Empowering Words: Outsiders and Authorship in Early America by Karen A. Weyler (review)
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Empowering Words: Outsiders and Authorship in Early America. By Karen A. Weyler. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013. Pp. 311. $69.95 cloth; $24.95 paper; $24.95 ebook)

Thanks to scholarship such as Michael Warner’s Letters of the Republic (1992), Christopher Looby’s Voicing America (1998), and Sandra Gustafson’s Eloquence is Power (2000), scholars generally understand the role that the written and spoken word played in the culture of the early United States. However, what we have not known in great detail—and what Karen Weyler so eloquently describes for us—is specifically how people outside of the middle and upper classes used the power of the printed word to carve out a place for themselves in early America. Empowering Words: Outsiders and Authorship in Early America recounts how many persons considered “outsiders” in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries entered into the world of print and, in so doing, expanded what we might think of as traditional notions of authorship. In her book, Weyler focuses on Phillis Wheatley, a young African American female poet enslaved in Boston during the Revolutionary era; Briton Hammon and John Marrant, two African American men who composed wildly popular Indian captivity narratives; Samson Occom, a well-known Mohegan sachem and Presbyterian minister who traveled extensively both in British North America and in Indian country; Deborah Sampson, a woman who disguised herself as a man in order to fight in the Revolutionary War; and Clementia Rind, a Williamsburg, Virginia, [End Page 497] widow who inherited and began editing her late husband’s Virginia Gazette; and mechanics—those self-employed as printers, barbers, and metalsmiths, among other things—who published in association with their professional societies. Empowering Words gives us a panoramic view of the kinds of writing and publishing we can see when we broaden our horizons beyond the writing taking place in and around the State House in Philadelphia in the 1770s and 1780s.

Empowering Words generates a number of key insights. One of the things that it does particularly well is situate the works of each of these figures within the broader context of their genres. For instance, many scholars—myself included—have noted how unique Phillis Wheatley was because of her age, gender, race, enslaved status, and provocative poetry. But Weyler asks us to consider Wheatley as one of many practitioners of the broadside elegy, a very popular print format in early America. Drawing upon her extensive archival research, Weyler helps us understand how Wheatley’s famous 1770 broadside edition of “An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of . . .George Whitefield” partakes of a much broader tradition of elegies and of broadsides. This chapter gives us not only a new perspective on Wheatley and her famous elegy but also the print history of early American broadside elegies. The same holds true of her work on Samson Occom’s A Sermon, Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, an Indian (1772). Here, we learn not just about Occom as an “exceptional” Native American who chose to write and publish in English alphabetic print, but also as one of many ministers who used the popular form of the execution sermon to his own ends.

Empowering Words will be of interest to those who have more “literary” leanings, those who have more “historical” leanings, and those who have a mix of the two. The book gives us a meticulous and archivally rich history of each of these texts; it exemplifies, particularly on the level of print culture, a version of what Franco Moretti has termed “distant reading.” But at the same time, this wide perspective does not sacrifice a close look at the texts, both in terms of their material form and their linguistic complexity. Additional payoffs [End Page 498] include expanded and more complex ideas about authorship, collaboration, and publication. Weyler’s book will be important to those interested in early American history, literature, and print culture; this book engagingly demonstrates not how the powerful use words, but, rather, how cultural outsiders become empowered by the process of empowering words.

Katy L. Chiles

KATY L. CHILES teaches in English and Africana studies at the University...


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