Empowering Words
Outsiders and Authorship in Early America

Karen A. Weyler

Transforming our understanding of authorship and the literary works of early American outsiders


"Ranging in coverage from the canonical Phillis Wheatley to now-obscure artisans, Weyler demonstrates the many ways nonelite authors gained access to print to create public identities at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. Empowering Words compels us to expand our definitions of agency, authorship, literacy, and literature to encompass the unlikely men and women who populated the world of print in early America."
—Vincent Carretta, author of Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage

"Weyler's book delves deeply into literary and cultural studies as these intersect with the study of scribal and print history-all in an effort to uncover the methods used by cultural outsiders to access the literary cultural marketplace and find multiple audiences for their work. Her study provides us a fascinating glimpse of the cultural negotiations and renegotiations taking place during the eras of the American Revolution and the early Republic."
—Carla Mulford, founding president of the Society of Early Americanists

"Using an innovative and persuasive approach, as well as much new material, Empowering Words reveals that slaves, women, and other marginalized groups shrewdly manipulated mainstream culture and not only wrote but published themselves into being during the early national period. The book will be an invaluable resource for scholars interested in class, gender, identity, race, and print culture."
—Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola, author of The War in Words: Reading the Dakota Conflict through the Captivity Literature

"This fascinating [Empowering Words] introduces a largely neglected area of scholarship and is an indispensable resource for scholars, teachers, and students of American literature. Summing up: Highly recommended."

Empowering Words, by Karen A. Weyler, approaches reading early American texts in a similarly holistic way, offering a radically comprehensive interpretation of texts produced by “outsiders” of the revolutionary era and the early American Republic. Weyler’s outsiders are those who remained peripheral to American literary culture, including African Americans, Native Americans, women, and working-class men—in other words, a majority of the early American population.”
—John Saillant, William and Mary Quarterly

“The book has relevance to popular culture in the fields of early American literature and authorship; it will be especially useful to the reader with experience of the literature of this period, but the novice with little or no knowledge of reading and writing in early America will also find many delights and “I didn’t know” facts in this book. There are lots of gems! . . . This reviewer highly recommends Empowering Words: Outsiders and Authorship in Early America.”
—–Martin J. Manning, Journal of American Culture

Empowering Words is an impressive book, amassing a range of sources and utilizing several methodological approaches from traditional close readings to the techniques of the history of the book. . . . In sum, [the book] is a solid study that forces us to reconsider not only our approach to liminal authors in early America but also the process of authorship more broadly.”
—Joseph M. Adelman, The Journal of Southern History

"Weyler’s rich analysis of genre and her consideration of patronage and collaboration vastly expand our current understanding of early American authorship. Empowering Words provides much-needed nuance and additional depth to existing authorship studies."
—Jennifer Desiderio, Legacy

"Empowering Words is an engaging celebration of some of the most intriguing authors in the late eighteenth-century United States, how they broke into the world of print, and why they wanted to."
—John Wood Sweet, The Journal of American History

"Weyler gives a fascinating account of non-elites’ strategies—primarily collaborative writing and sponsorship by patrons and editors—to get their texts published during the radical expansion of American print culture from 1760 to 1815."
—Philipp Schweighauser, American Studies

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Standing outside elite or even middling circles, outsiders who were marginalized by limitations on their freedom and their need to labor for a living had a unique grasp on the profoundly social nature of print and its power to influence public opinion. In Empowering Words, Karen A. Weyler explores how outsiders used ephemeral formats such as broadsides, pamphlets, and newspapers to publish poetry, captivity narratives, formal addresses, and other genres with wide appeal in early America.

To gain access to print, outsiders collaborated with amanuenses and editors, inserted their stories into popular genres and cheap media, tapped into existing social and religious networks, and sought sponsors and patrons. They wrote individually, collaboratively, and even corporately, but writing for them was almost always an act of connection. Disparate levels of literacy did not necessarily entail subordination on the part of the lessliterate collaborator. Even the minimally literate and the illiterate understood the potential for print to be life changing, and outsiders shrewdly employed strategies to assert themselves within collaborative dynamics.

Empowering Words covers an array of outsiders including artisans; the minimally literate; the poor, indentured, or enslaved; and racial minorities. By focusing not only on New England, the traditional stronghold of early American literacy, but also on southern towns such as Williamsburg and Charleston, Weyler limns a more expansive map of early American authorship.

Page count: 304 pp.
18 b&w photos
Trim size: 6 x 9


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Karen A. Weyler is an associate professor of American literature in the English Department at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is the author of Intricate Relations: Sexual and Economic Desire in American Fiction, 1789-1814