Why did you choose to research your topic? What interested you about the topic?
I initially read Hugh Henry Brackenridge’s political satire Modern Chivalry because I am fascinated by literature that is somewhat puzzling, written in a fragmented or meandering style, that is self-reflexive and offers narratives or opinions that need historical contextualization to be understood. I was also drawn to texts of the Early Republic that have a unique political agenda. Public discourse today is spiked with at times accurate, at times faulty references to the first years of the United States as a nation. I enjoy studying texts that complicate the history of clear-cut political oppositions (like Federalists v. Democratic-Republicans, North v. South). Modern Chivalry often takes a political stance between party lines, for instance when Brackenridge sympathizes with the rebels during the Whiskey Insurrection but disavows their ignorance of due political process.
When I began researching the publication history of Modern Chivalry, I soon learned that the seven volumes that originally appeared between 1792 and 1815 had been re-edited and published in different versions both at the time and across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I developed a strong interest in the different copies and editions, which further complicated the historical reading experience of an already fragmented text. The joy of archival research itself of course also played a role.
What do you think is the most interesting source you looked at as part of your research?
Even when they are considered to be the same edition, each archival copy of Modern Chivalry is different. The Kislak Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Pennsylvania has a copy of the second volume of an edition of Modern Chivalry that was published by Johnson & Warner in 1815. Page 85 features a note informing readers that the previous page was printed by mistake and should be skipped. This seems like a small detail, but it sparked my distrust in the printed text. I then began comparing editions and individual books and found more errors, some of which would have posed sincere challenges to readers at the time.
One archival find that informed my article in Early American Studies is an unbound copy of Modern Chivalry’s third volume available at the American Philosophical Society. This text was printed on Pittsburgh’s first printing press, and it looks a little more unkempt than the preceding and following volumes, which were printed in Philadelphia. This find reminded me that the volumes initially were not sold as complete books, and it led to my approach of studying a text’s materiality properties in relation to the narrative that’s told on its pages.
What do you hope readers will take away from reading your article?
In terms of methodology, my article exemplifies the ways in which the history of the book can inform the study of early American literature. I specifically hope to show that print history is politically meaningful – in this case as an agent of settler colonialism, as Western printing works towards the integration of Pennsylvania’s West into the nation. I also believe my article adds to the understanding that the nation at the time was understood to be an expanding empire. First and foremost, I direct attention towards the absence and replacement of Indigenous characters in the narrative. Modern Chivalry is indicative of the ways in which Western settlers insisted on their stakes in the new empire at the expense of Indigenous peoples. Through its satire, Modern Chivalry created a narrative of Indigenous absence that precedes reality and showcases how this absence becomes lucrative for settlers.
Ilka Brasch (she/her) is an Assistant Professor in American Studies at Leibniz University, Hannover in Germany. She is in the process of completing a book manuscript on H.H. Brackenridge’s Modern Chivalry that combines literary interpretation with the study of editorial history, the materiality of individual book copies, and the relationship of nation, empire, and the public sphere. Her most recent publication is a short piece on the (a)historicity of the US Constitution in Amerikastudien/American Studies.
Read Brasch’s article “Modern Chivalry’s Colonialism” in EAS’s Fall 2023 issue.