Today’s post is part of our series marking the 75th anniversary of the Omohundro Institute by exploring the OI books that have had an impact on a scholar’s life.
by Christy Pottroff
If you ask me, the best way to drive from New York City to Boston is to take the Hutchinson River Parkway. Not only is it the first stretch of a shorter and more scenic route, but it comes with its own early American poetic justice: to get to John Winthrop’s Boston, you must first drive along a parkway named for Anne Hutchinson. This automotive revival of the Antinomian Controversy has come to my mind often over the course of the past academic year. I moved from New York to Boston for my new job, and driving up and down these roads has opened up rich imaginative terrain—and, given their geography, the roads allow me to explore my relationship to early American literature. Somewhere north of the Bronx, invariably, I stage an imaginative scene in which Anne Hutchinson delivers a fiery speech in the face of men who want to silence her. She is strong and eloquent, delivering words like blows to disorder the long standing textual authority of Winthrop and his fellow patriarchs. It might not be a blockbuster daydream, but it’s good respite from the parade of license plates and brake lights.
This bold-speaking Anne Hutchinson first came to life for me in Sandra Gustafson’s Eloquence is Power: Oratory & Performance in Early America (2000). The first chapter of Gustafson’s book offers a case study of Anne Hutchinson’s disruptive speech power. Listening for her voice in records authored by those who wanted to silence her, Gustafson shows how Hutchinson retained “the positive associations of women’s spirituality and sexuality as figurations of authentic voice while suppressing the hostile interpretive tradition derived from the misogynist literature” (25). In this way, Hutchinson is the author of a rhetorical countertradition to the Puritan sermon. The case study lavishes attention on the particular affordances of speech and writing and the interplay between the two in many different early American contexts. Like a parkway and a city, Gustafson considers speech and text as formally different systems that operate according to their own set of rules. You can’t move through a city in the same way you drive along a parkway (you read me, Boston drivers?!). And yet, these separate systems—written and spoken, city and parkway—are nevertheless bound together and should be understood through their relationality.
This lesson was especially poignant for me in my first encounter with Eloquence is Power because I read it as part of my preparation for my oral exams. I spent the entire semester sitting in coffee shops, reading early and nineteenth-century American literature. I spent days and weeks in the company of really good books; my head and notebooks were swimming with Ben Franklin aphorisms, Moby Dick plot points, and Americanist scholarship. It was one of my favorite semesters of graduate school. Until, that is, I realized I was preparing for the oral exam all wrong. A few weeks before the big day, I asked a friend to practice with me—and I found myself struggling to provide passable answers to her questions. In most cases, it wasn’t that I didn’t know the material. Rather, I struggled to articulate authoritative responses in oral form. I rambled and “ummed” my way through the questions. Despite having read Gustafson’s book, I had not yet practiced oratory as its own kind of performance, and simply expected my experiences with these texts would simply translate themselves into clear, cogent responses. In the weeks that remained, I channelled lessons I’d learned from Eloquence is Power into my own exam practice.
Back on the Hutchinson River Parkway, a few miles north of my Anne Hutchinson fantasy, low arched stone bridges cross the road at regular intervals. These bridges are part of an early twentieth-century design strategy aimed to create the impression of driving through a vast pastoral landscape. The rustic bridges are charming enough, but their true function is in their exclusionary design. These and other parkway bridges are seated so low that commercial vehicles could not possibly pass beneath them. Just as planned, low bridges kept noisy trucks from disrupting the parkway aesthetic–and they also prohibited bus travel on these roads, barring low-income travellers without cars from certain spaces. In fact, Robert Moses ordered engineers to design the bridges on the Southern State Parkway on Long Island extra-low to keep poor people from visiting Jacob Riis Park in the Rockaways by bus. The bridges enforce an aesthetic through a series of quiet and pernicious exclusions.
In this way, the Hutchinson River Parkway holds yet another resonance with Eloquence is Power in my mind. Textuality—like these parkway bridges—can function as an exclusionary design within literary studies. Only the powerful and the lucky had access to technologies of textual production in early America, and Native American and African American cultures employed different systems of meaning-making altogether. Literature in its limited textual forms was written primarily by and for white men. By centering early American oratory in particular, Eloquence is Power revives the contributions of a range of Native American orators like Samson Occom, Hendrick Aupumut, and Canassatego. Gustafson expands the province of literary studies to better suit the multimedia and multicultural world of early America by breaking down the barrier of textuality. Of course, Gustafson is not alone in this expansive approach to early American literary studies. Christopher Looby, Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, and many others move beyond textuality to consider how other forms of knowledge are crafted and performed as instruments of power and authority. Each of these scholars is continually instructive for my own research in this way. Attention to practices and performances altogether off the page can help us appreciate the full range of labor, creativity, and social exchange required to both transmit knowledge and bring narratives to life.
Many miles after the Hutchinson Parkway ends, you’ll find your way to Boston, not a stone’s throw from the place where John Adams spoke the words that title Gustafson’s book. In Cambridge in 1805, Adams challenged Harvard students to revive the lost art of political eloquence as a source of power. “The voice of eloquence will not be heard in vain,” Adams rhapsodizes, “under governments purely republican, where every citizen has a deep interest in the affairs of the nation” (quoted in Gustafson xiii). Adams’s words ring a bit hollow in our current political climate. Donald Trump is profoundly ineloquent: his sentences are grammatically awkward, repetitive, and composed of highly simplistic words. For those of us who care about language, his way of speaking is often a site of derision; for some constituencies, however, his way of speaking is a sign that he’s genuine, someone who will “tell it like it is.” These contrastive interpretations of Trump’s ineloquence illustrate the ways that oratory continues to shape the way we think about social power and authenticity in the United States. In this way, Gustafson’s work is especially instructive for us twenty-first century readers who think about the semiotics of speech, tweets, emails, videos, and their relationship to power and authenticity.
Christy Pottroff is an assistant professor of English at Merrimack College where she teaches courses in early American literature and film studies. Follow Christy and her students as they search for Anne Bradstreet’s lost burial site near their campus this fall on Twitter, Facebook, and their blog.