SEA Scholar of the Month, February 2022: Mary Balkun
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
The Ph.D. program at NYU insisted on a broad grounding in English and American literature, so I was introduced to early Americas literature as part of my course work, but my interest was really fueled during the research for my dissertation about the trope of the imposter in modern American fiction. While looking for the origins of this concept I came across a sermon that spoke about the need to separate the sheep from the goats, which opened up avenues of influence that I hadn’t considered. Then I discovered Sarah Kemble Knight’s travel journal, and there was no turning back. I also have a distinct memory of reading my first issue of EAL, and the very different tone of that journal from so many others. It was welcoming and supportive, with references to contributors and supporters that were collegial, and I remember thinking, “I want to know and work with these people.” I never looked back.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
Knight’s Journal remains my favorite early American text, just because it is so rich and so much fun. Over the years it has rewarded readings that focus on gender, on class, on race, and more. However, I would have to say that my favorite writer, more broadly speaking, is Phillis Wheatley Peters, who has proved to be an indomitable force. From being criticized as someone who seemed to be able to disregard the sufferings of those whose enslaved condition was materially worse than her own, we can now see her as someone who fought both subversively and overtly against the institution of slavery. And we’re continuing to learn more about her, thanks to the work of scholars such as Vincent Carretta and Honorée Jeffers, and a host of early career scholars who are also helping us to see this poet and her work in new ways.
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently finishing work on A Companion to American Poetry for Wiley-Blackwell, with two co-editors, Jeff Gray and Paul Jaussen. It contains 37 essays on American poetry, from its origins to the present day; it should be out in a few months. I’m also trying to complete a project that’s taking me far longer than I thought it would, a study of the grotesque in early American literature titled New World Upside-Down. For the last few years I’ve also been researching and presenting on the letters of Abigaill Franks, a mid-eighteenth century woman who lived in what is now New York City, and I’m hoping to finish an article about her by the end of this year.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
For pleasure, I’m currently reading Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May, for somewhat obvious reasons. It’s beautifully written, and reading it gives me moments of calm in these still overwhelming days. On the EAL side, I’m reading Parkinson’s The Common Cause, which I’ve been trying to get to for at least two years. It’s also wonderfully written—so clear and engaging—while examining some deeply disturbing aspects of our national origins. And I was just gifted a copy of Matrix, the novel about Marie de France, which I can’t wait to start.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
Throughout my career I’ve been inspired by those who not only do wonderful scholarship but who also support and encourage others. My first model for this was Annette Kolodny, who was both non-nonsense and wonderfully encouraging, especially of early career scholars. We first met when she agreed to be part of an MLA session I put together when I was just starting out, and she then agreed to contribute an essay to the volume on women and empire that Susan Imbarrato and I edited. Susan is another scholar and colleague who inspires me tremendously, especially given her many contributions to the SEA. My list could go on for a while—Carla Mulford, Dennis Moore, Tom Krise —these scholars all inspire me in different ways. I also realize, as I look at this list, that the other thing they have in common is their ability to balance scholarship and leadership, whether in the SEA or at their institutions. It’s something I’ve strived to do in my own career.
Mary Balkun is Professor of English at Seton Hall University.