Interview with Emily Gowen

Dissertation Project:  “On the Margins: Steady Sellers and the Problem of Inequality in Nineteenth-Century America”

At what stage was your dissertation in March 2020?  What were your plans at that time?

For my dissertation project I study nineteenth-century American reprints, abridgments, adaptations, and graphic reimaginings of seventeenth and eighteenth century European novels.  I am particularly interested in what the trans-Atlantic afterlives of Robinson Crusoe, Don Quixote, Pamela, and The Pilgrim’s Progress can tell us about the development of new reading cultures among marginalized people in the nineteenth-century United States. As a book historian, I am especially interested in the materiality, the tactility, and the visuality of books, which means that in-person archival research is the backbone of my project. In non-pandemic circumstances, I typically go to a rare books library and examine multiple versions of the same book in order to trace its transformations across time, space, and audience, paying special attention to the traces historical readers left behind. More recently, I’ve had to substitute this approach by combing through library catalogs and digital databases and communicating directly with librarians, many of whom have been unbelievably generous with their time and expertise during this difficult year.

As a short-term fellow at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester in summer of 2019, I had the chance to conduct a fair amount of archival research, which set me up well to start writing my dissertation that fall.  Right before the pandemic hit, I had just completed a preliminary draft of my second chapter and was scheduled to travel to London to conduct research funded, in part, by a Boston University graduate research abroad fellowship (GRAF).  I made the choice to cancel the trip before anyone really knew how widespread or lasting lockdowns would be, and was grateful that BU reimbursed me for the expenses I had incurred. Had I gone on the trip, I almost certainly would have gotten stuck in England and confronted a long quarantine upon my return.

At the tail end of March 2020, I received the wonderful news that I had been awarded two long-term dissertation fellowships: The Barra Dissertation Fellowship at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies and the Albert M. Greenfield Dissertation Fellowship at the Library Company of Philadelphia, both of which would have ordinarily required me to relocate to Philadelphia—which I was excited to do! I had mapped out a rigorous research program and was looking forward to participating in both institutions’ seminars and colloquia throughout the year. Initially, program directors at both institutions were optimistic that some degree of in-person participation would be possible, but over the summer months, it became clear that relocating would not be an option, and the bulk—if not all—of my fellowship experience would take place over Zoom.

How have you adapted your plans to life under lockdown?

Undated poem by William Cullen Bryant titled “CERVANTES” cut and pasted into Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Adventures of Don Quixote de la Mancha; trans. Charles Jarvis, Esq.;
New York: Leavitt & Allen [1852-1862?]
Despite the disappointment of not being able to participate in these fellowships in-person—which certainly would have been the intellectual adventure of a lifetime—I feel tremendously lucky to have had the support of both the McNeil Center and the Library Company of Philadelphia. The McNeil Center’s weekly seminars and brown-bag lunch series have been wonderfully engaging and have benefitted from the fact that more people can attend remotely than would have been able to participate in person. The meetings have always been very well attended, resulting in rich and engaging discussions. I have also participated in a writing group with other McNeil Fellows that has helped me stay productive and motivated while working from home. Similarly, the Library Company’s Fellows’ colloquium has enhanced my work.  The Library Company librarians there have worked hard to make Zoom consultations, digitization services, and online resources available to fellows.

Not being in Philadelphia, however, has meant that there are things that I just could not do.  My analysis is so dependent on my ability to attend to the materiality of books: what they look like, how big they are, whether they have certain “imperfections” such as missing pages, whether they have been inscribed, etc. Sometimes I even find little treasures people have left behind! A leaf or a flower, or a little poem cut out of the newspaper and tucked into the pages of a book. For these details, electronic catalogues are often inadequate. Catalogues are not always comprehensive or up to date, and there is a time lag between the time when libraries make acquisitions and when books are electronically integrated into collections. The pandemic has made this backlog even longer.  Consequently, I have not yet been able to review books essential to my project that, having been acquired by the libraries, nonetheless remain in this state of catalogue limbo.  My draft chapters are replete with notes-to-self—to confirm details I have provisionally relied upon and inferences I have conditionally made—pending such time when I will be able to visit the libraries in person. 

Happily, the Library Company recently invited me to spend two weeks in-person examining some of the materials that are difficult to get a sense of over zoom or in digital images. I have been able to make the trip, and to take my lunch breaks in the Fellows’ residence adjacent to the Library! It is inexpressibly wonderful to be able to conduct some in-person research after such a long time. Two weeks have not been a real substitute for a semester-long archival residency. The short time spent in the archives nonetheless has felt like a wonderful gift.

As a book historian, can you share any insights that might benefit fellow researchers?

Electronic library catalogues are an invaluable source of information, but even more valuable is the wisdom of the librarians behind them.  You can learn a lot about a book by mining the various parts of the catalogue record, but catalogues are not infallible.  The quality of catalogue information varies from institution to institution, and even from collection to collection within a single library. For example, the way in which a book’s format is described might be incomplete.  The details of a book’s dimensions might differ from one observer to another. My research has greatly benefitted from the knowledge of the archivists and librarians, who both know the strengths and weaknesses of their own catalogues and can offer tips on how to most effectively navigate them.  Of course, for the book historian, there is no alternative to physical inspection of a book. I look forward to a time when working in actual physical reading rooms is once again a normal part of academic life.

Emily was interviewed by Arthur George Kamya, April 2021.

Emily has been featured as a BU English Department Featured Graduate Student here.