SEA Scholar of the Month, August 2020: Matthew Pethers
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
In Britain, where I trained and now teach, early American literature has traditionally occupied a marginal position in university curricula and among faculty research interests, so looking back now my arrival into being an early Americanist was fairly autodidactic in nature. As an undergraduate the American literature courses I took started at 1820, which is still not uncommon over here, but nonetheless I began my PhD thinking (rather vaguely) that I’d look at Washington Irving. Clearly something was already drawing me back to the early American period – probably, at this stage, the fact that I recognized a host of familiar eighteenth-century British social and cultural references which were being intriguingly refracted through an external lens. Pretty soon after my doctoral studies were underway I encountered Cathy Davidson’s Revolution and the Word and Michael Warner’s Letters of the Republic and, realizing there was a whole literary field pre-1820 I could get my teeth into, Irving disappeared in favour of even earlier pastures. These two books were at least a decade old when I first read them but even now I find them incredibly productive to return to when generating new projects. Fortunately when I did catch up with what was happening in early American scholarship at the start of the twenty-first century I found myself exposed to the cresting waves of the transatlantic turn – Paul Giles’s work, especially Transatlantic Insurrections, was a big influence on me from this line of research. At this point, though mass digitization was still in its infancy, I was lucky enough to be studying in London, where the British Library had the Evans Early American Imprints and a comprehensive body of early American periodicals on microfilm (plus of course many original print editions). This archive gave me the – now evidently delusional – feeling that I could get to grips with early American literature as a coherent and surveyable entity despite my neophyte status.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
I’ve probably written about Charles Brockden Brown more than any other single author, and I remain convinced Washington Irving is one of the most pleasurable of early American writers to read, but the figure I find most fascinating is probably the unusually prolific though largely neglected novelist, art critic and editor John Neal. He’s the great missing link between the early national and the antebellum periods – more experimental and more fervently Romantic than Irving, Cooper or Sedgwick. His fiction from the 1820s can be intimidatingly long and convoluted, so for the uninitiated I’d recommend his short historical novel about the Puritan witch trials Rachel Dyer, which came out in 1828. For my money it’s one of the most extraordinary American novels of the nineteenth century as a whole – a penetratingly self-reflexive analysis of the nature of historical truth combined with proto-modernist uses of dialogue.
What are you currently working on?
I’ve just started writing an article on illustrations of fictional characters from the early republic, where I’m trying to think through some of the epistemological and ontological questions that visual portraits of non-existent people throw up. This comes out of a forthcoming special issue of Early American Literature on “Fictionality” that I’ve been putting together with Thomas Koenigs. Once that’s done I’m planning to go back, before the summer ends, to finishing a piece about early American encyclopedias and their manifestation of republican anxieties over the division of intellectual labor, which will be part of an essay collection on The Part and the Whole in Early American Art, Literature and Print Culture that I’m co-editing with Daniel Couch. Rumbling along in the background is a larger, longer-term project on serialization and American book history.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
I’ve just reread Wendy Bellion’s Citizen Spectator in the course of kick-starting the article I’m writing at the moment. It’s a model of the kind of early American scholarship I enjoy most, which takes an overlooked and seemingly quirky set of artifacts and shows how they’re actually central to our understanding of the period’s political and cultural life, using ambitious interdisciplinary methods in the process. One of the things that I find most rewarding as an academic is the challenge of writing itself, something scholars tend to downplay in favor of talking about the pleasures of reading or the lure of digging into archives. Finding the right phrase or the right structure in a piece of your own writing can sometimes feel rather mechanical but I find more often that it’s a satisfying bit of craftwork, which may be why I’ve ended up doing a good degree of editorial work, since it allows me to tinker with other people’s prose too. All of this is really a roundabout way of saying that I greatly appreciated the Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick, which I recently finished reading – there are some perfect sentences and beautifully modulated paragraphs in there. Next off my shelf is going to be the second volume in the Library of America’s edition of Peter Taylor’s Complete Stories. I read the first volume, which collects his 1940s and 1950s work, last year and found the stories in there to be impressively subtle accounts of, among many other things, the perverse psychology underpinning the racial dynamics of that period (and, unfortunately, ours).
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
There are too many early Americanists whose work I admire to single out any individual so I’ll name two groups of scholars. The first is constituted from the numerous people who have made up the Charles Brockden Brown Society over the past decade or so. As well as producing some of the recent work I’ve been most impressed by, these people have collectively made the CBB Society as intellectually diverse and as collegial as I’ve found the SEA to be, but on a smaller and more focused scale – something that as no more than an occasional interloper into U.S. academia on-the-ground I’ve much appreciated. The Society has a cfp for its next conference coming out soon that I’d encourage those who haven’t attended previously to watch for (an interest in Brown himself is definitely not necessary!). The other group of scholars I’m inspired by right now are the various people currently working on early black print culture. As a book historian at heart I find this innovative research really exciting to behold and, as someone who is largely technologically maladroit, I’m also particularly impressed by the productive engagement with the digital humanities that some of it increasingly involves.
Matthew Pethers is Assistant Professor in American Intellectual and Cultural History at the University of Nottingham.