Empowering Words

Empowering Words: Outsiders and Authorship in Early America

KAREN A. WEYLER
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 304
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt46ngjf
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  • Book Info
    Empowering Words
    Book Description:

    Standing outside elite or even middling circles, outsiders who were marginalized by limitations on their freedom and their need to labor for a living had a unique grasp on the profoundly social nature of print and its power to influence public opinion. In Empowering Words, Karen A. Weyler explores how outsiders used ephemeral formats such as broadsides, pamphlets, and newspapers to publish poetry, captivity narratives, formal addresses, and other genres with wide appeal in early America. To gain access to print, outsiders collaborated with amanuenses and editors, inserted their stories into popular genres and cheap media, tapped into existing social and religious networks, and sought sponsors and patrons. They wrote individually, collaboratively, and even corporately, but writing for them was almost always an act of connection. Disparate levels of literacy did not necessarily entail subordination on the part of the lessliterate collaborator. Even the minimally literate and the illiterate understood the potential for print to be life changing, and outsiders shrewdly employed strategies to assert themselves within collaborative dynamics. Empowering Words covers an array of outsiders including artisans; the minimally literate; the poor, indentured, or enslaved; and racial minorities. By focusing not only on New England, the traditional stronghold of early American literacy, but also on southern towns such as Williamsburg and Charleston, Weyler limns a more expansive map of early American authorship.

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-4325-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. Introduction Outsider Authorship in Early America
    (pp. 1-24)

    Just eight years before Phillis Wheatley’s image appeared on the cover of Bickerstaff’s Boston Almanack, for the Year of Our Redemption, 1782, celebrating her as Boston’s most famous poet, another enslaved Phillis languished in Virginia under much less fortuitous conditions of servitude. An advertisement that ran for several weeks in the January 1774 Virginia Gazette, edited by Clementina Rind, announces:

    RUN away from the subscriber, in October last, a middle sized Negro woman, named PHILLIS, and was late the property of Counsellor Carter; she is about 35 years of age, has a few specks of black about the lower part...

  6. Chapter 1 Mourning New England: Phillis Wheatley and the Broadside Elegy
    (pp. 25-75)

    Phillis Wheatley is the most renowned of the figures in Empowering Words, crossing and recrossing traditional disciplinary boundaries among American, African American, and British literature and women’s studies, just as Wheatley herself traversed the Atlantic, moving from Africa to America, to England, and back to America. The circulation of Wheatley’s physical body, her texts, and her reputation suggests the rich complexity of exploring how and why Wheatley entered into print as she did. Wheatley’s remarkable journeys earned the admiration of her contemporaries and made her an enduring symbol of the potentiality of Africans. As such, she functions as a wonderful...

  7. Chapter 2 An “Englishman under English Colours”: Briton Hammon, John Marrant, and the Fungibility of Christian Faith
    (pp. 76-113)

    The varied strategies that Phillis Wheatley employed to navigate her way into the Anglo-American literary scene—sophisticated mastery of the English language, support from powerful patrons, carefully planned literacy events, emphasis on her evangelical faith, deployment of the wildly popular Christian elegy, and use of the inexpensive medium of the broadside and later a poetry collection—ensured her appeal and access to both the elite and ordinary people. These strategies enabled Wheatley’s works to infiltrate the regional New England market as well as metropolitan London. Most of these publishing strategies, however, simply were not available en masse to American outsiders...

  8. Chapter 3 “Common, Plain, Every Day Talk” from “An Uncommon Quarter”: Samson Occom and the Language of the Execution Sermon
    (pp. 114-144)

    “What folly and madness is it in me,” Samson Occom asks, “to suffer any thing of mine to appear in print, to expose my ignorance to the world?” Occom was neither a fool nor ignorant. Instead, in the preface to his best-selling 1772 A Sermon, Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, An Indian, he models the humility typical of eighteenth-century prefaces, especially those written by outsiders.¹ Like Phillis Wheatley and John Marrant, the Mohegan minister Samson Occom occupied a crucial physical and racial space in the evangelical empire, as his ministry engaged northeastern Christians while keeping the needs of...

  9. Chapter 4 Becoming “The American Heroine”: Deborah Sampson, Collaboration, and Performance
    (pp. 145-164)

    While Briton Hammon and John Marrant relied on collaboration to produce their captivity narratives, Deborah Sampson, a female Revolutionary War soldier, took collaboration to new levels with a biography, an address, and poetry, even though only one of these texts bears her name as author. Consequently, she challenges our understanding of what constitutes authorship, especially as it intersects with cultural performance. Where Hammon, Marrant, and Phillis Wheatley invoke literacy and Christianity to claim an Anglo-American identity, Sampson invokes nationalism, patriotism, and genealogy. Like the profession of Christianity, these modes of self-identification were available and empowering even to poor outsiders like...

  10. Chapter 5 “To Proceed with Spirit”: Clementina Rind and the Virginia Gazette
    (pp. 165-203)

    The desperate financial need motivating Deborah Sampson and so many other hopeful participants in late eighteenth-century print is poignant, especially given our hindsight that it would be difficult for Americans to profit, much less make a living, as writers until at least the 1810s. Clementina Rind, printer of Thomas Jefferson’s A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), holder of the contract for public printing in Virginia, and, most important for my purposes, editor of Williamsburg’s Virginia Gazette from 1773 to 1774, was a rare exception to this rule, although even she labored under debt throughout her tenure...

  11. Chapter 6 When Barbers Wrote Books: Mechanic Societies and Authorship
    (pp. 204-230)

    This chapter brings Empowering Words full circle. For Americans outside the elite ranks of society such as Phillis Wheatley, Briton Hammon, John Marrant, Samson Occom, Deborah Sampson, and Clementina Rind, writing brought symbolic and social capital. For the mechanic class, however, the social capital they gained from organizing professionally and politically during and immediately after the American Revolution led to writing as they contended for their place in the national imaginary. “Strike the type-founder, the printer and the manufacturers of paper and parchment, out of the system,” John Howland asked in 1810, “and what would become of the republic of...

  12. Conclusion Uncovering Other Outsider Authors
    (pp. 231-234)

    For outsiders, the medium always mattered. The questions behind Empowering Words emerged while I was writing Intricate Relations: Sexual and Economic Desire in American Fiction, 1789–1814. The majority of early American novels were written by literate, well-read individuals of middling economic status. Eighteenth-century outsiders may have read novels, but they did not write them. Books were simply too costly for them, either to write or to publish. As I explored the fiction that emerged from American presses beginning in 1789 with William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy, as U.S. presses dramatically increased their rate of annual production, I...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 235-280)
  14. Works Cited
    (pp. 281-300)
  15. Index
    (pp. 301-311)