One of the challenges—but also one of the joys—of teaching classes on colonial American literature is that students often enter the classroom with few preconceived notions and little background knowledge in the period. As my comments on my course evaluations have attested, students are often surprised to find that early American literary study involves not just the Puritans but also the study of authors of various genders and cultural and social backgrounds. Because most students have little prior exposure to early American literatures, my courses must address not only the content matter and themes of the texts but must also teach students to read texts written with unfamiliar literary strategies and for very different audiences than twenty-first century college students. Early American Imprints, Series I (Evans) and II (Shaw-Shoemaker), offer a treasure trove of documents that introduce students not only to a wide range of texts and topics but also to research skills necessary to study in the Humanities.
For the past several years, I have incorporated a research assignment centered on the resources in Early American Imprints into my graduate and undergraduate courses. All students choose a text related to the course topic—past areas of focus have included “Medicine and Literature”; “Conquest and Consumption”; and “Travel, Climate, and Race.” Undergraduate students begin by using the “Subjects” tab in Early American Imprints to browse various sub-topics and then to choose a relevant text; this mode of searching allows students to familiarize themselves with the archive without becoming overwhelmed. They next analyze their text in several stages, by doing secondary research to answer questions about its production, its content, and its genre and by writing a critical annotation of the text that they post on a course wiki. They comment on their peers’ annotations before each presenting their research on one of the last class days. Graduate students write a longer “research findings paper” on several documents from Early American Imprints, in which they establish the historical and literary contexts in which the texts were produced before analyzing the texts’ treatment of the course topic. Graduate students frequently build upon this research in their final seminar papers.
Working with Early American Imprints helps students to put the course readings in conversation with a wide variety of documents. Furthermore, the assignment asks students to consider how, if at all, their text fits into or complicates their understanding of early American literatures, based on the semester’s reading. Students sometimes found that their text supported discussions that had already taken place in class, but they also expanded their understanding of the course themes. For example, a graduate student in a course on conceptions of identity in early America, from environmental to biological and racist theories, found that colonial writers gave the early American landscape spiritual—as well as cultural and material—significance. By focusing on two very popular forms, execution sermons and captivity narratives, she explored the ways in which the landscape and “wilderness” reflected moral lessons even while serving as a place in which immoral acts could take place. Judgment was manifested publically, however, on sinners’ bodies. In one sermon, for example, “A sermon, preached at the execution of Abiel Converse, who was executed at Northampton for the murder of her infant bastard child, July 6th, 1788. By Aaron Bascom, A.M. Pastor of the church in Chester,” the minister explained that God would “tear” the people “to pieces” unless they heeded his word.
In addition to reading texts they otherwise might not encounter, students expanded their understanding of literary genres and forms in early America, and they obtained a deeper understanding of the connections between literary form and knowledge in early America. I asked both graduate and undergraduate students to identify the literary strategies in their texts and to speculate about why these literary strategies were chosen. For research projects in an undergraduate course on “Conquest and Consumption,” students explored a variety of texts that critiqued forms of consumption, from cannibalism, to smoking tobacco, to eating sugar—which, anti-slave trade activists argued, was akin to consuming slaves’ bodies directly. One student commented on the connection between epistolary forms and gruesome images of slavery, suggesting that the shocking images had additional force given the author’s direct address to readers. In a course on “Medicine and Literature,” students commented on images of balance and temperance in an instructional pamphlet for physicians, noting that physicians’ vision of a healthy, populous nation participated in U.S. Americans’ process of defining their identity after the American Revolution.
These research projects reorient students’ understanding of the “author” and illuminate the importance of publishers, the relation between oral and printed versions of texts, and the professional and informal networks that connected people in early America. For example, an undergraduate student working on Quaker anti-slavery writings found that no author was listed for the text, requiring her to focus on the publisher instead and to map out the publisher’s network and interest in anti-slavery debates. Meanwhile, a graduate student found that the anonymous author of a text on the moon’s influence on climate footnoted a treatise on fevers, a text that she had also analyzed for her project.
At the same time, the project motivates students to expand their research skills. The assignment asks undergraduate students to consider the following set of questions: “When and where was the text published? By whom? What can you discover about the author?” Many students found that a Google search failed to locate pertinent information about their text and its publisher and author, with the result that they often turned to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography or to printed sources in order to complete the assignment.
It is increasingly possible to find excellent contemporary editions of early American texts with very useful critical and historical frameworks. However, one repercussion of these developments is that it is more difficult for students to comprehend the wide variety of texts published before 1900 in their contexts of production and consumption and to analyze the material qualities of these texts: their format, typesetting, and marginal matter. Early American Imprints makes it possible for students to observe firsthand the range and number of publications from early America, thus enriching both their understanding of colonial literatures and of research in the Humanities.
Acknowledgments: Thanks to students in the following courses for their inquisitive minds and excellent research: ENGL 3912 (Spring and Fall 2011), Honors ENGL 4900, and ENGL 5730. Thanks especially to Latoya Gordon, Darcy Lewis, and April Murphy for giving me permission to review their research papers for this article.