How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
I came to early American literature following a rather circuitous path. After a stint working as a land surveyor in the army, I finished a Master’s degree in American Studies and Geography in my native Germany, where—attracted by the call to “always historicize”—I became fascinated with the historical relationship between and representation of land and people in word and image. Once I worked on my dissertation, it was only a short leap to connect maps to early American literature, be it sermons and poems, plays and novels. While I now have shifted my thinking into the direction of material culture studies, my take on early American literature is deeply informed by the experience that its texts always feel raw and formative and that therefore they connect with a range of exciting literary and non-literary questions about identity and social formations. I am an immigrant and I find that early American literature continues to fascinate because (and here I channel Caroline Kirkland) many authors turned to different kinds of writings as a way to imagine a new home for us to follow.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
I enjoy working with early American writers because they all too often don’t fit later notions of authorship. As literary biographers keep reminding us (and a heartfelt thanks for all their work), many early authors were accidental writers who were worried as much about crops and cows as they were about how to best present ideas and articulate desires. With that in mind, I find myself playing favoritism with authors or texts that capture my imagination in the context of whatever are my current and ongoing projects. Recently, that meant I felt hooked (again) by the writings of Brockden Brown, Rowson, Equiano, and Cooper, just as I became absolutely fascinated by the literary form of the periodical press, anonymous magazine stories, and trade catalogs. On the whole, I find myself drawn to texts that are caught in the act of becoming, to texts pretending to be literary or to those that experiment with the laws of genre.
What are you currently working on?
Three projects are moving at different speeds, but all explore the relationship between American literature, material culture, and the history of capitalism. I am currently co-editing a volume investigating the phenomenon of fugitive archives; the contributors examine the facts and fictions surrounding the loss and recovery of archives or archived objects, including their structures, uses, and the challenge they pose for the curation and narration of personal and communal experience. My second project is a digital database called “ThingStor” and is conceived to become a material culture database for finding and cross-referencing objects cited in American literature and the visual arts. You can view its prototype (and actively contribute to it) at www.materialculture.udel.edu. Finally, I have begun research on a new monograph in which I explore the role of “literary objects,” in particular the transfer from popular fiction to saleable goods in the early American context of mass-marketing, cross-over products, and the vertical integration of forms.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
I am always fascinated by studies that either connect the dots across deep archives or successfully stitch together different, perhaps even oppositional frameworks of thought and analysis. Thus, reading The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America by my colleague Jenn Van Horn in Art History has me re-imagining ideas of early American textualities, while Caroline Levine’s wonderful work on Forms makes me re-think the relationship between literature and politics.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
There are so many I would want to list, but three scholars in particular have shaped very early my understanding of what it means to be a scholar in academic and non-academic settings. The late Michael (Timo) Gilmore who inevitably would end a conversation with the question “How do you know?” Wai Chee Dimock for asking “What is your argument?” And Patricia Crain whose questions frequently ended with the statement “I’d be happy to read this.” Many of us recognize the ways in which these three have shaped our intellectual life that informs the study of early American literature; but it is the pairing of personal and intellectual generosity that turns inspiration into conviction.
Martin Brückner is Professor of English and Co-Director of the Center for Material Culture Studies and the Delaware Public Humanities Institute (DELPHI) at the University of Delaware.