SEA Junior Scholar of the Month, November 2022: Kassie Baron
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
Besides reading all the Dear America books in 4th grade, I think it must have been when I read the passage from Letters from an American Farmer about the family with the hornets in their house. It was so ridiculous that I was immediately hooked! In undergrad, I circled early American literature while working toward a degree in political science and religious studies, focusing on new religious movements and the Second Great Awakening. Still, it took me some time (with encouragement from Crevecoeur) to narrow my focus.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
For my favorite novel, I have to say Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland. The novel is a strong (and weird!) indication of the haunted position the US inhabited at the end of the 18th century, attempting to unify voice and body while being torn between new and old, innovation and tradition. The perceived threat from without is ultimately revealed as an existential threat from within. It’s such a rich and exciting text that invites conversation on race, gender, citizenship, and ultimate textual authority ending in a flurry of betrayal and violence. Plus, their dad explodes, which always plays really well for students.
If I’m allowed to choose a few more, The Coquette and The Travels of William Bartram partially inspired the shape my dissertation eventually took. Both explore the way women’s bodies become imbued with values projected onto them and the national ramifications when this plasticity becomes a tourist site.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on my dissertation, which focuses on the representations of working-class women’s bodies during the Industrial Revolution. I focus specifically on the first wave of women recruited from family farms and the difference between others’ writings about them and the ones they wrote about themselves. For those outside the factory, these “Mill Girls” served as an indicator of the success of the factory system and, by extension, the health of the nation at large; naturally, the workers themselves often had a more nuanced view of their role. The current chapter focuses on what happens to factory operatives when they leave the mill. Typically, they are granted two options: get married or get seduced and die. However, in a story I’m writing about now, the heroine runs away to the factory, is estranged from her family, gets married, becomes a widow, gets seduced, disguises herself as a Black man to take revenge, rescues her sister while in disguise, and finally lowers her disguise in front of her parents who promptly fall dead at her feet. The factory operative’s bodily plasticity no longer indicates the upward mobility factory owners had hoped for, but instead spells the death of the middle class. And all in under 30 pages!
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
I (finally) read Hannah L. Murray’s Liminal Whiteness in Early US Fiction. I closed the cover and immediately opened one of my dissertation chapters! In addition to being a brilliant and fascinating reading of texts focused on white men, it encouraged me to evaluate texts I’m writing about – focused on white women – in generative ways. Personally, however, I am reading only YA dark academia fantasy. It is inspiring in the sense that at least I am just trying to write a dissertation, and no one is actively trying to murder me on campus (I hope).
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
I am constantly inspired and energized by the brilliant and supportive scholars that make up this community! In particular, I’m inspired by Bridget Marshall. Her new book, Industrial Gothic, is a remarkable text that draws insightful connections between the factory as a gothic space and the operatives who populate them as gothic literature aficionados. She has also been an incredible mentor and resource through a difficult few years. Her generosity, both intellectually and personally, are a fantastic model for the scholar I aspire to be.
Kassie Baron is a PhD Candidate and Graduate Instructor in English at the University of Iowa.