People often ask me how I came across Jane Goodwin Austin and why a Southern-ish Atlantan reads novels about the Pilgrims and Puritans. This post gives the background on this seven-year process.
In the summer of 2010, I was lucky enough to participate in a week-long workshop for college faculty in Plymouth, Massachusetts, sponsored jointly by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Community College Humanities Association. We spent a week listening to scholars discuss various topics, such as the relationship between the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims and the intricacies of Calvinist theology, and we toured sites such as Pilgrim Hall and Plimoth Plantation, where we also had access to archival materials and other reference materials. And on our last night, we spent a fun evening at Pilgrim Hall for their “Rum and Revolution” tasting party.
To complete the program, we were each to undertake further research or to develop course materials to take back to our classrooms. I chose Thanksgiving as my topic because of the richness of the story and the possibility of exploring so many avenues with students. I read James Baker’s Thanksgiving: A National History and was interested in his statement that our modern story of Thanksgiving comesfrom a novel by Jane Goodwin Austin.
Intrigued, I did an Internet search for her name and came across the now-defunct website of a library sciences student (Megan Fox at Simmons College) who had chosen Austin as the subject of a research project. Fox claimed that Austin knew Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and that she published numerous novels and short stories in popular periodicals of her day. As I continued to dig into the story, I found more and more of interest. I was already thinking about finishing the PhD I had started more than a decade earlier, and this discovery gave me the perfect impetus.
Fast forward to the present day. I finished my doctoral dissertation on Austin in 2015. Someday, I will publish her biography, but I’ve got years of research ahead of me before I can do that.
In the meantime, while learning about Austin’s historical fiction on Pilgrims, I discovered the multitude of ways that America’s Pilgrims have been imagined and re-imagined over the centuries. Each time the focus shifted to suit national identity and purpose. Now I’m also very interested in the many different ways that writers have imagined Pilgrims and Puritans in their novels, and how readers have let that fiction shape their beliefs over the centuries. I never expected to find close to 100 forgotten novels, but I’m quickly approaching that mark.