Empowering Words: Outsiders and Authorship in Early America by Karen A. Weyler
Karen A. Weyler’s Empowering Words: Outsiders and Authorship in Early America substantially enriches our understanding of early American authorship. Her scope of study is refreshingly broad as it includes anonymous and lower-and middle-class women, men, and people of color. The key term in this fascinating study is “outsiders,” whom Weyler defines as “Americans without the advantages of an elite education, social class, or connections, who relied largely on their own labor for subsistence. . . . [O]utsiders represent a wide swath of the working lower classes in early America: men and women; black, white, and Indian; enslaved, indentured, and free; northern and southern; and patriot and loyalist” (4–5). This concentration on the outsider is an important divergence from other accounts of authorship, which often focus exclusively on white men and women. Weyler dedicates chapters to John Mar-rant, Briton Hammon, Samson Occom, and anonymous artisans, and readers of Legacy will be particularly interested in her chapters on Phillis Wheatley, Deborah Sampson, and the Williamsburg editor Clementina Rind.
In her definition of outsiders, Weyler provides an insightful discussion of literacy and the range of abilities that this term encompassed in eighteenth-century America; in fact, the introduction of her book is so well informed and lucidly written that it would work well in graduate and undergraduate classrooms to help students understand early American reading and writing practices. Regarding literacy, Weyler writes: “The label ‘illiterate’ imposed boundaries between the well educated and the indifferently educated, between the highly literate and the functionally literate, between the formally educated and the autodidact, and between the rhetorically sophisticated and unsophisticated” (7). Weyler’s literacy discussion broadens our assumptions about outsiders, proving that while these men and women may not have been educated [End Page 327] formally, they were savvy and knowledgeable enough in various ways to know how to enter and use print to their advantage; Weyler names this a “functional understanding of literacy” (8). Through print, these outsiders gained identity, celebrity, and empowerment.
Weyler educates the reader on various forms of popular eighteenth-century media, including elegies, captivity narratives, formal addresses, advertisements, and newspapers. According to Weyler, these diverse genres were “familiar, popular, and accessible to would-be authors. By participating in the conventions common to popular genres, outsiders, including people of color, found ways to enter into particular kinds of discourse communities” (9). Weyler adopts Jerome McGann’s “materialist hermeneutics” as an effective means for understanding the relationship between the words on the page and the materiality of the pages themselves (9). For example, Weyler convincingly proves that Wheatley became an international celebrity with her Whitefield elegy due to the “complex interplay among the linguistic code [of the poem], the custom-carved woodcut accompanying her elegy, and the way in which the paratextual material frames her authorship” (10). Fittingly, Weyler’s cover and the various illustrations within the book complement this approach and argument.
In the first chapter of Empowering Words, Weyler introduces the reader to Wheatley’s career as a broadside elegy writer, and, as in all of her chapters, Weyler meticulously contextualizes the genre under scrutiny. Studying the poet’s career and life prior to the publication of her famed book of poetry, Weyler underscores Wheatley’s entrepreneurial role as a writer of broadside elegies and her collaboration with Susannah Wheatley. The second and third chapters address male writers Marrant, Hammon, and Occom, and how they entered the evangelical empire through their respective genres of the captivity narrative and the execution sermon. Subsequent chapters treat Deborah Sampson and Virginia newspaper editor Clementina Rind, and the conclusion offers a rich analysis of artisan authorship, collective morals, and public good, discussing the careers of three men, Benjamin Russell, John Howland, and Joseph Buckingham.
Empowering Words insists upon defining authorship as an arduous process that demands “collaboration, editing, sponsorship and patronage” (6). Weyler portrays how, unlike the popular myth of the nineteenth-century Romantic author penning away in his garret alone, many of her eighteenth-century outsider authors depended on the elite to guide them into print. The upper class offered their assistance for “religious reasons, sometimes for ideological reasons, and often for a combination of reasons. Collaboration and sponsorship were never disinterested. . . . [T]he recipients of sponsorship became authors, a goal that otherwise might have eluded them” (6). [End Page 328] This is perhaps one of the most interesting points in Weyler’s book, because we see how dynamics of gender, race, and class affected the collaborative process and how this relationship resulted in a certain degree of fame or power for the outsider. For instance, Weyler’s chapter on Deborah Sampson explains how Sampson broke all feminine decorum norms as a Revolutionary soldier but then depended upon “the approval of white men,” such as Herman Mann, “to make her case in the public world of letters” (163). Mann wrote many of the speeches that Sampson would perform, which resulted in her fame (and payment from the federal government due to her military service); thus, Sampson offers a model of authorship that combines collaboration and performance with a balance of virtue and patriotism.
Weyler’s rich analysis of genre and her consideration of patronage and collaboration vastly expand our current understanding of early American authorship. Empowering Words provides much-needed nuance and additional depth to existing authorship studies, ranging from William Charvat’s foundational The Profession of Authorship in America to Angela Vietto’s Women and Authorship in Revolutionary America. Empowering Words demonstrates how authorship was a critical means of carving out an identity and claiming power for the outsider in early America.