Photograph by Joshua Simpson

In 1630, the poet Anne Bradstreet, a well-educated woman, emigrated with her family from Britain to America. Among her fellow travelers was her father, Thomas Dudley, who had been the steward to the earl of Lincoln. What remains of Bradstreet’s life upon arrival is her poetry. Bradstreet composed both sweeping poems about the history of the world and shorter poems addressing events in her more personal history, including births and deaths. She prepared a manuscript edition of her poetry, which her brother-in-law had printed in England as The Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung up in America (1650). In a later poem, Bradstreet complained about errors introduced when friends “less wise than true…exposed” her book “to public view.” It’s unclear how widely Bradstreet intended her poems to be distributed, and whether she ever intended her poems to be published in print.

Professor Lisa Gordis, who teaches early American literature in the English department and will assume the role of department chair this July, says the fact that a 17th-century writer like Bradstreet would choose to have her work circulated as a manuscript rather than printed on a press was not unusual for the time: often written works were published scribally, with readers copying texts and passing them to other readers in a chain of social connections. Now, with new options for publication such as blogs, websites, and other technological innovations, Gordis says that examples from literary history give context to the contemporary conversation. “It’s useful to be able to look at shifting modes of publication today and consider them in light of changes in publication practices over the last four centuries.”

It’s also the type of contribution Gordis feels she and her colleagues should make. Their field of study benefits, she wrote in 2006 in the journal Early American Literature, “when others understand that it is relevant rather than dry and dusty.” Connections and comparisons to present-day circumstances, she adds, “help bring the texts and issues of early American cultures alive to our students.”

Early American texts sometimes need help coming alive. While books of the period’s history have often been numbered on the best-seller list, writings from that time aren’t quite as popular. “Most early American texts are not beach reading,” Gordis says. The texts require a great deal of effort up front, she acknowledges, but it’s worth it. “To understand these texts in literary terms, one often needs to know something about theology and history. So, for example, one needs to understand how Jonathan Edwards thought salvation happened, to understand why he would write about grace as a taste of honey but also give a sermon in which he represented the sinners as a spider dangling by a thread over the fires of hell.

“Part of my job,” Gordis adds, “is to help students work their way into these writings so that they can see how interesting and exciting these texts are.” At Barnard she teaches a variety of courses, mainly on early America, including American Literature to 1800 and American Literature 1800–1870.

Gordis uses technology to support her students’ efforts. Thanks to increasingly accessible digital archives, she can introduce primary materials in the classroom with greater ease than in the past. For example, in teaching Moby-Dick recently, she was able to share period political cartoons featuring shipwrecks and whales. A class blog helps students in big lecture classes engage with one another and the material.

Gordis came to her subject as a college student at Harvard; she entered expecting to obtain a degree in biology. But in an American history class, she became fascinated with Anne Hutchinson. The more Gordis studied Hutchinson’s story, the more it drew her in. Hutchinson, the daughter of a minister, who came to the New World soon after Bradstreet, challenged Puritan authorities on their teachings regarding salvation. She held meetings in her home to discuss the ministers’ sermons, and seems to have suggested that some ministers were putting too much emphasis on works as a way of ascertaining one’s spiritual status. However, all records of her ideas are at best secondhand, so it’s hard to be sure what Hutchinson actually believed. Instead, she’s something of a historical cipher, challenging historians to understand why she was so disruptive that she was both banished by the Massachusetts Bay Colony and excommunicated by the Boston church.

The range of scholarly responses—emphasizing gender, class, personality, and theology—intrigued Gordis, and led to her doctoral work on Puritan theology, preaching, and exegesis. She found inherent and interesting contradictions in the Puritan system of biblical interpretation. Puritan exegetes argued, for instance, that a verse needed to be read in context to be properly understood. “On the other hand,” she says, “they believed that one way to understand a verse was to compare it to other biblical verses that were either similar to it or different from it, which meant that those verses were taken out of context.”

Since earning her PhD from UCLA, Gordis has authored a number of works, including a related book, Opening Scripture: Bible Reading and Interpretive Authority in Puritan New England, the seeds for which were planted back at Harvard. “I think that means I’ve finally finished my undergraduate thesis,” she jokes.

For her current project, she is digging into early Quaker theories of language. Early Quakers tried to close the gap between divine language and fallen human language. To purify language, they rejected not only oaths, but even polite greetings like “good morrow.” George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, argued that if you wished someone a “good morrow” and he was actually on an errand of evil, you might unwittingly seem to be condoning that evil, and thus be implicated in it. Quakers also argued that “thou” and “thee” should be preserved as second-person singular pronouns, trying to reverse the widespread adoption of “you.” Fox even coauthored an extraordinary polyglot grammar, amassing examples from 33 languages including Latin, Greek, Polish, Arabic, Hebrew, Syriac, and Coptic to show that there should be separate second-person singular and plural pronouns.

Early Quaker texts sometimes seem strange in their attention to usage details, yet they share with the Puritan texts that drew Gordis to the field a sense that language and reading matter. Gordis is neither Puritan nor Quaker, but she shares that sense. “These texts are compelling,” she suggests, “in part because their authors believed so firmly that the words people say and write have deep spiritual and moral significance. Words mattered to them, and their words matter to me.”