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  • 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.

I think the best thing was the sense of community and belonging that I experienced. All my classes in my major were very small and full of lively discussions. We were encouraged to always think about purposes outside ourselves and outside of profit motives. The biggest drawback was lack of racial diversity. Ironically, I think that going to an evangelical university gave me space to think and gain a more complicated worldview than if I would have gone to a secular university. This is because I didn’t feel like I needed to defend anything. Challenging the status quo at a religious university meant challenging the religion around me rather than secularity. This is not everyone’s experience at an evangelical university. But it was mine.

I came out a deeper thinker about the complexity of religion, history, gender, race, and America than I entered. I had many excellent professors who made sure this was the case and challenged everything I thought I knew. This experience shapes me today because it gives me hope that things are actually more complicated than they appear from the outside. There are discussions and common ground to be found between evangelicals and other traditions. I try to give religious students a legitimate space in my courses because I want them to put down their defenses and have room to think deeply. We need more people of all religious and political persuasions committed to the hard work of critiquing their own positions. That doesn’t happen when people are defensive.

President Trump at the White House with religious leaders in September 2017.
President Trump at the White House with religious leaders in September 2017. (AP)

How can evangelicals support Trump given his character traits and why have evangelicals become such a divisive, scorned group?

That’s really a question for an expert in late evangelicalism and very complicated, but I can give my opinion.

First, evangelicals are a very diverse group—it is actually very difficult to define who actually fits into the category. And more and more progressive evangelicals refuse to adopt the label. But, that aside, most white evangelicals support Trump for a variety of reasons—I think where you live in the country and the economic demographics also play in to what reasons will be given for supporting Trump.

I think the most generous answer is that many evangelicals put up with his character traits (they see it as a kind of extension of grace) for what they see as the greater good: God’s blessing on the country. They have a particular understanding of American history and the Bible that make it very difficult to find much common ground with those of us committed to a secular government and a religiously diverse society. Much of what used to pass for secular was still infused with Christian symbols as well as a white, settler-colonialist version of American history.

I think it has been difficult for many evangelicals to come to grips with the United States moving closer to becoming a truly secular government that does not favor white Christianity. This is compounded by the fact that since its earliest manifestations, evangelicals have viewed themselves as the persecuted. There is a whole critical study of secularism that also helps get to the ways that evangelicals can be both part of the dominant structure of our society and also feel embattled and underrepresented. In my courses on early evangelicalism, I try to help students of all religious and nonreligious persuasions engage in generous and difficult dialogue about these issues.

Even if Trump does not win a second term, these divisions are not going away anytime soon. The divisions are much deeper than just at the level of rational ideas; they are affective differences.

What is your next book project?

I have been interested in the evangelical long poem’s relationship to settler colonialism for some time, but I cut it from the book early on because it was too much to take on at the time. I am excited to take that direction back up. The other book project emerged as I was researching manuscript poetry and found more women engaged with Phillis Wheatley’s poetry.

Phillis Wheatley
Phillis Wheatley's book, published in 1773.

There isn’t a concise book that gives general readers and students a comprehensive feel for the poetic worlds in which Wheatley wrote; that’s what I want to write. I was awarded a New England Regional Fellowship Consortium grant for these two projects that enabled me to travel to seven libraries during 2018-2019 – luckily before Covid hit, so I already have primary materials to keep me busy at home.

Now, if I can figure out how to teach my university courses, teach my school age children, direct our undergrad studies, and stay somewhat sane, I might get to it.

Wendy Roberts
The other Wendy Roberts

Do you ever get mistaken for Wendy Roberts, author of paranormal murder mysteries? (Photo left, 'the other Wendy Roberts.')

Not that I know of, but that would be great!

With students returning to campus soon for the fall semester, what advice would you give them for their physical and mental health in these uncertain times?

Wow. That’s a hard question. I think opening colleges to in-person learning is a mistake. I think that there should have been a greater priority in our state on reopening pre-K through elementary school. Those are the students that do the worst remotely. Everyone else should stay home, and we should prioritize our young learners (and free up parents to work, as well). But that’s a lost fight now.

So, if you are on campus, protect yourself at all times and find ways to relax that are safe. It really is necessary to think of yourself as a member of a community; nothing you do it just about you anymore (if it ever was).


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