OnlineSeptember 9-10, 2021, Welcome Meeting: Voices & Agencies

The inaugural workshop was dedicated to introductions and preliminary exchanges, as well as conversations about the network's research and methodological goals. Each member introduced themselves and their research, and the group pondered options and ideas to move forward. Members also shared and discussed pre-circulated writing in groups. 

The keynote lecture was delivered by Ana Schwartz (University of Texas at Austin, US), who shared her research "On Thoughtfulness: Human and Other-than-Human Reason in the Middle Ground." 

Abstract Keynote Schwartz: On Thoughtfulness

Sympathy, this talk proposes, abhors a swamp. It does so metaphorically but also literally. This, at least, was the quiet loathing that saturated the hearts of some early modernity’s most selfconscious utopian political theorists, English Protestants in Algonquian territory, when they considered the value of sympathy to their civic lives. They are often frequently typecast as caricatures of repression, yet decades of literary and cultural histories have insisted that they be understood as sensitive and deeply feeling individuals. To advance this insight, this essay compares this people not to their false caricatures, but to their real neighbors: their fellow English social theorists, their Algonquian partners in trade, and their castor counterparts in engineering and land-improvement: American beavers. Each of these parties shared important differences and similarities in their approaches to a networked world. Some of these approaches were more foresightful than others; together, they yield new insight on sympathy and its social value. As an individual solution to a political problem, sympathy whetted settlers’ fantasies of power. Settler sympathy imagined a dialectic of mastery from the standpoint of reason. It depended on swampy affectability as an antagonist, and thrilled to feel itself conquering that affectability, sometimes through repression, other times through calculated cooptation. Looking out onto the landscape that they hoped to master through their reason, however, English people stumbled in their observations of the American beaver, whose actions required different uses of deduction and extrapolation in order to understand. Algonquian stories about the beaver suggest at least one dynamic way of making sense of beavers’ actions, like creating swamps and manipulating the landscape, as well as of making sense of the actions of many other puzzling human and other-than-human agents. From the standpoint of affection, rather than reason, Algonquian stories recognized that the beaver, though sometimes acting in seemingly illogical ways, was a co-creator in a shared world; these stories consequently exercised a form of thoughtfulness—a counterpart to sympathy from the standpoint of affection and mutual vulnerability that makes use of reason to share the world in a more fruitful manner.

Freie Universität BerlinFebruary 24-25, 2022, Workshop I: Voices: Self-Writing in the Age of Un-selfing

The first workshop tackles the paradoxical coexistence of expressions and negotiations of the self in Early America and beyond. At the onset of the age of individualism, we register a marked skepticism vis-à-vis the individual voice. Although the devaluation of individual voices did not inhibit the production of pamphlets, books, or personal letters and journals, it did markedly impact the discourse within which individuals expressed their agency. The nature of "texts of self" is therefore paradoxical, as the process of self-abnegation unfolded through an intense, quotidian, and documented reflection of the self that resulted in voluminous autobiographies, journals, and correspondence. Examples include Benjamin Franklin's (1792) rhetorical question as to whether he should "a good deal gratify [his] own vanity," but also Olaudah Equiano's fears that publishing his memoirs (1789) will expose him to accusations of "vanity" and "impertinence." The workshop will address instances of un-selfing in order to unearth a particular understanding of the personalized voice before the mid-nineteenth century. 


Keynote 1: Prof. Dr. Gordon Sayre, "Pierre-Esprit Radisson: Captive, Renegade, or Entrepreneur?"

Gordon Sayre is Professor of English at the University of Oregon. He is a specialist in colonial and Early American Literature from the sixteenth through early nineteenth centuries, with particular interest in French colonial history and literature, the exploration and cartography of North America, Native American literature and ethnohistory, and in natural history and eco-criticism.

Keynote 2: Dr. Matthew Pethers, "Nobody's Talkin' At Me: The Fictionality of the Servant's Voice in Early American Literature"

Matthew Pethers is Assistant Professor in American Intellectual and Cultural History at the University of Nottingham's Faculty of Arts. His research centers on the intellectual and cultural history of America between the early eighteenth century and the civil war.

Abstract Keynote Pethers: Nobody's Talkin' At Me

Servants were everywhere in early America, as a major labor force in the fledgling colonies’ plantation economy in the decades before slavery became dominant and later as a presence in the households of innumerable families from diverse social backgrounds. Yet in early American literature the servant is a largely peripheral figure, usually putting in no more than a fleeting appearance in which they function as a mere plot device, and when they are granted a more prominent role they tend to exhibit a peculiarly hyperbolic quality, marked by extravagant forms of speech and behaviour that formally destabilize the text.

Examining a range of works from the early to late eighteenth century in which servants feature as narrators or characters, this paper suggests that the elusive and unreliable modes of representation that were attached to them are indicative of wider assumptions about the ontological vacancy of servitude. The literary servant is, in this sense, a revealing measure for emerging discussions in our field about the development of “fictionality.” For as well as illustrating the evolving acceptance of non-referential discourses about wholly imagined beings in early American culture, the corpus of servant-texts I intend to explore indicates how this non-referentiality was partly grounded in acts and institutions of pre-existing socio-political erasure.

A crucial stage in the birth of the modern novel came, Catherine Gallagher has influentially argued, when “the fictional Nobody, a proper name explicitly without a physical referent in the real world” was accepted by readers as a viable conduit for epistemological conclusions. While some scholars have pursued Gallagher’s suggestion that this evacuation of material selfhood was derived from the marginal status of eighteenth-century women, however, none have traced a parallel point of origin in the depersonalized condition of servants in the same period, who are typically configured as empty vessels filled by their masters’ commands and desires. Tracking the literary servant from William Moraley’s memoir of indenture The Infortunate (1743), which resorts to allegorical fabulations in order to render its autobiographical narrative coherent, and the anonymous Virtue Triumphant, or Elizabeth Canning in America (1757), which imaginatively appropriates the true life story of a notorious female indentee,  through to novels like Hugh Henry Brackenridge’s Modern Chivalry (1792-1815) and Charles Brockden Brown’s Edgar Huntly (1799), which feature wildly disruptive and ambiguously doubling retainers, this paper seeks to establish how the blindspots and anxieties around the selfhood of servants were central to the rise of early American fictionality.

Universität Duisburg-EssenJuly 14-15, 2022, Workshop II: Silences and Ambiguities

The second workshop investigates forms of agency that emerge from the shifting identities and allegiances that characterize the Early Atlantic world. It therefore addresses the ambiguities, contradictions, and silences of Early Atlantic texts of self. Our area of interest, the Atlantic world between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, was a realm of cultural entanglements, power negotiations, and shifting borders, and the selves inhabiting this scenario are necessarily reflective of these ambiguities. Finding tools to access the allegedly inaccessible will be the focus of our second workshop, which challenges network participants to look into forms of ambiguous agency that withdraw from the spoken or written word, or that, while relying on master narratives at first reading, rupture their seams through the language of ambivalence.


Keynote 1: Prof. Dr. Bridget Bennett, "Transatlantic Abolition and the Unquiet Library: Print Culture and the Making of a Celebrated Philanthropist"

Bridget Bennett (University of Leeds, UK) is the recipient of a Leverhulme Major Fellowship and her current project "The Dissenting Atlantic" investigates archives and libraries as spaces of silence but also as unquiet locations that breed noise and dissent. She focuses on neglected figures of nonconformists and dissenters who have used libraries to imagine new geographies and world orders and used library membership to achieve transatlantic dissemination.

Keynote 2: Prof. Dr. Gesa Mackenthun, "Romantic Agriculturalism and the Invisibility of Indigenous Land Tenure"

Gesa Mackenthun's (University of Rostock, DE) work is located at the intersection of Postcolonial and American Studies. Her current research on decolonizing the American prehistory dissects mythical narratives on the remote American past, filling their silence on land grabbing, evictions, and dispossession.


Abstract Keynote Bennett

Libraries have long been viewed as locations of peaceful – even silent – work, as well as critically important sites of sociability.  While the physical site of the library is frequently a place of sanctuary and quiet repose, a repository for archives and books, it simultaneously nurtures radical exchanges and loud dissent.  Productive noise can emerge in meetings, reading groups and especially in written texts which emerge after immersion in libraries and are then studied in, or borrowed from, them.  Libraries are places for undertaking the kind of work which can lead to disturbance, restlessness and noise outside their bounded spaces.  In all of these senses the library is fundamentally unquiet.

My talk engages with a historically situated set of transatlantic abolitionist networks, chiefly centred on communities of nonconformists and dissenters in Yorkshire and Pennsylvania. Though largely excluded from access to public office, they developed rewarding intellectual and philanthropic lives through their relationships to libraries, especially the Leeds Library (founded 1768) and the Library Company of Philadelphia (founded 1731). I focus especially on the Leeds-based Wilson Armistead, a Quaker merchant and anti-slavery activist who drew inspiration from the French-born Philadelphia abolitionist Anthony Benezet.  Both men were personally reserved and quiet, yet they both considered it an ethical imperative to produce antislavery writing which generated noise and disturbance: Benezet asked rhetorically, "Can we be both silent and innocent spectators?"  My talk will probe how scholars can resurrect voices which have been silenced, and take account of less familiar stories and sources and rethink the shape of the archive. 

University of SiegenFebruary 16-17, 2023, Workshop III: Archives & Theory

This workshop asks how we, as scholars, make voices and agencies of the past meaningful for current scholarship and discourse without forgoing historically adequate readings. Importantly, any understanding of voices and agencies is historically embedded, and the discourse about voicing the self has shifted substantially. Many of the projects in the network engage in historical scrutiny in order to widen their subjects of interest and introduce ‘new old’ documents to the field. The result is scholarship that makes individual voices and agencies of the past legible for the present, while taking into account that the meanings of individual and cultural agency themselves have of course changed over time. The self-reliant return to the archive in current American Studies scholarship benefits from a recent surge in studies of the archive and the analysis of material texts. One aim of the third workshop is precisely to determine the extent to which implicit notions of agency inform the methods we employ when turning to the archive. This workshop will offer network participants the opportunity to reflect upon their own archival practices and critically approach the tension between the historically embedded understanding of voices and agencies and the understanding of agency as it is implicit in our own methodologies.


Keynote 1: Prof. Dr. Marisa Fuentes, “The Present in the Past: Archives of Black Life and Death in the Atlantic World”

Marisa Fuentes is an Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and History, and Presidential term chair in African American History at Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences, Department of History. She is the author of Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (2016), which reconstructs the lives of enslaved women in eighteenth-century Barbados from fragments of traditional archival materials, reading them ‘against the bias grain.’ 

Keynote 2: Kevin Modestino, "Speculative Archives of Slave Revolution in Antebellum Historical Writing"

Kevin Modestino is a lecturer at Howard University in Washington, D.C. His book project “Providential Visions: The Aesthetics of History, Slave Revolution, and Imperial Time in Antebellum America” studies the ways in which antebellum historians conjured up emotional attachments to America’s (idealized) past to reframe liberty and freedom in one of the world’s last strongholds of legalized slavery. 

Keynote 3: Prof. Frank Mehring , "Ehre, Terror, Freedom: Rediscovering the German-American Writings of Charles Follen and the Conflict over Slavery at Harvard"

Frank Mehring is professor of American studies at Radboud University, Nijmegen. He teaches twentieth- and twenty-first-century visual culture and music, theories of popular culture, transatlantic studies, and processes of cultural translation between European and American contexts. In 2012, he received from the European Association for American Studies the biennial Rob Kroes Award for his monograph THE DEMOCRATIC GAP (Winter, 2014).

Leibniz Universität HannoverSS 23, Workshop IV: Looking Inward: A Methodology of Introspection

The fourth workshop functions as an invitation to reflect on our methods and should initiate a mode of introspection. An introspective turn is above all an incentive to abandon the gesture of ‘giving back agency’ to those who allegedly lack it. We consider entanglements such as agency / humanity / freedom, or agency / humanity / choice anachronisms that should be questioned. The network rethinks agency as not only diverse, but also cognizant of the self’s constant becoming, of its multiple and overlapping manifestations, embedding differences and ruptures, continuities as well as discontinuities.

We plan to establish an introspective mode by asking the following methodological questions: What are the parallels between self-fashioning in the age of digital individualism and similar practices in Early Atlantic texts of self and how do they reverberate in our scholarship? What can texts following ritualistic forms and following imperatives of self-loathing teach us about the formalisms and imperatives of our own disciplines? What methods and practices should inform a transformative approach to Early American and Atlantic Studies that does away with self-assertion through the text? What notions of agency, self, and voice lie at the core of the transformative practices we pursue? How do provenance, identity, and privilege influence the nature of our scholarly interest and inquiries? In asking these questions, the network strives to develop modes of scholarship that redefine the interaction between the agency of the scholar and the historic subject of inquiry in a non-predatory way.


Keynote 1: Prof. Dr. Julia Straub, "Writing Literary Histories in Early America"

Until 2020, Julia Straub was a lecturer in North American Literature and Culture at the University of Bern; she has recently accepted a professorship in modern English literature at the University of Fribourg. Her talk will bridge her recent research on The Rise of New Media 1750–1850: Transatlantic Discourse and American Memory (2017) and the network’s interest on methodologies for the study on Early America. 

Keynote 2: Dr. Berta Joncus, "British Abolition Song Exported:
Sounding Sentiment in Early America"

Berta Joncus was a lecturer in music at St Anne’s and St Hilda’s colleges of Oxford University. Her keynote lecture on "British Aboliton Song Exported: Sounding Sentiment in Early America" reflects her most recent research, writing, and presentations on pre-1800 transatlantic Black music at Goldsmiths University, London.

Universität Duisburg-EssenMarch 6-8, Call for Papers Final Conference

The final workshop will both synthesize results, insights, and conversations from the preceding workshops and introduce new ideas. More precise focus points, in addition to the one’s proposed by our keynote speakers, will follow as the network proceeds.  


Keynote 1: Prof. Dr. Russ Castronovo, "Jeffersonian Trembling: White Nationalism and the Racial Origins of National Security"

Russ Castronovo (University of Wisconsin-Madison, US) is Tom Paine Professor of English and Dorothy Draheim Professor of American Studies. In terms of ‘voices,’ Prof. Castronovo’s research looks at the debates over colonization, especially those appearing in the first Black newspaper published in the US, Freedom’s Journal.  In terms of ‘agencies,’ it examines how free people of color sought to exercise control over the discourse of colonization that proposed effectively to exile and ‘repatriate’ African Americans to Africa. 

Keynote 2: Prof. Dr. Philipp Schweighauser, “Aesthetics and the Early American Novel”

Philipp Schweighauser is professor of North American and General Literature at the University of Basel. His expertise in Early American Studies is expressed particularly in his book Beautiful Deceptions: European Aesthetics, the Early American Novel, and Illusionist Art (2016), in which he studies the shifting concept of ‘art’ in a transatlantic context - at the time, ‘art’ connotes both creativity and deceit.

Keynote 3: Gesa Mackenthun , "Dispossession and Dialogism in Cooper's Littlepage Trilogy"

Gesa Mackenthun's (University of Rostock, DE) work is located at the intersection of Postcolonial and American Studies. Her current research on decolonizing the American prehistory dissects mythical narratives on the remote American past, filling their silence on land grabbing, evictions, and dispossession.


Call for Papers Final Conference

Voices & Agencies: America and the Atlantic, 1600 – 1865
 University of Duisburg-Essen (Campus Essen)
Over the last three years, the DFG Network “Voices & Agencies: America and the
Atlantic, 1600 – 1865” has gathered biannually with the goal of sharpening notions of
voices and agencies for the benefit of American and Atlantic Studies. Its goal was to
conceptualize the ways in which contemporary scholarship can investigate voices and
agencies of the past without superimposing today’s paradigms and to engage critically
with the ideologies apparent in current concepts of agency. Many of the scholars in the
network engaged with non-canonic and neglected authors, texts, and cultural
phenomena, weaving them into established critical discourses. The focus gradually
expanded to include plants, animals, and objects like books, whose active impact
needs to be taken into account without superimposing a concept of human agency.
Agencies often manifest in and as texts: fissures in the formal coherence of
literary and non-literary writing allowed us to identify the entangled nature of subversion
and acquiescence, pathos and structure, personhood and regulated authorship. In
Through a Glass Darkly, Greg Dening writes of early America as “a place of thresholds,
margins, boundaries. It was a place of ambivalence and unset definition. The search
for identity in that place was multivalent and unending” (2). North America and the
larger Atlantic World between 1600 and the mid-nineteenth century present a cultural
force field in which concepts of the self and their expression in writing shifted. For
example, the fact that at times self-expression in writing was accompanied by an equal
measure of self-negation (as in the imperative “topos modestiae” and the self-
degrading formulas of conversion narratives) resulted in ambiguities and contradictions
that informed changing concepts of identity and selfhood. If the early-American and
nineteenth-century selves were porous, unstable, “multivalent and unending”
constructions, the same can be said of their voices and agencies.
As the network neared its conclusion, new perspectives began to open: speakers
and guests found themselves critiquing ideas of voices and agency in self and text
ever more strongly, and questioning their relevance for the improved Atlantic Studies
toolbox they imagined. Is the metaphorical “voice” too firmly grounded in the
anthropocentric and the ableist? How do we transcend the condescending gesture of
“giving voice to the voiceless” in the archive? Is agency the tool of an imperialist and
colonial discourse, or at least fraught with the traces of Eurocentric, white supremacist                                                                                                                               paradigms? In the network’s final conference, we would like to open these 
conversations (and beyond) to a broader audience.

The conference welcomes inquiries about voices and agencies in early America up 
until 1865. We celebrate hemispheric, archipelagic, interamerican, multilingual, and 
transnational approaches and look forward to papers about, and beyond, the following 

- Agency, voice, and personal expression,
- The personalized voice before the mid-nineteenth century,
- Silenced voices, submerged texts in the archive, but also the silences within the 
agencies that did find cultural expression,
- Theories of the archive, 
- Ways to counteract presentism in historical research,
- Ways to circumvent the gesture of “giving a voice” to silenced actors of an 
archived past, 
- Considerations of recent ‘turns’ (environmental, actor-network, material texts, 
new materialism, objects-oriented approaches) and their relation to agency.

Send your abstract and a short bio blurb (max. 250 words) to ilka.brasch@engsem.uni-  and by December 15, 2023. Depending on 
the number of conference participants, we might be able to cover some travel and 
accommodation expenses.