SEA Junior Scholar of the Month, January 2023: Leah Marie Becker
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
I have to give all the credit for my interest in early American literature to one of my undergraduate professors at the University of Portland, Dr. John Orr. His love for the subject and his extemporaneous teaching style were infectious, and both have influenced me greatly, from my studies to my own teaching. What solidified my interest in the long nineteenth century, however, was American Romanticism. While plenty of American Romanticists promoted the Kantian version of the sublime in their nature-writings, I was always intrigued by the darker, Burkean sublime and the ways many American authors used it to subvert and critique imperialism, slavery, and even Romanticism itself. Through various twists and turns, this initial fascination has led to my current scholarly focus: environmentalism, consumption, and the often-sinister nature of nineteenth-century white femininity and domesticity.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
Phillis Wheatley, hands down. I love her subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) snark, delivered in the guise of emulation and classicism. This makes her a particular joy to teach, while the seriousness of her work and her history also open up important classroom conversations about racism, slavery, benefaction, and celebrity. I also have to name my second-favorite early American author, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, again because her work is so fruitful to teach (especially Hope Leslie, which has captivated and frustrated my students to no end). And I have to give a shoutout to Tabitha Gilman Tenney’s Female Quixotism, for its funny, satiric, and subversive nature, as well as Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland, for being the scariest book I’ve read, second only to Stephen King’s The Shining.
What are you currently working on?
Right now, I am working on my dissertation, preliminarily titled “Living Clean and Shopping Green: A Nineteenth-Century Domestic Prehistory of Ecoconsumption.” Concentrating on what I call “environmental domesticity,” I am analyzing an archive of female-authored domestic texts from approximately 1820-1915 to illustrate how the concept of domestic purity merged with the burgeoning practice of domestic consumption over the course of the nineteenth century, ultimately laying the foundation on which modern ecoconsumption is built. As these texts were most often written by and addressed to able-bodied, cisgender, Protestant, heterosexual, married, and child-bearing white women, my project also analyzes how the violence of nineteenth-century white femininity lives on in racist and classist iterations of ecoconsumption today.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
I have been trying to get back to reading for pleasure (a practice I, regrettably, abandoned while reading for my special fields exam), and this morning I finished reading Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. I loved Virginia Woolf as a teenager, so this novel was right up my alley and got me back into that moody, introspective state that, for me, is great for my own writing. The best non-work-related book I read in the past year, however, was The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin. I’ve never read anything like it and haven’t stopped thinking about it, almost daily, since. It’s shaped a lot of my thinking about infrastructure, space, and community. I can’t wait for the next installment in the series!
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
Oh, gosh, so many! Three names that immediately come to mind are Britt Rusert, Greta LaFleur, and Jennifer James. They particularly inspire me because I find their writing to be equal parts informative, powerful, and emotive. This makes their work not only helpful for my research, but it also gets me fired up! I aspire to write this way.
Leah Marie Becker is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.