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Empowering Words

Outsiders and Authorship in Early America

Karen A. Weyler

Publication Year: 2013

Standing outside elite or even middling circles, outsiders who were marginalized by limitations on their freedom and their need to labor for a living had a unique grasp on the profoundly social nature of print and its power to influence public opinion. In Empowering Words, Karen A. Weyler explores how outsiders used ephemeral formats such as broadsides, pamphlets, and newspapers to publish poetry, captivity narratives, formal addresses, and other genres with wide appeal in early America.

To gain access to print, outsiders collaborated with amanuenses and editors, inserted their stories into popular genres and cheap media, tapped into existing social and religious networks, and sought sponsors and patrons. They wrote individually, collaboratively, and even corporately, but writing for them was almost always an act of connection. Disparate levels of literacy did not necessarily entail subordination on the part of the lessliterate collaborator. Even the minimally literate and the illiterate understood the potential for print to be life changing, and outsiders shrewdly employed strategies to assert themselves within collaborative dynamics.

Empowering Words covers an array of outsiders including artisans; the minimally literate; the poor, indentured, or enslaved; and racial minorities. By focusing not only on New England, the traditional stronghold of early American literacy, but also on southern towns such as Williamsburg and Charleston, Weyler limns a more expansive map of early American authorship

Published by: University of Georgia Press


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xvi

I have incurred many debts while working on this book. I am truly fortunate in my colleagues in the English Department at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The Americanist faculty—Tony Cuda, Sally Ann Ferguson, Karen Kilcup, Christian Moraru, Noelle Morrissette, Mark Rifkin, Scott Romine, and María Sánchez—offered encouragement and enlightening conversation....

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Introduction: Outsider Authorship in Early America

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pp. 1-24

Just eight years before Phillis Wheatley’s image appeared on the cover of Bickerstaff ’s Boston Almanack, for the Year of Our Redemption, 1782, celebrating her as Boston’s most famous poet, another enslaved Phillis languished in Virginia under much less fortuitous conditions of servitude. An advertisement that ran for several weeks in the January 1774 Virginia Gazette, edited by Clementina...

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1. Mourning New England: Phillis Wheatley and the Broadside Elegy

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pp. 25-75

Phillis Wheatley is the most renowned of the figures in Empowering Words, crossing and recrossing traditional disciplinary boundaries among American, African American, and British literature and women’s studies, just as Wheatley herself traversed the Atlantic, moving from Africa to America, to England, and back to America. The circulation of Wheatley’s physical body, her...

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2. An “Englishman under English Colours”: Briton Hammon, John Marrant, and the Fungibility of Christian Faith

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pp. 76-113

Th e varied strategies that Phillis Wheatley employed to navigate her way into the Anglo-American literary scene—sophisticated mastery of the English language, support from powerful patrons, carefully planned literacy events, emphasis on her evangelical faith, deployment of the wildly popular Christian elegy, and use of the inexpensive medium of the broadside and later a poetry...

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3. “Common, Plain, Every Day Talk” from “An Uncommon Quarter”: Samson Occom and the Language of the Execution Sermon

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pp. 114-144

“What folly and madness is it in me,” Samson Occom asks, “to suffer any thing of mine to appear in print, to expose my ignorance to the world?” Occom was neither a fool nor ignorant. Instead, in the preface to his best- selling 1772 A Sermon, Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, An Indian, he models the humility typical of eighteenth-century prefaces, especially those written by outsiders.1 Like...

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4. Becoming “The American Heroine”: Deborah Sampson, Collaboration, and Performance

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pp. 145-164

While Briton Hammon and John Marrant relied on collaboration to produce their captivity narratives, Deborah Sampson, a female Revolutionary War sol-dier, took collaboration to new levels with a biography, an address, and poetry, even though only one of these texts bears her name as author. Consequently, she challenges our understanding of what constitutes authorship, especially as ...

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5. “To Proceed with Spirit”: Clementina Rind and the Virginia Gazette

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pp. 165-203

The desperate financial need motivating Deborah Sampson and so many other hopeful participants in late eighteenth-century print is poignant, especially given our hindsight that it would be difficult for Americans to profit, much less make a living, as writers until at least the 1810s. Clementina Rind, printer of Thomas Jefferson’s A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), holder...

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6. When Barbers Wrote Books: Mechanic Societies and Authorship

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pp. 204-230

This chapter brings Empowering Words full circle. For Americans outside the elite ranks of society such as Phillis Wheatley, Briton Hammon, John Marrant, Samson Occom, Deborah Sampson, and Clementina Rind, writing brought symbolic and social capital. For the mechanic class, however, the social capital they gained from organizing professionally and politically during and immediately...

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Conclusion: Uncovering Other Outsider Authors

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pp. 231-234

For outsiders, the medium always mattered. The questions behind Empowering Words emerged while I was writing Intricate Relations: Sexual and Economic Desire in American Fiction, 1789–1814. The majority of early American novels were written by literate, well-read individuals of middling economic status. Eighteenth-century outsiders may have read novels, but they did not write...


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pp. 235-280

Works Cited

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pp. 281-300


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pp. 301-311

E-ISBN-13: 9780820343259
E-ISBN-10: 0820343250
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820343235
Print-ISBN-10: 0820343234

Page Count: 304
Illustrations: 18 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 842875113
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Empowering Words

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • American literature -- Colonial period, ca. 1600-1775 -- History and criticism
  • American literature -- Revolutionary period, 1775-1783 -- History and criticism.
  • Outsiders in literature.
  • Authorship -- Social aspects -- United States.
  • Literacy -- Social aspects -- United States.
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