"In the last 15 years, we have seen the digitization of almost everything written in the U.S. from 1639 up to the 1850s. We can do full text searches of newspapers, periodicals, books, novels and poetry and use our imaginations to see connections that were invisible 15 years ago."

What can fiction tell us about the times in which it was written? Associate Professor of English Michael Drexler finds layers of meaning in the post-revolutionary literature of the early United States.

The issue of slavery, for instance, created awkward contradictions in a new nation founded on the notion of equality. The paradox was highlighted by the 1791 rebellion by Haitian slaves against their white slaveholders. After a violent revolution, the slaves won their freedom and the colony won its independence from France in 1804, becoming the first republic ruled by blacks. The Haitian fight for independence captivated many Americans, while they largely avoided the issue of slavery at home.

Drexler applies a psychoanalytical approach to the fiction of the time, finding references to a repressed problem largely absent from history books. For instance, a novel by Leonora Sansay, companion of Aaron Burr and wife of a Haitian plantation owner, takes place during the Haitian revolution. In it, Drexler sees not only a skillful reflection of the unspoken issue of slavery, but also an attempt to influence the political dialogue by suggesting an alternative solution. In 2007, Drexler had Sansay's novel re-issued for the first time since its original release in 1808.

Early American fiction has largely been ignored as inferior to the work of later authors such as Mark Twain or Nathaniel Hawthorne. Drexler argues, however, that focusing on the aesthetic merits ignores the role the works played in reflecting the tenor of the times as much as in raising unspoken issues.

"Our view is that there is a way of understanding these writings that makes them interesting in and of themselves," Drexler says. "We do not need to talk about them as just failed attempts to produce American literature, but rather we can see the ways in which these works of literature are telling us an awful lot about the imagination, creativity, repression and anxiety during that period. The imaginative literature of the period, with its various complications, aberrations and symptoms, is no simple embellishment to historical fact, but instead is an imaginative sphere in which crucial fantasies and anxieties of the moment are more readily grasped."

As Drexler engages his students in taking a fresh look at history and literature, he also coaches them in the skills required for collaboration. He has worked with Ed White of the University of Florida on many publications, and is eager to encourage more collaboration in the humanities. "Students learn how a real dialogue between two writers can produce a much better product than one writer working alone," he says.

Technology has transformed the research environment Drexler can provide for his students. "In the last 15 years, we have seen the digitization of almost everything written in the U.S. from 1639 up to the 1850s," he says. Materials that had been available only on microprint cards or in archives are now readily available and searchable.

As he examines them, Drexler is finding new ways for the present to learn from, and re-discover, the meaning of the past. "We can do full text searches of newspapers, periodicals, books, novels and poetry," he observes, "and use our imaginations to see connections that were invisible 15 years ago."

Posted Sept. 9, 2009

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