Hymns and Hymnbooks

As a historical poetics scholar, I was drawn to the hymn as a topic for several reasons. It’s arguably the most widespread verse form in English during the 18th and 19th centuries. It connects with daily, institutional, and ritual life in powerful ways. And there’s very little scholarship on the hymn as a poetic form or as a dimension of religious history.

Drawing on scholarship in history of the book, lived religion, history of reading, and historical poetics, I pursue two main questions animating this research: what did people do with hymns besides sing them, and how did that use of hymns help create the culture of reading poetry that writers of British and American Romantic verse shared? These questions have led to the telling of two large stories, the history of (words-only) hymnbooks and their users, and the nature of the hymn as a poetic genre.

The first of these stories is the subject of The Hymnal Before the Notes: A History of Reading and Practice, forthcoming in 2018 from the Johns Hopkins University Press. Written for a general audience in a series of short, narrative-driven chapters, this book follows hymnbooks between the spaces of church, school, and home to find poetry, devotion, and the materiality of reading in action.

My current book-in-progress, Hymnic Reading, addresses the second story with a more theoretical approach to the hymn as a literary form. Much attention in recent poetry scholarship has focused on the meaning of lyric and the genres and practices that have been erased by the lyric’s rise to prominence among literary critics in the 20th century. My new project articulates a unique relationship between text and reader that both provides a history outside the lyric tradition and presents a new sense of how the lyric relates to other forms of poetry. It also engages recent work on post-secularism and post-critical reading as well as textual theory, showing that the hymn has much to offer literary studies, in some ways because of its long exile from the field.
Other Publications

Portions of my research on hymns has been published in the following venues:

“Early American Poetry,” in The Blackwell Companion to American Literature, eds. Susan Belasco, et al. (Malden, UK: Wiley Blackwell, forthcoming).

“Keeping the Sabbath at Home: Emily Dickinson’s Hymnody of Privacy,” in Above the American Renaissance, eds. Harold K. Bush and Brian Yothers (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, forthcoming 2018).

“Versifying African Methodism; or, What Did Early African-American Hymnbooks Do?” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 107.3 (Sept. 2013) 325-333.

“Cotton Mather Brings Isaac Watts’s Hymns to America; or, How to Perform a Hymn without Singing It,” New England Quarterly 85.2 (June 2012) 203-221.

Upcoming Presentations

I have presented on hymns and hymnbooks at numerous academic conferences and institutions as well as at churches. Here are a few upcoming presentations:

Historical Poetics Symposium, Connecticut College, November 9-10, 2017

Religion and Politics in Early American conference, St. Louis, MO, March 1-4, 2018


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