Research Spotlight: Elizabeth Hewitt

November 15, 2021

Research Spotlight: Elizabeth Hewitt

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Elizabeth Hewitt

Each month, the Communications Team reaches out to members of the Department of English faculty and asks them to elaborate on a current research or creative project they are working on or have recently completed. For this month, we asked Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies Elizabeth Hewitt, about her research in "early speculative fiction."

In your own words, as the expert that you are, can you provide an overview of your project?

My last book argued that both imaginative writing and economic science codified a particular way of explaining and understanding economic systems that ultimately obfuscated laypeople’s comprehension of these institutions and structures that affect people everyday (monetary instruments, markets, finance). In looking back to older models, I proposed we might find better explanatory modes. I am currently studying writing that imagines alternative places and times—what I am identifying as “early speculative fiction”—and proposing that their plotting of alternative times and places can help us better read more "realistic" early U.S. fiction with its emphasis on suppositional plots. I hypothesize that this theory of the fictional world as imaginative sandbox will also help us better understand the history of Constitutional interpretation.

I am also finishing an essay that analyzes a fictional narrative first published in 1803 that is said to be the first “socialist utopia” published in the U.S. I am intrigued by the fact that the author of this utopian fiction also turns out to have written a text that has always been attributed to a major figure in the development of American capitalism. This seeming contradiction reveals an anachronistic tendency in reading the politics of late eighteenth-century United States literature.

Now, could you shorten this description into one sentence that uses accessible language?

I am studying fictional narratives from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as if they are “science fiction” to posit an alternative literary history of both the novel and the Constitution.

In what ways is your research significant? 

It is significant in that it can help us better read the texts of the past, and it also allows us to use these historical pasts to better understand our present and future.

Are you working with any colleagues or collaborators?

The project stems from work that I have been doing with Jared Gardner: we are editing the MLA-CSE scholarly edition of Charles Brockden Brown’s The American Register. Brown writes semi-annual histories of the Napoleonic Wars—focusing on both European and American foreign and domestic policy. He writes these histories as suppositional fictions: in other words, he imagines how the world could develop in radically different ways depending on contingent—and seemingly inconsequential—events.

Is the project being funded or supported by any individuals or organizations that you would like to acknowledge?

A grant from the College of Arts and Sciences helped support the publication of the volume in the Collected Writings of Charles Brockden Brown series (which will come out in 2022).

Where do you see this project going in the future?

The future is hard to predict and I don’t know which world I am going to end up in, but I hope it is one where the various twines come together in a comprehensible pattern and not in a tangled knot.

What's next for you? What would you like to work on once this project is completed?

I’m at the early stages of curating an exhibit on historical cookbooks with Jolie Braun, and so I am intrigued by spending more time with cookbooks. And I’ve always wanted to read more literature focused on American crops—especially corn, groundnuts, rice and cotton.

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