SEA Junior Scholar of the Month, October 2021: Lloyd Sy
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
I was first charmed by reading Anne Bradstreet’s poetry in a college class called “Origins of American Literature” with Professor Jim Egan at Brown. It wasn’t until grad school, however, that I found myself seriously invested in questions of antebellum American literature. There, classes with Jerome McGann, Mary Kuhn, and Jennifer Greeson, along with an independent study on Melville with my advisor, Emily Ogden, allowed me to see how the United States was a weird, wicked, and wonderful place for creative writers in its initial decades of self-apprehension. Delving further than I ever had into, for instance, the novels of James Fenimore Cooper, awakened me to the myth-making forces at the core of so much early American literature, forces which often impelled writers to fashion the environment (physically and figuratively) to their liking.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
My favorite early American text is Tabitha Tenney’s Female Quixotism because it provided much-needed humor in the midst of reading for my comprehensive examinations. I was visiting Boston at the time, and I spent much of an interminable Green Line ride snorting out loud at Dorcasina Sheldon’s exploits, earning the stares of my co-passengers. I may startle some people when I say that humor is at the center of much of my appreciation of early American literature: comedic moments, characters, and conceits in the work of authors like Douglass, Poe, and Melville are the ones that I feel most warmly about in this field. They spark insight into a world and time that was variously fantastic, grotesque, and outrageous.
What are you currently working on?
I’m writing the third chapter of my dissertation, which is about representations of deforestation in American literature from the long 19th century. This chapter analyzes depictions of sylvan destruction in the work of Zitkála-Šá, particularly her comparison of Indian education to the denuding of trees. Though Zitkála-Šá is usually discussed by scholars (with varying levels of endorsement) in her role as an early Indian activist, my readings of her representations of woodcutting have found her to be a remarkably insightful philosopher of consciousness, easy to place in dialogue with her contemporaries William James and W. E. B. Du Bois. The research has been exhilarating and surprising—I had no idea this is where I would end up with it—and the deep dive into philosophy serves as a useful counterbalance to my first two chapters, on Cooper and William Apess, which took on more historicist bents.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
I try to be as eclectic as possible in my non-dissertation-related readings, so I can list a hodgepodge of things I read this summer that captivated me in one way or another: Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding, Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain, D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, Rebecca Fraser’s The Story of Britain, and Jennifer Senior’s recent Atlantic essay, “What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind.” The latter two especially reminded me that what I admire most in all nonfiction genres is the ability to maintain some sort of narrative pulse. They serve as both personal and professional admonitions, guides to my life and my work, which I hope are always resonant on a fundamentally emotional level to those who happen to encounter me in whatever form. At the end of the day, I find scholarship quite hard to read if I can’t get a sense of the human being behind it.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
My two favorite Americanists are Dana Luciano and the late, great Lauren Berlant. Following up my last answer, what attracts me most to their work is the evident sense of personality that percolates their brilliant analyses. They have a way of reaffirming the communal, yet idiosyncratic, heart of splendid literary criticism: here is my vision, articulated for your enlightenment and pleasure, to illuminate this staggeringly interesting text.
Lloyd Sy is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Virginia.