• NYS Writers Institute

Q&A with Wendy Roberts, a literary historian who made history

When Wendy Roberts published her new book in July, she accomplished a distinctive feat: Awakening Verse: The Poetics of Early American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press) is the first history of non-hymnal evangelical poetry in British North America.

What's non-hymnal evangelical poetry? It's written verse, Wendy explains below, that "didn’t conform to standards of taste; in fact, it explicitly rejected them. It wanted a mass audience; it refused elite language and claimed that the common person’s poetry was the language of heaven."

What's its relevance to today? "Literature and religious experience are deeply entwined, and that entanglement is important to American history."

How can evangelicals support Trump given his character traits and why have evangelicals become such a divisive, scorned group? Find out how Wendy Roberts, English professor at the University at Albany, replies to that question and a few more below. Thanks for reading.


Where have you been quarantining and how have you been spending your time during the coronavirus pandemic?

I’ve been spending my time at home in Averill Park, NY, with my husband and two elementary age children. From March until the beginning of school break it was a bit crazy with everyone working from home and going to school from home. Summer has been less productive in terms of research and writing, and has been taken up with intense planning for the English department’s fall semester, but I’ve had fun with my family.

I’ve spent a good deal of time walking with my dog and kids, light gardening, reading outside, and we’ve “podded” with two other isolating families so our kids can play together and we can interact too, which has been a real joy in all of this.

Recently, I came across Mary Oliver’s “Morning Poem.” It has become a kind of meditative chant for me against the feeling that the world is falling apart –

Every morning

the world

is created.”

2) How has the lockdown changed you in ways large and small?

To be honest, it is surreal because I’m a bit of an anti-social and depressive-prone personality with a good dose of anxiety thrown in, and I feel like everyone suddenly joined my club. I’m not the only one staying home and complaining of decision fatigue!

But, to answer your question, I don’t know how I’ve been changed. My experience with past larger-than-life events is that during them I definitely felt that I would never be the same. But, after time passed, it was difficult to discern what exactly had changed.

I’m interested, though, in this question of decisive personal change. Evangelicals made the practice of immediate and discernible conversion located at a particular moment in time the standard of their version of Christianity. This kind of conversion, sometimes called “punctiliar conversion,” is a much different way at looking at the world than slowly growing into a more generous or religious self over time with knowledge and habitual practice. The idea that you can be someone one minute and then instantly become someone entirely new is something that has and continues to appeal to many Americans. That idea sustains our consumer culture.

3) Your new book is about early American evangelical poetry. Why did it interest you?

It interested me because it was everywhere in the 18th century and nowhere in our accounts of literary history. If you count hymns as poems (and why wouldn’t we?), evangelical poetry was the most prolific new poetics in the transatlantic world.

My book is the first account of non-hymnal evangelical poetry. It didn’t conform to standards of taste; in fact, it explicitly rejected them. It wanted a mass audience; it refused elite language and claimed that the common person’s poetry was the language of heaven.

At the same time, it was part of creating a white supremacist version of Christianity. Early white evangelicals wouldn’t say that, but that’s part of what it was. I was also interested in what a poetic history of early British North America would look like if we counted evangelical poetry as poetry. And if we counted evangelicalism as an aesthetic movement rather than separating it because it was a religious movement. As a bonus, it turns out that women had vast verse ministries in early evangelicalism, which helps us get outside of a male clergy focus that has dominated the historiography.

What is the literary quality of that early American poetry? Do you write poetry yourself?

I always joke that I must have a deep-seated hatred for myself because I choose not only to read eighteenth-century poetry, but eighteenth-century evangelical poetry. A past director at the American Antiquarian Society used to always introduce me as the scholar who reads early evangelical poetry so the rest of us don’t have to. It’s true.

From the perspective of most 20th and 21st century literary aesthetics it is pretty unbearable. Actually, a lot of what most people really enjoy in pop culture today isn’t necessarily high literary quality. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important. Early evangelical poetry was their pop culture and it was fundamental to how they shaped and were shaped by the world around them. I actually don’t like to write analytically about the literature that I love. I like to ask questions about the literature I don’t relate to in order to try to understand its appeal and its function.

As for myself, I majored in English with a Creative Writing emphasis when I was an undergrad and had a few pieces of poetry published. I wanted to be a poet, but it seemed so audacious of a thing to declare (and so amorphous!). Then, I went to graduate school to study literature and stopped writing poetry for anyone other than myself. Unfortunately, literary history and criticism can be very separate from creative writing.

I was at the University at Arizona before I transferred to Northwestern, I studied with a poet and literary critic of Walt Whitman, Professor Tenney Nathanson. He was excellent at combining the two. And University at Albany’s English Department’s option for a Creative Dissertation is one of the few. I haven’t been able to balance them yet in my own life.

But I still think writing poetry is important even apart from one’s vocation or study—there are millions of people from the 18th century to today that have written poetry that is not meant to be published. It is a worthwhile activity in and of itself.

5) I read you attended an evangelical university. How did that shape you and how different was the experience from UAlbany?

It wasn’t that different in the sense that I was a commuting student that worked full time and had to support myself through school. Many of our students at UAlbany face these same challenges, and I can empathize with them. I always wanted to have the time to go to events, and meet with speakers—I loved every chance I had to learn and do these things, but I couldn’t fit many of them in. Loans and working full time detracts from the full learning experience that wealthier students receive, and frankly, it shouldn’t happen at public universities.