SEA Scholar of the Month, November 2022: Michele Navakas
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
I read Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland in a graduate course taught by Elisa Tamarkin, and never got over it. Then my first conference experience as a graduate student was “Circles and Circulations in the Revolutionary Atlantic World of Charles Brockden Brown” at NYU in 2004. The conference organizers took us to see an early American play. We discussed naming our iPods “Carwin.” My panel included Cristobal Silva, brilliant scholar and author of Miraculous Plagues (Oxford UP 2011), and now a dear friend. I was an early Americanist from then on.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
Almost all of them, but I’m especially drawn to writing that can seem like ephemeral musing on nature, while quietly engaging science and epistemology, and sometimes doing important (and still resonant) political work at that. There’s Thoreau and Emerson, Bartram even, but then there’s also a whole tradition of relatively neglected US women’s writings on coral reefs that works this way including Lydia Huntley Sigourney’s “The Coral Insect” (1826), Sarah Josepha Hale’s “The Coral Branch” (1834), and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s “The Little Builders” (1871).
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on the proofs of my new book called Coral Lives: Literature, Labor, and the Making of America, which is about coral and also about pre-1900 American political imaginings of labor, slavery, community, race, and other topics. It’s forthcoming in summer 2023 with Princeton University Press. The book has many origins, but one is a song about coral that sent me into the archives to understand what early Americans experienced and imagined when they encountered coral, which was a surprisingly familiar part of everyday life. What did coral mean to them? Why were encounters with coral frequently also occasions to think through some of the period’s most pressing political questions? The book seeks to answer these and other questions by bringing together literary studies and studies of material culture and race in North America and the broader Atlantic world—Robin Bernstein’s work is an important inspiration—while also bringing early American studies more centrally into the environmental humanities.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
Last year I taught M. NourbeSe Philip’s book-length poem Zong! (2008) in an interdisciplinary graduate seminar on oceans. Our collective efforts to think with it changed the way we read everything else on the syllabus that semester.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
The work of the late Lindon Barrett, recently made more widely available through Conditions of the Present (2018), edited by Janet Neary, stays with me and always brings me back to what matters most. But I think / hope that we all draw inspiration from all sorts of literary criticism in our field, past and present; I just re-read parts of American Renaissance (1941), for example, and found that inspiring, too.
Michele Navakas is Associate Professor of English, Miami University (Ohio).