SEA Scholar of the Month, January 2022: Derrick Spradlin
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
This story may be a case of “that escalated quickly,” but here it is. My interest in early American lit started in my undergrad days. I had signed up to take an upper division English class on literature of the American Revolutionary and National Periods. Before the semester began, however, the professor of the course died suddenly and unexpectedly. I didn’t know him well, had never taken one of his classes before, but in the limited interaction I had had with him, he always seemed like a decent, good man. I saw how his death deeply affected so many people—students and faculty—at my university. It made an impression, and since early American lit was his subject area, it came to have positive associations for me. Furthermore, the course was not offered again during my time there, so the fact that I was unable to take that course made the subject matter very tantalizing, and that stayed with me.
During grad school, I was introduced to works like Brockden Brown’s Wieland and Edgar Huntly, Rush’s Kelroy, the captivity narrative genre, and the old southwest humorists, among others, all of which more and more convinced me that the colonial and antebellum eras were where I wanted to set up shop. I was incredibly fortunate to have as my dissertation director at Auburn Dr. Hilary Wyss (former president of SEA), who helped open my eyes to studying forgotten and ignored texts, artifacts, and writers.
What are you currently working on?
At Freed-Hardeman, as is the case at other smaller universities, professors teach a wide range of classes. In my case, I regularly teach freshman English composition classes, gen ed sophomore-level American literature, and several upper division English courses, including such non-early American offerings as Renaissance Drama, New Media and Narrative, and a World War II class. Over the years, my research projects have followed the courses I have been asked to teach, so I stray from early American subjects quite a bit.
My primary research efforts over the past several years have centered around a course that I thought up several years ago and have taught twice so far. The main objective of the course is for students to research the lives of our university’s alumni who served in World War II. It’s a research class that involves a very different type of research than what students normally do for English classes, or any other classes.
As far as early American lit goes, I’m working on a project that focuses on the journals of John Ledyard and the character of Alonzo in Isaac Mitchell’s The Asylum. Both are young, philosophizing global wanderers.
I, of course, have some perennially back-burnered projects, one on hermits in early America and one on the presentation of travel in early modern English theater. I assure myself that someday I’ll dedicate more time to those, though that would mean disturbing the dust bunnies accumulating on those particular stacks of books and articles that help to decorate my office.
I’m also the head coach of our men’s and women’s cross country and track teams, and have been since 2010, so I do plenty of research into different training methods and plans, program management, group dynamics, and other topics come up in that capacity.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
Two interdisciplinary books have captured my imagination lately: Neil MacGregor’s Shakespeare’s Restless World: A Portrait of an Era in Twenty Objects (2012) and Cathy Rex and Shevaun Watson’s Public Memory, Race, and Heritage Tourism of Early America (2021). Both let us see historical periods in new ways. I’ve been making my way through the recent special issue of EAL on Early American Fictionality (vol. 56, no. 3), for which guest editors Thomas Koenigs and Matthew Pethers have done an excellent job.
I recently finished Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, and his Serotonin is next on my list.
For the fall-asleep-on-the-couch-at-night kind of reading, I’ve been enjoying James R. Benn’s Billy Boyle World War II mystery novels, and during the original covid lockdown of 2020, I started casually reading a series that I had been eager to get to for years: Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books. I was unaware that Amazon Prime was soon to release a live-action series of it, so now I guess I’ll be in a race to stay ahead of the video series for the next however many years.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
All the authors that appear on the SEA’s “Recent and Forthcoming Publications” lists, which simultaneously inspire and overwhelm me. I enjoy seeing all the diverse and interesting work that scholars are doing in our field, and it drives me to get moving on my own projects. At the same time, I realize that I’ll never get around to reading even a fraction of all the scholarly work that I want to, and some of the titles make me insanely jealous for the creative spark that so many early Americanists have.
Derrick Spradlin is Associate Professor of English at Freed-Hardeman University.