- Empowering Words: Outsiders and Authorship in Early America by Karen A. Weyler
Print culture, Race, Gender, Literary studies
Don’t let the word “outsiders” fool you. There are no giant, handmade whirligigs in this book, no fantastical scenes painted on bedroom walls and discovered only after the homeowner’s death, no statues of Frankenstein made entirely of Band-Aids. “Outsiders and authorship in early America” it turns out, is quite different from “outsider art.” Study of the latter has in recent decades brought us work from people who cared little for audience and not at all for convention. By contrast, in this insightful and informative new book, Karen Weyler is “considering the participation of working people in print culture from 1760 to 1815,” exploring authors for whom “writing . . . was always an act of connection” (2). Participation and connection, then. The subjects of Weyler’s study may have been outsiders to power and status, but they wanted in. Rather than bending language or distorting fonts to express some irreducibly singular vision, they used print—along with conventions of genre and grammar—to render their ideas and arguments comprehensible to others.
Weyler defines as outsiders “those Americans without the advantages of an elite education, social class, or connections, who relied largely on their own labor for subsistence” (4). Within her rubric she places such figures as Clementina Rind, a white Virginian woman who took over her [End Page 295] husband’s press after his death; the Mohegan minister Samuel Occam; the enslaved, African-born poet Phillis Wheatley; and John Howland, president of the Rhode Island Historical Society and a direct descendant of a signer of the Mayflower Compact. Weyler is interested in exploring not only the texts these authors created but also the collaborative processes and human networks they used to bring their texts into print. Print, she argues, offered outsiders a “route to acquiring symbolic and cultural capital and to belonging to something bigger than themselves, whether that was a community of Christian believers, the united colonies, or a nation-state” (6).
Weyler’s definition of outsiders is capacious, to say the least. If everyone other than those born white, male, and wealthy are outsiders, there are truly, as my grandmother used to say, more out than in. By Weyler’s definition, even the most famous printer in American history, Benjamin Franklin, would be an outsider. He is not included, alas, despite the fact that his genius for networking would seem also to fit within Weyler’s framework. Which raises the question: How many authors in the late colonial and early national eras did not rely on collaboration? Whether in the form of clubs, salons, or shared efforts at subscription gathering, the life of a writer was usually a life of conversation and cooperation. Even for the well-educated young men who scribbled for newspapers and literary journals, it usually required a day job.
Weyler’s organizing conceit is thus less than entirely satisfying, and there are points at which she is too reticent about the way her work builds on recent treatments of non-elite speech and writing. Carolyn Eastman’s A Nation of Speechifiers: Making an American Public after the Revolution (Chicago, 2009), for example, would provide useful points of departure for Weyler’s discussion of white mechanics’ collaborations. But this is the rare book whose parts are more than the whole. In introductory and concluding passages, Weyler sometimes seems to be comparing her subjects to an imagined, self-sufficient novelist in a dinner jacket. In her analysis, however, she abandons literary straw men and attends to the specifics of texts and collaborative processes. Thus we learn that Phillis Wheatley initially wrote broadside elegies to create a reputation for herself as a poet. “Certainly, Wheatley had genius,” Weyler writes, “but genius was not enough” (53). Weyler’s discussion of John Marrant, in turn, uses the differences between Marrant’s writing and a white poet’s versification of his experience, to explore Marrant’s conception of the relationships among Christianity...