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Hilary E. Wyss
My research has largely been driven by the question of how early American reading and writing practices fit into a broader framework of American racial and cultural self-definition. My first book, Writing Indians (University of Massachusetts Press, 2000), focused on communities of Native Christians using their literacy skills to shape and give meaning to their identity in the context of colonial New England. Focusing primarily on print and manuscript texts, in this book I explored the ways print culture offered Native New Englanders a way to shape their own stories.
Native American literacy practices in the colonial period range enormously, and my work since that first book has focused on recovering that range, from highly proficient readers and writers of English-language texts like the famous missionary and political activist Samson Occom and his circle to less clearly book-centered practice such as the communicative practices embedded in Native basketry, pictographic signatures, wills, court documents, and other extra-literary media. My work is thus situated between the growing field of Book History and in the scholarship of early Native American studies.
My most recent book, English Letters and Indian Literacies, expands my focus on colonial New England to include chapters on the American South in the early nineteenth century while examining in far greater detail the curricula and material culture of missionary schools from New England to the Cherokee Nation. This book examines the ways in which Native students and teachers in such schools used their literacy practices to consolidate their Native American cultural and political identity.
In 2014 I co-edited a new edition of an American literature anthology (volume one) with Lance Newman and William Cain. Covering American literature from the beginnings to 1865, my co-editors and I developed a table of contents that has expanded the standard offerings of American literature to include lesser known works like court testimony, confessions, personal letters and all kinds of images and texts. I have thoroughly enjoyed integrating my recent teaching of the American literature survey with my scholarly interest in textual recovery, race, and gender.
In 2019, with my colleague at Trinity College, Chris Hager, I organized a colloquium and accompanying digital archive called Hidden Literacies, which formally launched in 2022. Hidden Literacies brings together leading scholars of historical literacy to investigate the surprising, often neglected roles reading and writing have played in the lives of marginalized Americans—from Indigenous and enslaved people to prisoners and young children. By presenting high-resolution images of archival texts and pairing them with expert commentary, Hidden Literacies makes these writers and texts—which too often lie below the radar of American literature curricula—more available and accessible to teachers and researchers. https://hiddenliteracies.org/
I am currently working on a project tentatively titled Objects of Charity: Exchangeable Bodies in the 18th Century Transatlantic British Empire, which examines the textual connections between three overlapping sites of English benevolence and the colonial assumptions that undergird them: the Foundling Hospital in London, George Whitefield's Georgia Orphan-House, and Moor's Charity School in New England.
I am fortunate to have published very early in a field that has since expanded dramatically, and it has been a great honor and pleasure to see the ways my work has supported really wonderful developments in early Native studies and literacy studies.
Click on the image above to read about Indigenous letter-writing in Eighteenth-century New England
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