SEA Junior Scholar of the Month, May 2022: Ashley Rattner
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
In grad school I became interested in the ways that texts can define collective identities, encoding the values, fears, goals, and rules of a real or projected community in John David Miles’s Early American seminars. I think the first two main texts I got super interested in were Mary Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God and Roger Williams’s A Key into the Language of America. Beyond close readings alone, I was particularly invested in exploring the ways that publication shaped a text’s reception and function.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
Charles Brockden Brown: what a weirdo. I love to work through the rhetorical structures of appeals in the classroom, and for this the hits include Elias Boudinot, William Apess, David Walker, Margaret Fuller, Frederick Douglass, and Robert Owen. I feel like studying the techniques and texts with which writers advocate for reform is exceptionally valuable at a time when so many people feel powerless––considering how writers in the past navigated seemingly insurmountable societal problems can help generate imaginative and tangible paths forward when hope is difficult to conjure up.
What are you currently working on?
My book project is on 19th century communitarian experiments and how their members mobilize print to make their utopian projects legible to the public! As of right now, I look at Fanny Wright’s Nashoba, Robert Owen’s New Harmony, Nathanial Hawthorne’s brief stint at Brook Farm, and Shaker correspondence with Leo Tolstoy. I’m also working on a side project on Shaker dance at P.T. Barnum’s American Museum after finding a playbill at the Winterthur Library back before the world shut down.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
Kara French’s Against Sex and Robert P. Emlen’s Imagining the Shakers have been immensely helpful as of late in helping me think through evolving public perceptions of the Shakers. Because much anti-Shaker writing dwells on the sect’s celibacy, I find myself returning to sentimental novels of Susanna Rowson and Hannah Webster Foster to consider the parameters of acceptable female sexuality in Early America.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
Holly Jackson’s American Radicals is incredible, and I deeply appreciate the seminar she organized a few years back on Utopian Radicalism that helped congeal some of the ideas that structure my book project. I particularly like how she complicates conventional concepts of “failure,” which is something I’ve grappled with a lot thinking about utopian experiments.
Ashley Rattner is, beginning Fall 2022, Assistant Professor of English at Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Alabama.