Hartford, Connecticut, May 1, 2018—The tradition of the Allan K. Smith and Gwendolyn Miles Smith Lecture continued on April 17 with a presentation to a nearly full McCook Auditorium from Hilary E. Wyss, Allan K. Smith and Gwendolyn Miles Smith Professor of English. Her lecture, “This Native Place: Joseph Johnson and the Writerly World of 18th-Century Indigenous Connecticut,” focused on Johnson’s life and his connection to writing and literature as a Native American.
Wyss suggested that New England’s past is commonly seen as a history of English settlements established and expanded, colonial wars fought and won, and indigenous people tragically displaced. However, she said, there’s a different story, one written by Native people and bound by indigenous ways of seeing and knowing the world.
From the beginning of her discussion, Wyss reminded the audience that “this is a Connecticut story,” showing the intimate connection between Joseph Johnson’s life and New England history. With settings including Farmington, New London, Stonington, and Hartford, Wyss underscored how the Connecticut landscape fit into Johnson’s early American life and how our own modern lives are “immersed in Native spaces.” She argued that indigenous people, now and in Johnson’s time, “are not tragic people left behind by modernity,” but instead a community that deftly navigated the complexities of white hegemony in their native land.
Wyss showed how Johnson maintained his indigenous identity in spite of the formal, Calvinist education that he received at Moor’s Charity School under Eleazar Wheelock, for whom discipline, order, and obedience shaped education. According to Wyss, Johnson used his mastery of writing and rhetoric to reconcile seemingly disparate parts of himself—the educated Christian and the Native Mohegan community leader. His writing became a vehicle for self-acceptance in a Native community of Christians, who came to interpret Christianity from Native leaders instead of through people like Wheelock. As Johnson grew in his mastery of writing, “He acquires his authority and confidence through his own work in relation to his own Indian brethren,” Wyss said. She argued that Johnson used Christianity to maintain connection to the indigenous community.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Wyss’s study is rooted in her consideration of handwriting as an aspect of Johnson’s identity. Many in the eighteenth-century believed that “character could be formed and shaped, like handwriting, into a neatly ordered identity.” While there are no portraits of Johnson to tell us what he looked like, Wyss used several examples of his handwriting to help the audience develop an image of him. In one draft, his writing is that of the straight-lined, controlled, conforming citizen. In another composition, not intended for public view, his sprawling hand bounced with another rhythm, taking new shapes and rendering Johnson as uninhibited, rejoicing in his own accomplishments through his mastery of language.
Although just 25 years old at his death, Johnson was instrumental in working with his father-in-law, Samuel Occom, to create Brothertown, a community of Christian Indians. He would use his rhetorical skills to solicit support of Brothertown with “writing-supplemented oratory” that supported the tradition of the spoken word and used Christianity as a radical political stance to help bind an indigenous community together.
As Wyss unpacked the consequences of Johnson’s work, she implored the audience to reconsider the very definition of early American literature. “English departments at colleges like Trinity are invested in the written word and challenged: What is it that we consider literature?” Wyss suggested that if we challenge our assumptions and reevaluate texts from writers such as Johnson, we can enrich our perspective of indigenous life and early American life as a whole.
Hilary E. Wyss teaches courses in early American literature, American studies, and Native American studies at Trinity. She is the author or editor of more than a dozen articles and three books: English Letters and Indian Literacies: Reading, Writing, and New England Missionary Schools, 1750–1830 (2012); Writing Indians: Literacy, Christianity, and Native Community in Early America (2000); and with Kristina Bross, Early Native Literacies in New England: A Documentary and Critical Anthology (2008). She served as president of the Society of Early Americanists from 2011 to 2013 and has been on the editorial board of the journals Early American Literature and Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture.
The Allan K. Smith and Gwendolyn Miles Smith Professorship of English was endowed by a generous bequest of Allan K. Smith, a member of the Class of 1911 and a 1968 honorary degree recipient, of West Hartford, Connecticut. The fund also supports added faculty positions, salaries, and other materials to improve the curriculum. Devoted benefactors to the college, the Smiths established five endowed funds at Trinity to support academics, including the Allan K. Smith Center for Writing and Rhetoric and the work of the English Department. In 1990, the Smith House located on Trinity’s campus was named in honor of the Smiths, and Mrs. Smith received an honorary degree from the college that same year.
Written by Tess Dudek-Rolon