- Early America and the PublicPresidential Address for the Tenth Biennial Society of Early Americanists (SEA) Conference in Tulsa, Oklahoma, 2017
I have a fond memory from college of hearing one of my favorite English professors toward the end of the year mention that in a few weeks he would be heading off to a conference. His gaze drifted off to a distant horizon and a slight smile crept onto his face as he said to the class, “I’ll get to talk to the five other people in the world who work on what I work on, who care about what I care about.” This was the first time I had heard of such a thing as a conference for professors. His description of this event, this ritual, prompted a crisscross of images in my mind: on the one hand, a group of bearded, tweed-clad men smoking pipes around a table in a firelit, wood-paneled tavern, but second, of the harried woman in the 1970s “Calgon, take me away” commercials, escaping from the pressures of her life through a luxurious bubble bath. Conferences, I gathered, were where professors went to get away from it all, especially their students. They were also where professors escaped to, sinking into the crevices of their field, and most of all, communing with the other people who cared about what they cared about.
It turns out that my younger self ’s response is not the most ludicrous way to think about what scholarly conferences are like and are for. Conferences do entail a brief retreat from those professional tasks that offer far less in the way of intellectual pleasure or emotional reward. It is at conferences that we receive a break from grading and committee meetings to renew our sense of ourselves as intellectuals. These events provide spaces and occasions for us to come together, to learn from and teach each other, to nurture our shared interests, and to grant each other a sense of our labors as valuable. I have tended to think of scholarly conferences as creating a fragile and temporary enclosure, even a cloister, a shiny soap bubble we get to float in for a day or two, drifting in a pure arena of text and thought. [End Page 525]
For me, these keen pleasures of retreat into a space where one’s work is valued, where one’s mind is fed, has especially been the case with the Society of Early Americanists. In conveying why, I must confess to you that I am not what we might term a cradle early Americanist. I never took a course, undergraduate or graduate, in early American history or literature. I entered my profession as a specialist in eighteenth-century Britain, and through my research interests started drifting west, across the Atlantic. Although I was lucky enough to persuade an esteemed scholar of American literature, herself starting to look eastward in her own research interests, to chair my dissertation, my scholarly orientation remained anchored in Europe for quite a while.
It was within the American Society of Eighteenth-Century Studies that I found a smaller group, the Society for Eighteenth-Century American Studies. What a great idea, I thought. And what lovely people. It was in this context that I found Dennis Moore, Tom Krise, the greatly missed Frank Shuffelton, and many others. Somehow, along the way, I learned of this other group, the Society of Early Americanists, and then eventually, after these two organizations merged, found myself at a biennial conference in Providence. I was a latecomer to this organization, really an inter-loper, with little in the way of training or connections to recommend me. And yet I was taken in. I was invited to tag along to dinner, asked questions about my work, listened to and advised. In her presidential address of 2013 Hilary Wyss said it was at the SEA’s first conference that she found community (737). Although my path to this group was quite different and far more belated, I will say much the same. Nowhere in the world of academia have I found such generosity, such uncomplicated decency, such community.