SEA Junior Scholar of the Month, March 2022: Sean Ash Gordon
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
This is one of those things where it feels like I was reading early American literature well before I had any interest in it. It was just there! Being assigned! One provoking encounter with early American literature and history, however, was in college, reading William Carlos Williams’ In the American Grain, which sort of mythologizes (though not uncritically) major events in colonial history. That book certainly provoked my interest and my desire to study the primary texts. I have to credit former teachers who have also pushed me to understand that history better: John T. Matthews, Nina Silber, Nick Bromell, Manisha Sinha, Britt Rusert, and Hoang Gia Phan.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
I love Phillis Wheatley’s poetry, whose achievements are obviously well documented. And I think that the spiritual autobiographies of Rebecca Jackson, Jarena Lee, and Maria Stewart should be read more widely as mystical writings on freedom and fugitivity. But I would say my favorite early American writer is probably William Apess. His Eulogy on King Philip is such an amazing intervention into Puritan historiography, blending history, memory, and mourning. Students sometimes construe racist colonial writing as a “product of its time.” The Eulogy is, among other things, a powerful counter and corrective to that view of the past.
What are you currently working on?
On the one hand, I’ve been thinking about how to turn my dissertation into a book about abolitionist poetics: abolitionism as a radical literary tradition as well as a political one. I’ve also been researching domesticity, and specifically what I am thinking of as the imposition of silence in so-called domestic spaces. There is a still-life painter named Severin Roesen whom I have been studying in relation to these issues. I think we tend to see his work, and other still life paintings from the early national and antebellum eras, as being hung up in very quiet, empty spaces. But his work was also hanging in bars and stores. And, of course, some of his paintings were in his apartment studio where he was having parties — for what else is all the wine and cheese and grapes? So in a sense I’m trying to reconstruct the sound of those spaces and see his paintings as loud and clamorous instead of subdued and quiet.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
Because I teach undergraduate courses in American literature, I am pretty much always reading something EAL related. David Walker’s Appeal is inspiring to me. This might be a little obvious to say, but the unique typography of the Appealis a striking suggestion of Walker’s voice, and even more specifically, his breath. I’m inspired by the orality of the Appeal as it works within and against print and the printing press and its technological limitations for recording speech.
A contemporary text that I recently read is Billy-Ray Belcourt’s A History of My Brief Body, which is a lot about the coloniality of English in Canada and the United States, and what it’s like to produce poetry as an act of freedom in a settler colonial context. (Belcourt is from the Driftpile Cree Nation.) It’s mostly autobiographical prose, and there’s a lot of prose poetry, but I would also consider it an inspiring anti-national epic.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
So many! Lisa Lowe, David Kazanjian, Teemu Ruskola, Christina Sharpe, Holly Jackson, Greta LaFleur, and Jodi Byrd all come to mind. I am inspired by their detailed scholarship, of course, but also by their attention to storytelling and narrative craft.
Sean Ash Gordon is currently Adjunct Professor of English at Keene State College. In Fall 2022, he will begin a position as Assistant Professor of U.S. Literature at California State University, Fresno.