Friday, April 28, 2017

Fellow Spotlight: The Fighting Quaker

During my fellowship at the Library Company of Philadelphia, I conducted research that spanned the scope of my dissertation, produced a dissertation chapter that I’m currently revising for publication, and collaborated with the Library Company's staff on several public history projects.

Will Fenton. Albert M. Greenfield Foundation
Dissertation Fellow
My dissertation examines how nineteenth-century American novelists use the character of the “fighting Quaker” to engage the violence that affected settlement, slavery, and nation-building. Though historians have produced a wealth of scholarship on the Society of Friends’ vexed relation to abolitionism and the American Revolution, few literary scholars have attended to representations of Quakers, and still fewer have examined the remarkable bellicosity of these depictions. Representations of fighting Quakers unify three major but disparately studied subfields of American literary studies: the formation of race during the antebellum period, religious conflict during the Great Awakening, and the constitutive role of violence in nineteenth-century frontier narratives. My study of the historical, political, and theological representations of the Society of Friends seeks to bridge the religious and transnational turns in early American literary studies.

During my time at the Library Company, I have drafted my third chapter with centralizes on Robert Montgomery Bird’s vexing frontier narrative, Nick of Woods (1837). I propose that Bird’s protagonist can be understood in the context of the medical condition associated with his transformation (epilepsy), the religious sect with which he associates (the Society of Friends), and the archetype from which he draws features (Daniel Boone). As a novelist, Bird was a rigorous historian, and I examined the sources from which he drew portraits of the early frontiersmen Daniel Boone, Simon Kenton, and Lewis Wetzel. My argument about Bird’s career arc required me to examine his notes for his “Tales of Kentucky” (at the nearby Robert Montgomery Bird Papers, University of Pennsylvania). I used the 1835 Library Company catalog to identify dozens of Kentucky histories that would have been available to Bird during his tenure at the Library Company, where he researched Nick of the Woods. This archival research has allowed me to offer a new perspective on how Bird’s career as a novelist, and his depiction of Quakers, was shaped by the specific source texts to which he had access. Since completion, I have been translating this chapter into an article that I intend to submit for consideration at American Literature.

Alongside my dissertation research, I was grateful for the opportunity to expand my digital humanities project with the support of Library Company staff and archival resources. Today, that project, Digital Paxton, hosts more than 1,600 open-source archival images, half a dozen scholarly essays, and numerous teaching materials related to the 1764 Paxton pamphlet war. Thanks to the tireless support of library James N. Green, I have crafted a material exhibition—which just opened outside the Reading Room—to complement my digital project. I was able to share both efforts at a McNeil Center for Early American Studies Seminar, hosted at the Library Company earlier this month.

Will Fenton
Albert M. Greenfield Foundation 
Dissertation Fellow

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