I am an historian of early America with special interest in eighteenth and nineteenth-century histories of political culture, the media, and gender. My research often begins with questions about the uses and meanings of early American media—print, oral, and visual cultures—focusing especially on non-elite readers, listeners, and viewers. I have written about Americans’ fascination with Indian eloquence after the Revolution; schoolgirls’ vindications of female oratorical excellence; debates over the best means of advocating for world peace during the antebellum era; portrayals of masculinity and sexuality in popular texts about antebellum pirates; and anxious accounts of mixed-race families in Atlantic travelogues.
In my new book, The Strange Genius of Mr. O: The United States’ First Forgotten Celebrity (Omohundro Institute/ UNC Press, December 2020), I use the career of a now-forgotten celebrity of the very early nineteenth century to tell a new story about the intersection of political culture and celebrity—at a moment when the United States was in the midst of invention. This book tackles a wide array of topics that seem familiar to celebrity cultures of later eras: narcotics use, eccentric clothing, delusions of grandeur, glamorous circles of friends, dramatic successes and failures, and suicide. Yet in the context of the early nineteenth century, when celebrity culture did not yet exist, these subjects take on a new light.
My first book, A Nation of Speechifiers: Making an American Public after the Revolution (University of Chicago Press, 2009) examines how ordinary women and men came to understand themselves as “Americans” after the Revolution. By scrutinizing the post-war profusion of print and oral media, this book offers a genealogy of early American identity that integrates politics, manners, gender, and race relations. It received the James Broussard Best First Book prize from the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) and was a finalist for the Best Book Prize from the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians.
I have several new areas of research. In A Plague in New York City: A Young Doctor Confronts—and Survives—the Yellow Fever Epidemic in the Founding Era, I use a singularly rich and detailed diary of the city’s plague years in the 1790s to explore the world that the yellow fever epidemics destroyed, and what got rebuilt in its wake. In a digital project, I am developing an online platform for understanding practices of the spoken word in previous centuries. And finally, Learning to See: Gender and the 18th Century Atlantic World of Print examines the centrality of gender to eighteenth-century Atlantic travel literature and illustration. This project pays special attention to the ways that travel narratives used both text and image to construct ideas about the strange peoples of faraway lands—they sought to teach European readers how to see others. This research has received funding from the Princeton University Library, the Massachusetts Historical Society, Harvard’s Houghton Library, the Huntington Library, and the John Carter Brown Library.