Welcome to the first of what will be a series of short essays on the present and future(s) of American Literature that I’ll be writing during the last week of each month during my tenure as Director of Anglophone/American Literature for the Northeast Modern Language Association (NEMLA). These essays are meant to give members of NEMLA a better sense of my scholarly background and outline the direction I hope to take the Anglophone/American literature division while serving as director. They are also an opportunity for members of this NEMLA division to share their own thoughts on American literature either through submitting comments, quotations for me to insert into the writing, or through guest posts.
In this first essay, I’d like to focus mostly on introducing myself to the members of the NEMLA Anglophone/American Literature division. My interest in American Literature developed out of a fascination with United States history. As a child I spent most of my summers with my grandparents and my grandfather and uncle Paul (who lived with him) had a sizable collection of books. Among them were illustrated volumes on the history of the U.S. Civil War and stories written by explorers of the western states. (The journals of Lewis and Clark are still among my favorite things to read.) I pored over those narratives and spent hours staring at the pictures in each book. Both spurred my imagination about what life must have been like for people living in the United States during the nineteenth century.
Coming from this background, it would have been natural for me to pursue a degree in history, but the social and cultural history that now dominates that discipline today was not yet common on the college campuses to which I applied. History programs in those schools seemed dominated more with facts and figures than the stories of ordinary people and the ways in which they understood their world (often at odds with the facts). As luck would have it, the English department at both the graduate and undergraduate schools I attended encouraged students to explore narrative as an extension of the self and the world that writers inhabit. I found a writer that interested me in the first semester of my graduate studies, John William De Forest, and the rest is part of my own history. That author and the method of literary study I had pursued since early on as a student would lead me to write a book that exemplifies my historically influenced approach to the study of literature, New Men.
A fascination with the context of literary production remains a constant in my scholarly life, but the topics I research are diverse. There are many veterans in my family and my grandfather’s obsession with military history shaped my reading habits from an early age. This led me first to essays and a book on veterans in the nineteenth and early twentieth-century United States. Growing up in Vermont also made me very much attuned to the environment and I’m currently conducting research for a new book on farming practices in the nineteenth-century United States and how those practices often clashed with the mythology of farming that many small farmer’s had imbibed from an early age. I suppose if there is any link between this new avenue of inquiry and the prior one, it is in the personal connection that stirred the desire to research the topic. There are also meaningful links here between the mythology of war and the warrior and that of the farmer. Few images seem quite as “American” as the citizen-soldier and the family farmer.
The courses I teach also serve as grounds for me to explore other areas of interest. These have included at various times: detective fiction, Westerns, Chicago literature, historic preservation, ecology, urban planning, and so on…. None of these interests have developed into a book (yet), but I have sent nearly a generation of students out the doors of my classrooms more attuned to these issues. I am especially proud to have introduced to hundreds of undergraduates the uncanny significance of space when it is re-crafted for human needs(often referred to as human geography). Few of my students ever look at their environment in quite the same way again after having attended my class. One even wrote me a few semesters ago with a story about a poorly designed pedestrian mall in their hometown.
Some might argue that my eclectic research interests explain why I remain a non-tenure eligible faculty member (i.e. a Lecturer rather than an Associate Professor). Perhaps that’s true, but the glory of humanities research is not in the categorization. Instead it is in its ability to break and reshape categories. I guess that explains my recent fascination with Digital Humanities, which probably won’t save the humanities as a whole but certainly will force us to rethink the dominant paradigms shaping our various fields of study. Who knows, maybe someday what I’m writing now will be considered an essay and not simply a “blog post” (insert disdainful noises here) by the academic establishment.
Anyway, this is who I am dear NEMLA members. Passionate about what I do and quirky as hell. It’s a pleasure to meet you all virtually and I look forward to seeing many of you in person in Hartford, Connecticut.
Until next time…