Traces of Early America: Conference Recap


Today’s post is a joint effort between two contributors to The Junto: Michael Blaakman and Sara Damiano. 

Three years ago, during a graduate-seminar discussion of Prosperos America, Walter Woodward’s study of Puritans and alchemy, John Demos made a bold and challenging point.[1] After a century or so of professional scholarship, many of American history’s most obvious stories have been told in the ways it seems easiest to tell them. One of the greatest tasks for the rising generation of historians, Demos suggested, is to search beneath the surface of things for stories yet untold—for processes, events, ideas, and dynamics that subsequent history has largely obscured, and that often pose significant evidentiary problems for those who wish to write about them. In other words, the next generation of scholars will have to try harder than their predecessors to ask new questions and to find new methods for wringing answers out of the sources.

Woodward’s book was a great example of what Demos had in mind. It focused on the surprising juncture of New England Puritans’ proto-modern Calvinist orthodoxy and their decidedly pre-modern magical beliefs. Moreover, it made convincing hay of sketchy sources. Since alchemists believed that their scientific knowledge held great power, they tried their hardest to keep it secret. The result is an alchemy-shaped hole in the archival record—one that Woodward confronted head-on by tracing the outlines of what seventeenth-century documents omit in an attempt to understand a mental world inhabited by people who actively worked to render that world unknowable.

The scholarship on display at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies’s biannual graduate-student conference, gathered this year around the theme “Traces of Early America,” indicates that the field’s young historians are rising to the challenge Demos outlined. As Nicole Eustace observed in her keynote address, the conference’s best papers overturned longstanding assumptions, collapsed artificial binaries, found substance in form, sought stories in unexpected places, and—we would add—bravely confronted problematic evidence. In so doing, young scholars are “peering around the screen” that appears in the conference’s iconography, Eustace said, turning as-yet-under-appreciated traces of the past into new arguments about early America.

Some of the conference’s most engaging papers demonstrated that early-career scholars are eager and able to teach us about aspects of early America that left only the barest of traces. Lindsay Keiter, for instance, looked to the mutilated diary of a nineteenth-century plantation mistress for evidence of how one woman dealt with the indiscretion of emotional adultery. If journaling represented a means to self-actualization for early American women, Keiter suggested that the diarist’s careful excision of the portion of the diary that chronicled her infatuation with a young plantation missionary represented a “physical manifestation of her struggle with sin”—an act of self-immolation and violence against the documentary record that in itself speaks volumes.

Alex Manevitz turned to broader processes of erasure and revisionism, examining the little-known history of Seneca Village. A nineteenth-century immigrant community in the heart of Manhattan, Seneca Village existed from roughly 1820 until the 1850s, when city officials and planners disbanded it to make way for Central Park. Manevitz posited several reasons why the history of Seneca Village was so quickly forgotten, ranging from the limited survival of sources and physical evidence to our tendency to sanitize messy stories of New York City’s development. In a paper presentation of unmatched charisma, Colin Hogan scrutinized grammatical shifts in Alexander Hamilton’s History of the Ancient and Honorable Tuesday Club to uncover traces of queer life in early America. Hamilton’s intense and iterative sentences replicate the witty intellectual banter of club homosociality. But in describing one ostentatious and female-averse club member, Hamilton’s style becomes more deliberate, descriptive, and sensory. When discussing a queerish friend, Hogan argued, Hamilton’s “normative style” was itself “queered.”

Two particularly intrepid papers seized on evidence of devotional practices—the documentary traces of which typically strike many of us, at least, as lethally inane—to open up new and surprising avenues of inquiry. Joseph Beatty seized on an extant devotional manuscript in Arabic as the touchstone for a microhistory of an African Muslim in the Georgia Sea Islands. When the British invaded during the War of 1812, this enslaved slave driver’s Muslim identity apparently precluded him from identifying and collaborating with the plantation’s restive Christian slaves. He pledged loyalty to the slaveowner. In an unorthodox argument that resonates fascinatingly with new work by Alan Taylor and Jim Downs, Beatty suggested that this enslaved man “articulated and preserved his own identity” not through escape, but through obedience.[2] David Grant Smith opened his paper with the seemingly eccentric figure of eighteenth-century Beverly, Massachusetts diarist Robert Hale. In his journal, Hale produced new lists and charts each time he read the Bible, creating, for instance, an alphabetical index of all names that appeared within its pages, and a list of all biblical sacrifices, converted to present-day values in pounds. Smith used Hale’s diary to raise broader questions about eighteenth-century New Englanders’ worldviews, and spent the rest of his paper charting a shift from thematic, non-chronological history-writing in the seventeenth century to more linear narratives in the eighteenth-century. According to Smith, Hale’s diary, while seemingly anomalous, makes sense within this larger eighteenth-century taxonomic impulse.

Other papers dug beneath the apparent surface of things past by uniting categories we typically pose as opposites. Jonathan Wilson interpreted post-Revolutionary literary representations of private domestic life as an attempt to stitch a diverse and distant people into a single American character and American public. In collapsing public and private through narratives that spun together family dramas and provincial history, Wilson argued, the literature of the early republic sought “to make a public more conscious of itself.” Nora Slonimsky, too, brought together literature and politics, revealing a highly charged battle over copyright law in the early republic—one that pitted different regions, different conceptions of property, and different ideas about how to create a socially productive competitive market against each other.

Emily Merrill’s paper combined the often-opposed categories of military and social history into an exploration of the surprising ways in which Revolutionary-era women and racial minorities in occupied cities used British military courts to obtain justice. Dylan Reudiger argued that, for seventeenth-century English colonists, love for and coercion of Native Americans mingled in a political concatenation, the roots of which stretched back to feudalism. English people disagreed about the proper calibration of love and fear in dealing with Indians. But affect, Reudiger insisted, remained at the center of the colonial project. Finally, in her wide-ranging keynote address, Nicole Eustace demonstrated the many ways in which emotions, not rational critique, drove politics in the new nation. Among other things, Eustace argued—contra Habermas and Anderson—that emotions are “value neutral” in politics. They represent an important factor in explaining our subjects’ motives, but those motives are not always corrosive; in early American politics, both nationalist demagogues and idealist reformers were actuated by and played upon emotions.

These and many other stellar papers—too many, unfortunately, to each mention here—made “Traces of Early America” an exciting and enriching conference. Early-career scholars, the conference made clear, are building on the work of previous generations by questioning the categories we often uncritically use to sort our knowledge of the past, by remaining undaunted in the face of scarce or opaque sources, and by discovering corners of early America we barely knew existed. We invite you to continue the discussion here at The Junto. You can trace the weekend’s conversations through the conference program and through the live-Tweets collected by McNeil Center fellow Ben Breen. (Thanks, Ben!) And you can pose questions or thoughts in the comments section below; we’ll trace down the presenters and invite them to respond.


[1] Walter W. Woodward, Prospero’s America: John Winthrop, Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606-1676 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

[2] Alan Taylor, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2013); Jim Downs, “Race” in “Forum: The Future of Civil War Era Studies,” Journal of the Civil War Era (March 2012), online version [accessed 2 October 2013].


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