A few years ago, a graduate student told me, "I'm changing fields. I'm switching to the wacky world of Early American Studies."
A few weeks earlier, I had sent her to the microfilm rooms in the University of Minnesota's library with assignments she could complete only by plunging into documents she found there in the two Early American Imprints microfiche series. Commonly called "Evans" or "Shaw-Shoemaker" after the authors of the authoritative bibliographies on which the series were created, they include more than 70,000 items—all extant material printed in the colonies and early republic from 1639 to 1819.
After many hours peering at those curious old documents and their funny typefaces, she surfaced and announced that, despite expecting a wasteland of dry and stupefyingly boring texts, she had discovered in the microfiche a nearly unexplored world of writing that she called wacky but nevertheless found oddly wonderful. Her phrase recalls a famous article about student reaction to early American studies that Daniel Williams published in "Early American Literature": "Not enough Rambo Action."
I find that if I can get students into the actual early documents, they discover that it's all Rambo Action: pirates, soldiers, spies, kings, queens, revolutions, dark nights of the soul, invasions, war and peace, politics, captures and escapes and what we too casually would call religious fanatics. I could have told her so beforehand, but she probably wouldn't have believed me.
It took the collections available today in the Web-based Archive of Americana, along with other filmed databases, to involve my grad student with the primary texts that challenged and excited her. Today she could read these texts in her apartment. Because Readex has scanned and digitized Early American Imprints, Series I and II, 1639-1820 and Early American Newspapers, Series I, 1690-1876, making them available through university library Websites, she can enter that wacky world wherever and whenever she boots up a computer.
Today, moreover, I can set undergraduates to work in new ways. The anthology-textbook for my survey course necessarily distorts my subject. Because every textbook editor faces space-limitations, works I value pedagogically get omitted or truncated, and naturally no editor's biases perfectly match my own. I retain the anthology, but the digital Early American Imprints, Series I and II give undergraduates primary texts illuminating the anthology pieces that are absent from the textbook. For example, most anthologies represent the "captivity narrative" by one tale, Mary Rowlandson's harrowing story. Yet, Early American Imprints, Series I lists 155 titles under "captivity narratives," including different editions of Rowlandson's.
Naturally, I have students read Rowlandson, but they also read Cotton Mather's "Humiliations Follow'd with Deliverances." They spot it immediately in Early American Imprints, Series I on the "Genre" browse page in the list of captivity narratives. Mather prints other narratives of women captives, particularly those of Hannah Dustan and Hanna Swarton, and he interprets their predicaments allegorically.
Dustan's and Swarton's experiences differ markedly from Rowlandson's. The same page in Series I lists Francis Brooks's "Barbary captivity narrative". That introduces Africa into the mix. Just below Brooks, they notice John Williams's "The Redeemed Captive"—a man's Indian captivity experience. Now we no longer have just a text; we have a topic. We have taken a step into the wacky world of early America, and today the students and I never have to leave home to go there.