My research has always been broadly interdisciplinary. Whether talking about the weird rivalry between Mark Twain and Mary Baker Eddy or looking at how modern Russian readers respond to Theodore Dreiser’s The Financier, I tend to look for the methodologies best suited to answer the questions I am asking while hopefully also engaging those questions in interesting or counter-intuitive ways. Though I am trained in the literature field, my work tends to have an historicist or even empiricist—rather than interpretive—bent. I make broad use of archives and have lately begun using analytics as a means of unlocking reception histories.
Dissertation and First Book
But Now I See: Christian Science and American Literary History is the first book to examine the connections between Christian Science and the American literary canon in all of their rich historical complexity, drawing on newly available primary material from the Mary Baker Eddy Library in Boston. This project began as a dissertation defended in 2012 under the title, “Religious Healing in the Progressive Era.” The book version is much revised and features two completely new chapters.
Founded by Mary Baker Eddy in 1866, the Church of Christ, Scientist was one of the fastest growing and most controversial religious movements in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. Due to their adherence to a form of idealism that deemed the body and its symptoms unreal and the mere projections of mental states, Christian Scientists eschewed modern medical treatment, ran afoul of the professional medical establishment, and were the targets of journalists and other public figures who saw it as a threat to modern society. But because of its ability to blend biblical Christianity with transcendental romanticism and the rhetoric of modern science, this movement also achieved a certain level of intellectual respectability and exerted a demonstrable but underappreciated impact on U.S. culture and literature.
The book examines that impact through the narratives that were produced around Christian Science, focusing particularly on the lives and work of Frances Hodgson Burnett, Mark Twain and Theodore Dreiser along with the writers who participated in the early-twentieth-century “muckraking” of Christian Science, including Upton Sinclair and Willa Cather. My contention is that literary history is a particularly useful lens through which to examine the cultural impact of Christian Science because of the centrality of narrative to the movement’s appeals to potential converts. At the center of Christian Science and all of the talk that surrounds it are stories of sickness and healing. These “restitution narratives,” as Arthur Frank calls them, had social as well as individual implications, as stories about physical healing were so often linked to broader narratives of human progress. It is the argument of this book that the stories produced in and around the Christian Science movement – whether critical or supportive – were engaged in offering restitution for a society deeply in need of healing. At the heart of this controversy was not a battle between religious traditionalism and modernity (as the religion vs. science debate is so often framed) but rather a struggle over modernity’s master narratives of progress.
But Now I See is currently under contract with Indiana University Press for their Religion in North America series. The final manuscript is finished and set to be delivered in mid-October. In detailing their rationale for accepting the book, the referees highlighted its original thesis and interdisciplinary appeal. Work related to this project has been published in recent issues of Literature Compass, Book History, Studies in the Novel and American Literary Realism.
My work on Christian Science is still ongoing. I have also been asked to contribute an article on the literary reputation of Harold Frederic, who died in the care of two Christian Scientists in 1899, to an upcoming special issue of Nineteenth-Century Literature on new religious movements. I expect to continue examining Christian Science and related movements in the context of nineteenth-century epistemology. Namely, through their combination of hard-core metaphysical idealism and their commitment to empirical demonstration of the efficacy of their beliefs in changing the health and well-being of individuals, these movements served as an interesting bridge between romanticism and pragmatism. Their counter-intuitive place in the philosophical landscape of the period is reflected in who came to their defense, namely pragmatist like William James (somewhat expected) and avowed materialists like Theodore Dreiser (less expected). Indeed, Christian Scientists seem to have encountered far less pushback from figures like James than they did from the romanticists – Emerson and Alcott – with whom they are typically associated.
I have also begun to pursue a secondary research interest that emerged as a consequence of spending a significant time in Russia. I began organizing MLA panels on “The Global English Department” starting with the 2015 Convention as a way of bringing together teacher-scholars who are doing their work outside the places in which English is traditionally spoken. We will be doing this panel for a third year in a row at the 2017 Convention in Philadelphia. These panels have led to further collaborations. I have promised to contribute essays to two edited collections that are seeking publishers, and my colleague Myles Chilton and I have a proposal before the Editorial Board of PMLA to edit a special edition of “The Changing Profession” section.
In two articles in progress, I have also begun responding to Chilton and Samun Gupta’s call for “bottom-up,” reception- rather than production-oriented approaches to the research and teaching of English literature outside the Anglosphere. The conversations in the discipline of American Literature – In particular on transnationalism and the “worlding” of American Literature – have tended to presume a universally stable canon or, at the very least, a canon that can be observed and described. I have begun using search engine analytics as a method of exploring the local dimensions of canons, following the clues offered by the data as to which pieces of that canon actually do travel and why.
This has led me to the specific case of American naturalists in Russia. The data show, in fact, that Jack London and Theodore Dreiser enjoy a higher degree of popularity in the Soviet successor states (not only Russia but Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Belorussia) than they do in the U.S. Indeed, Russian-speakers show a particular fondness for novels, such as London’s Martin Eden, that seem to have been all but abandoned by American readers and critics. Certainly part of the reason for this has to do with the socialist leanings of each of these writers. Dreiser, in fact, visited the Soviet Union in 1927 and later became a member of the American Communist Party. Affection for these authors, however, predates the Revolution and has survived the Soviet Union’s collapse. In addition to drawing upon Russian-language biographies and critical essays, I analyze user reviews from sites like Goodreads and livelib.ru in order to get a sense of how modern Russian-speakers engage with these novels. In the case of The Financier, for example, we can see that this novel that was once seen as an anti-capitalist diatribe is now often read as a piece of success literature.
The religious turn in American literary studies is proving to be one of the more interesting developments in the field over the last few years, though the situation calls for scholarship that has credibility in both fields. Likewise, the globalization of English as a language and the spread of Anglophone culture as a vehicle for that language is one of the most urgent issues facing not only my field but higher education as a whole. It is my belief that my expertise in these fields as well as my experience with the importation of US models of higher education in a non-English-speaking country positions me to be a potential leader in these discussions.