SEA Scholar of the Month, March 2022: Theresa Strouth Gaul
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
As a child, I devoured my mother’s collection of nineteenth-century sentimental women’s novels. I also have a very vivid memory of reading My Brother Sam is Dead when I couldn’t have been more than around eight years old. I have no question that these early reading experiences shaped my tastes and interests in very particular—and perhaps peculiar—ways. I was lucky enough to attend a women’s college where I took courses in women’s literature, including one on American women’s writing, and I wrote my college honors thesis on recovering Catharine Sedgwick, whose Hope Leslie had just been reprinted in the Rutgers’ American Women Writers series. Most of my graduate studies and dissertation focused on the nineteenth century. However, I found myself moving earlier and earlier in the nineteenth century, largely so I could be part of SEA and its dynamic community and stellar conferences.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
This is a hard one, but I’m going to have to go with Hannah Foster’s The Coquette. I never tire of it no matter how many times I teach it, and it always grips students at all levels, from first year to graduate, with issues that still seem relevant for them today.
What are you currently working on?
I’ve just published an essay in a special issue in Women’s Studies (edited by Renée Bergland, Betsy Klimasmith, and Len van Morzé) on an 1820 religious narrative commonly titled “Poor Sarah, or the Indian Woman.” In the essay, I make an argument about collaborative authorship by tracing the narrative’s complicated composition and publication history: its frequent misattribution to Elias Boudinot (Cherokee); its composition by hymn-writer Phoebe Hinsdale Brown; the oral teachings of Sarah Rogers (Mohegan), which brought the narrative into existence; and its translation into several Indigenous languages.
I’m in the copyediting stage on an essay that will appear in J19 on the epistolary negotiations of Ann Paine, a white missionary to the Cherokee Nation in 1821, whose goal was to separate from her husband while maintaining her identity as a pious Christian woman. Her own marital difficulties and sense of herself in turn shaped how she understood Cherokee gender and sexual practices.
Both of these are linked to a larger project I’m developing on women’s contributions to religious print culture, which I argue is the missing link in literary history between the 1790s and the 1820s.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
I’ve had the amazing opportunity to read and comment on a novel-in-progress by a Cherokee author which fictionalizes the period of Cherokee removal. To see the period I’ve researched for so long and some of the historical figures I’ve spent decades studying brought to life on the page has been incredibly inspiring and exciting.
In my teaching, I often includes texts I haven’t read before in syllabi so that I’m encountering new things alongside my students. This year, that has included, among others, Omar Ibn Said’s narrative of his life as an enslaved person, and Arthur Mervyn, which I’ve somehow managed to miss until now, though Wieland and Edgar Huntly are among my favorites to teach.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
Way back when, Zabelle Stodola and Dennis Moore, whom I had only just met for the first time, forced me, a shy assistant professor who tended to retreat to my room at conferences, to join SEA folks for drinks after an SEA panel at ALA. I look back at this moment as a real turning point for me in beginning to experience the benefits and pleasures of community and collegiality in the field.
I have tried to repeat this act of generosity in my role as the SEA liaison to the Society for the Study of American Women Writers (SSAWW) by organizing dinners for early Americanists who work on women writers at the two organizations’ conferences and in co-founding with Desiree Henderson the Texas Regional SSAWW Study Group, which welcomes early Americanists.
Sharon M. Harris will always be my #1 role model for her mentoring, community-building, and demonstration of how scholarly and journal editing is important intellectual work.
Theresa Strouth Gaul is Professor of English and Director of the Core Curriculum at Texas Christian University.