classics of Americanist literary criticism like Charles Feidelson Jr.’s Symbolism and American Literature and Leo Marx’s Machine in the Garden, and they probably influenced me in this regard. While earning a Master’s degree at Penn State I was fortunate to take two early American literature seminars taught by Carla Mulford, which really expanded my sense of the field’s scope. If as an undergraduate I’d been interested in the period’s relevance to later developments, as a graduate student I became more aware of the distinctiveness, even strangeness, of it’s genres and contexts. Early American literature causes one to rethink what counts as “literature” (not to mention “early” and “American”), requiring interdisciplinary approaches that I find exciting.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
Writings by the Quaker minister John Woolman—particularly his Journal and the posthumously published essay alternatively titled “A Plea for the Poor” or “A Word of Remembrance and Caution to the Rich”—have been my touchstones texts for some time. I’ve found Woolman’s literary, social, and theological sensibilities to be both resonant and provocative from my first encounter with them as an undergraduate until now. Through my research I’ve also come to appreciate the way his thought changes over time. While as a young man he views European settlement in North America as relatively benign, as he travels more extensively through outlying towns, plantation zones, and Indian country, and especially after living through the French and Indian War, he grows more sensitive to the various forms of exploitation on which the British empire was built, and how this state of affairs is at odds with the testimonies professed by his community. I cannot think of a settler in the period who writes about these issues more directly and eloquently, and I think Woolman is important for that reason, among others.
What are you currently working on?
I’m finishing my dissertation, which I will defend this spring. In it I trace the development of Quaker agrarian rhetoric in the Atlantic world from the English Civil Wars to the aftermath of the American Revolution. I’m particularly interested in how the rhetoric of the moral economy that the first Quakers deployed in England is initially used to promote transatlantic agrarian capitalism and then later adapted to critique it. In the process of delineating how Quakers developed this critique in an effort to address questions of environmental justice, I also offer a relatively comprehensive literary history of Quaker writing in the Atlantic world. I think we have yet to appreciate the extent of Quakerism’s influence on American literary history more broadly, and this project tries to address that.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
Alexander Stern’s The Fall of Language: Benjamin and Wittgenstein on Meaning is a philosophical study published last year that I found to be very stimulating. Despite the subtitle, Benjamin and his philosophy of language are the heart of the book. I think literary critics are relatively familiar with Benjamin’s philosophy of history (brushing against the grain, etc.), but Stern’s patient explication of some of Benjamin’s earlier work on language— which is not unrelated to his philosophy of history—was very enlightening to me and I think it would be to others. His central argument is that Benjamin’s philosophy of language “doesn’t deny the arbitrary, designative, and conventional aspects of language use, but tries situate them within a framework that give priority to a more immediate connection between language and world.”
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
I’m grateful to my dissertation director, Sandra Gustafson, for inspiring me to think integratively about American literary history, and for encouraging me to attend to the breadth of early Americanist scholarship that exists. Following on that last point, there are several other scholars whose research has significantly shaped mine. Patrick Erben’s work on German Pietists and Sarah Rivett’s work on Puritans have provided excellent examples of how to analyze the literary production of religious groups when it is transposed from an early modern European context into colonial American one. I’ve also been greatly helped by the work of Lisa Brooks on Native space, which has pushed me to think harder about relationships between Quakers and Indigenous peoples. Furthermore, I admire how Brooks models a way of doing scholarship that deftly brings together research with personal and communal experience.
Jay David Miller is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at the University of Notre Dame.