SEA Scholar of the Month, August 2019: Patrick Erben
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
Like many Germans, I grew up sharing a fascination with American frontier stories and noble savage narratives, especially by the late Romanticist German novelist Karl May. As a student in the American Studies (Amerikanistik) Department at Johannes Gutenberg University, I increasingly came to understand the deeply problematic construction and functioning of these mythologies as part of a transatlantic promulgation of American settler-colonialism. I took Reiner Smolinski’s courses during his visiting professorship in Mainz and during my exchange year at Georgia State, and his absolutely fascinating way of immersing his students in the Puritans’ mental, spiritual, and literary worlds had me hooked on early American literature for good. When Reiner and David Shields urged me to work on the more or less forgotten Pennsylvania-German writer Francis Daniel Pastorius, I had a long-term academic specialization to go with my broader scholarly fascination.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
I don’t feel like I have one favorite writer or text, though many hold my enduring attention or admiration. So, “favorite” would probably mean for me writers who move me with a daring voice and the courage to speak their mind. I especially think here of women poets such as Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Anne Bradstreet, Phillis Wheatley, Susannah Wright, and Hannah Griffitts, as well as the public and private voices of Anne Hutchinson, Judith Sargent Murray, and Abigail Adams. Among male writers, no one parallels William Apess in his audacity to articulate a devastating account of the destructive operations of white privilege and oppression in his own life and that of his community. I am in awe of these individuals’ ability to speak truth to power in a variety of settings and use their words to expand and transgress the sphere of what could linguistically, aesthetically, intellectually, and politically be said and written.
What are you currently working on?
After finally getting my Francis Daniel Pastorius Reader out to pasture, I am taking a quick break from my own scholarship. Next on the horizon, however, is a project on the workings of German Pietist literature, sensibility, and aesthetics in the Anglo-phone literature of late 18th and early 19th century literature. More immediately, I am planning the 2021 SEA conference.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
I just finished reading a historical novel that my wife and colleague, Rebecca Harrison, brought back from a conference in Charleston: Michele Moore’s The Cigar Factory. The book very skillfully shows how both black and white women workers struggle with unfair labor practices and unhealthy working conditions, although these women are also internally divided along racial lines. Though set in the early 20th century, The Cigar Factory deals with questions familiar to all of us from early American writings: the possibility and limits of inter-racial and inter-cultural cooperation; strains between the drive for public action and obligations for family; and, the perseverance of not-quite-saints who share a deep faith that may or may not actually sustain them. Interestingly, the plot element that raises the highest expectations for the book only appears briefly at the end. The majority of the book unflinchingly forces the reader to trudge along, especially with the stubborn Irish-American Cassie McGonegal, who can only recognize and decide to fight oppression on the basis of class and race when the element of sex comes into play: witnessing the harassment of black women at the factory at last breaks her insistence on white privilege as an alleged bonus “paid” her by the factory’s owners.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
Kirsten Silva Gruesz inspires me through her dual focus on scholarship that rigorously uncovers and makes visible the transnational and translingual history of American literature, from Puritans to Latinx New Orleans, as well as her advocacy for bringing Latinx scholars to the table of early American studies. Similarly, I admire Bethany Wiggin’s work on eighteenth century German-language culture—especially the radical separatist printer Christoph Saur—and her own uncompromising activism in the environmental humanities, especially in urban waterway restoration and the data refuge movement. (I could not decide on one person, because we have so many talented and amazing people working in our field!)
Patrick is President of the Society of Early Americanists and Professor of English as the University of West Georgia