Poetic Faith, 2016 edition: Introduction

Last summer, I devised an imaginary seminar titled “Poetic Faith” to guide myself through a mass of readings on topics related broadly to my research. I’ve found myself drawing on that reading throughout this past year, but I also wished I could go back and finish the syllabus, as the final weeks’ work was interrupted by other preparations for our Great Trek across the country.

Now, a cross-country trip and a Philadelphia research residency later, I’m back in Easton for part of the summer before heading up to Worcester, MA this August to start a year’s residency at the American Antiquarian Society as an ACLS Burkhardt Fellow. It’s still hard to believe I’m getting to do this, and hard to wrap my head around everything that needs doing to move for a year, finish two books, and start a third. And there’s lots of reading that I want to do. Again.

This brings me to a new edition of the Poetic Faith seminar. Following a similar four-week format to last year, I will take a somewhat meandering journey through some stacks of books that I have recently discovered or been wanting to read, broadly related to my research and falling into four somewhat arbitrary categories.

Week one (this week) focuses on recent scholarship on early American poetry. Some of the readings go a bit beyond just talking about poetry—future neighbor Meredith Neumann’s excellent Jeremiah’s Scribes explores Puritan sermon and script culture, while Matthew Brown’s The Pilgrim and the Bee (a rare re-read for a Poetic Faith syllabus) takes up the subject of “reader-oriented literary history” through devotional literature. Michael Cohen’s The Social Lives of Poems in 19th-Century America was one of the books I didn’t get to last summer, and while I’ve read the first few chapters this spring, and even though it’s not “early American,” it made the list, too. Full disclosure: I’m writing an essay on the state of the field in early American poetry this summer, and this week is helping to feed my not-quite-filled-out draft of that essay.

Week two takes up reading as its theme, generally along one of three lines of thought: literacy studies (how people learned to read), child studies (new and emerging readers, both as agents and imagined figures), and reader-response criticism (remember that one, lit folks?). Some highlights I’m especially excited about: Patricia Crain’s brand-new Reading Children, with an entire chapter on marks children made in their books in the 18th and 19th centuries; Catherine Robson’s Heart Beats, a study of cultures of memorizing and reciting poetry; and Stanley Fish’s Doing What Comes Naturally, a book I bought as an undergraduate when I was on my initial law-and-literature kick and that I’m now circling back to because I’m interesting in reading. Life is funny.

The topic for Week three leapt at me in late May when Mark Mattes gave a talk on the word “Intermedial” at the McNeil Center’s Early American Literature and Material Texts conference at UPenn. After his talk, he said to me, “Your work is totally intermedial.” I agreed, and asked for reading recommendations. (By the way, intermedial is basically how different kinds of media interact with and affect each other—film adaptation and literary illustration are two examples of what intermedialists[?] study.) Those make up the core of this reading list, mainly theorist-scholars from Germany and other European nations. To season this heady mix I’m adding in Sandra Gustafson and Caroline Sloat’s collection Cultural Narratives, which focuses on intersections of print and performance, and the near-instant classic How to Do Things With Books in Victorian England by Leah Price (a book I love and fear and hope to find a way to get past using this intermedial stuff).

The final week returns to the faith issue that focused so much of the original syllabus, with the topic Devotion and the Secular. This will include G. B. Tennyson’s classic study Victorian Devotional Poetry, more Paul Ricoeur, a history of lectio divina, some great work on the Wesleys’ approach to hymnody, and John Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America. This last book has generated a lot of buzz in and around religious studies circles, as it redirects a big part of the secularization narrative of American cultural history, using Moby-Dick as the fulcrum. I’ve read the introduction, and it wields some serious Foucault and a style that will just about guarantee that nobody outside the academy will “get it.” Let’s see how I do.

As I said last year, blogging will supplement my note-taking to help me make sure I give an account of this study. If you wish to read along, or comment on anything, please do so. A draft of the syllabus is linked below. And be warned: I may like this enough to keep doing it every year.

Poetic Faith syllabus 2

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