SEA Junior Scholar of the Month, July 2019: Sam Sommers
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
I had been interested in design and print production since early high school and thought I might go into magazine publishing after college. Learning that I could write about texts as visual and material objects really opened up the possibility that I would study literature at all. In my second year of college I took a seminar called “Literary Studies as American Studies” with Chuck Baraw where he arranged for our class to have a tour of Special Collections before writing our seminar papers. We looked at artists’ books, fine press editions, several copies of Leaves of Grass, and were encouraged to think about the physical and visual features of these objects in relation to content and audience. I was hooked. When I was getting ready to apply for graduate school, I made a list of all my favorite readings from college and the vast majority were clustered from 1790–1860. I think the contingency and experimentation of Early American literature and print culture keeps me coming back for more.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
Friends and colleagues will attest, I never shy away from a B-side of American Literature. With that in mind, if I had to pick one text, it would be John Adams’s “A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law.” For years, I had a quotation from this in my online dating profile. “A Dissertation” contains (to my mind) the greatest examples of soaring rhetoric used to defend personal liberty, freedom of the press, and the pursuit of knowledge. Adams frames these rights as an intellectual inheritance from the Puritans. I think his writing also previews the magnitude of the self-making project the founders would undertake. This is not to absolve or forget, even for a minute, the violence of the American settler-colonial project, but in terms of conjuring the imagined and unfulfilled promises of America—it’s hard to beat lines like these: “This spirit [of liberty] without knowledge, would be little more than a brutal rage. Let us tenderly and kindly cherish, therefore the means of knowledge. Let us dare to read, think, speak and write. Let every order and degree among the people rouse their attention and animate their resolution.”
What are you currently working on?
I’m about to send off two article manuscripts, one on the representation of material texts in the short story “The Man Without a Country,” and the other is the first piece I hope to publish out of my book project: Reading in Books. That second essay is on another favorite, Hope Leslie, and argues that literary critics have too narrowly defined reading as a mechanism for self-formation. I look to Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s depictions of reading to expand discussions of what reading may or may not lead to, and ask why we always want reading to have a purpose.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
I’ve just started reading Layli Long Soldier’s poetry collection Whereas (2017) to prepare to teach it in an American Lit survey this fall. The book is brilliant, bold, and stunning. Its whole project is to reveal the language of the state as a tool for violence against native people.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
There are so many brilliant and generous people working in the field right now. I’d have to begin with Meredith Neuman, who possesses a searching curiosity, fierce wit, and indefatigable patience in the archive. I’m always thrilled by the unpredictability of her projects. On top of all that, she’s wonderfully kind! Among my peers, I’m a huge fan of the work Dan Couch, Julia Dauer, Sonia Hazard, Mary Caton Lingold, and Kimberly Takahata are doing right now—each of their projects has pushed my thinking about something in my own work.
Sam Sommers is a President’s Postdoctoral Scholar in the English Department at The Ohio State University.