- Empowering Words: Outsiders and Authorship in Early America by Karen A. Weyler
In her meticulous study of “outsider” contributors to the print world of eighteenth-century North America, Karen A. Weyler both revisits familiar early American subjects and introduces new characters and print materials. Weyler’s book accomplishes its ambitious goal of “reconceptualizing authorship and transforming how we think about and teach the literary works of early American outsiders” through a deft examination of the strategies these outsiders employed to become published authors in eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century America (2). Unsurprisingly, the book attends closely to literacies and their concomitant concerns: the sponsorship, [End Page 585] media, materials, motivations, and networks that form what theorist John Szwed calls “configurations of literacies” (“The Ethnography of Literacy,” Writing: Variation in Writing, Functional and Linguistic-Cultural Differences, ed. Marcia Farr Whiteman, Erlbaum, 1981, 16). Maneuvering within disparate literacy environments with shrewdness and passionate intent, these outsiders were able to position themselves as members of an emerging Republic of Letters. In tracing their journeys to publication, Empowering Words serves as an exemplary study in the relationship between literacy and identity, and as such it complements works by Hilary Wyss, Birgit Rasmussen, and Andrew Newman, among others.
Empowering Words’ six chapters cover the lesser-known work of a better-known outsider, Phillis Wheatley, as well as some outsider texts that emerged more recently in early American scholarship and teaching, such as the captivity narratives of Briton Hammon and John Marrant and Samson Occom’s A Sermon, Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, An Indian. Additionally, Weyler’s later chapters introduce the marvelous Virginian Clementina Rind. Widow, printer, businesswoman, and editor, Rind clearly merits further study. The final chapter argues for more scholarly attention to models of institutional authorship, a compositional and publication formation Weyler finds in the literary work of various New England mechanics’ associations. While the chapter on Revolutionary heroine Deborah Sampson might seem anomalous in this study because, though literate, Sampson did not assert her authorship of the stories about her military career, this chapter offers a very useful reading of Sampson’s collaborative and performative practices as a mode of authorship. A study of writing by outsiders whose class, race, and gender identities might have restricted or precluded their access to publication, the book refuses a simplistic understanding of identity as an ontological status in order to examine how social networks and personal goals rather than ascribed identity inform outsiders’ publication processes.
The book avoids reductive theorizing about identity by inviting readers into an engagement with each outsider’s complex literate practices. Employing diverse approaches to authorship and publication, the outsider authors use reading and writing to fashion themselves as productive social agents and, in some cases, intriguing print characters. Through print, they lay claim to knowledge, accomplishments, experiences, and moral, political, and civic positions that their apparent social identities would not [End Page 586] easily admit, especially in contexts dominated by elite concerns and bias. In making these outsiders legible again, Empowering Words substantially contributes to scholarly work on the early American public sphere.
The term outsider, which Weyler applies to those “standing outside elite or even middling circles,” is as useful as it is slippery (2). Weyler smartly decides to work with the elasticity of the term, not to avoid precision but rather foreclosure on the rich insights it elicits. Her commitment to working with the ambiguity in her central concept thereby gives us a faceted and layered understanding of the conditions in which each outsider lived and wrote. Alongside this conceptual complexity, Weyler develops a nuanced methodology. She presents her study recursively, examining the outsider through biographical data; the genre in which the writing appeared; the social, economic, geographical, and political constraints under which the writer lived and wrote; and, crucially, the significance of publication for both the writer and his or her audience and social circle. This recursiveness is both structural and interpretive: structural because Weyler frequently begins chapters by providing specific biographical and bibliographic information on the particular outsiders and outsider...