Amina Gautier

Amina Gautier (she/her/hers) is Professor of English at the University of Miami and the AMUW Chair in Humanistic Studies at Marquette University. She earned her PhD in English Literature from the University of Pennsylvania, specializing in nineteenth century American literature and African American literature. Gautier is the author of four short story collections: At-Risk, Now We Will Be Happy, The Loss of All Lost Things, and The Best That You Can Do. She is a recipient of the Pen/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story. Her critical essays and reviews appear in African American Review, The Cambridge Companion to The American Short Story, Critical Insights: Frederick Douglass, Daedalus, Journal of American History, Libraries and Culture, Nineteenth Century Contexts, and are forthcoming in MLA’s Approaches to Teaching Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and MLA’s Approaches to Teaching South Asian Diasporic Literature. Her research has been supported by the American Antiquarian Society, the Mellon Foundation, the Northeast Modern Language Association, and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. She is a member of the Chesnutt Association, the Pauline Hopkins Society, and the Society for the Study of American Women Writers.

What do you dream of unearthing in an archive? What would your discovery teach us?

I don’t usually visit archives looking to find never-before-seen manuscripts so much as I do to examine the earlier unpublished drafts of manuscripts I love. Examining the various drafts a writer goes through before settling upon the final publishable manuscript is a real pleasure as it offers us insight into the careful and lengthy revision process and all it entails. It’s a joy to see additions, corrections, or questions penned in the margins by the writer’s own hand, and these manuscripts allow us to see the draft-by-draft evolution of a writer’s conceptual thinking. In the archived body of work we see what material changes were made, are invited to speculate upon the reasoning behind those changes and are encouraged to consider the way both large- and small-scale revisions alter our interpretation and understanding of a given text. What’s especially rewarding to see is the way these drafts routinely show us that as the writer’s understanding of the story and its precepts expand, the writer’s hand grows more assured, and the language used to execute those precepts tightens and trends toward concision and precision.

What is the importance of studying the nineteenth century today? How does thinking about the nineteenth century help us think about the twenty-first century?

I can’t see how we can think about the twenty-first century without thinking of the nineteenth—to me they seem two sides of the same coin. There are so many similarities between the two centuries that the twenty-first century resembles an era of history repeating itself. The coronavirus pandemic reminds me of the cholera outbreaks in the 1800s, and the creation of the Covid vaccine to combat coronavirus reminds me of the creation of the intravenous saline drip which saved the lives of many cholera patients by keeping them hydrated. The political strife and dysfunction and all the bipartisan battles we’re witnessing makes me think of the Compromise of 1850, Bleeding Kansas, the Missouri Compromise, and the Compromise of 1877. The systemic police brutality, the over policing of black bodies, and the school-to-prison pipeline reminds me of the correlations between the end of slavery and the rise of the police powers in the United States (which Bryan Wagner covers in his 2009 monograph Disturbing the Peace: Black Culture and the Police Power After Slavery). In much the same way that we have studied our twentieth century wars to gain perspective in the hopes of never repeating our follies we should study our nineteenth century wars (War of 1812, Mexican-American War, Civil War, Spanish-American War) and learn from our past actions to better secure our future. The nineteenth century is rife with sobering lessons.

On the positive side, when we think about history repeating itself, when we look at our twenty-first century focus on dietary reform, social justice, and women’s rights, we can see the seeds of these interests were planted in the nineteenth century. Although publicizing vegetarian lifestyles feels more like a twentieth century thing in the U.S., our interest in plant-based eating didn’t originate there. The first American vegetarian cookbook was published in the nineteenth century and Sylvester Graham, who did not write the cookbook, but after whom the Graham Cracker is named, was a nineteenth century minister whose advocacy for vegetarian living created a movement (“Grahamism”) full of followers who adopted a vegetarian lifestyle. Our social justice movement is indebted to the nineteenth century focus on social reform, under which falls abolitionism, the antislavery movement, as well as the temperance movement and the creation of orphanages and homes for the ill and indigent. Lastly, our twenty-first century focus on women’s rights (bodily autonomy, self-determination etc.) stands on the shoulders of the women’s rights movement of the nineteenth century. Although women’s suffrage was ratified in the United States in 1920 with the Nineteenth amendment, the suffrage movement is a child of the nineteenth century, with the first women’s rights convention taking place in Seneca Falls in 1848, where the Declaration of Sentiments was first presented.

How does teaching about the nineteenth century prepare undergraduates for living and working in the twenty-first century?

Something as simple as helping undergraduates develop an understanding of nineteenth century American culture prepares undergraduates for living and working in the twenty-first century. Undergraduates have more resources now than ever before, and they can tailor their education experience to suit them, whether that means hybrid learning or creating their own major etc.; but with so much focus on what faculty, staff, and universities are meant to provide them, they can easily lose sight of what behaviors, mindsets, and skills they need to develop to be successful, especially their need to cultivate independence. I encounter so many students who have all the technological resources they could want at their fingertips, literally, but who only perform cursory or perfunctory research and instead rely on others to either tell them how to do something or feed them the information they seek which they then accept without rigorous interrogation. Characters who do that, simply accept without questioning, in nineteenth century novels always suffer for their naivete and pay hefty prices for their laziness and gullibility and reading a few of those tales could prepare undergraduates for taking charge of their own destinies and being less reliant on others. Additionally, the skill of problem-solving, which I believe requires adaptability, concentration, creativity, determination, thoroughness, and a willingness to troubleshoot can be readily learned from reading the narratives and autobiographies of enslaved persons who faced insurmountable obstacles on their paths to having their citizenship confirmed and their humanity recognized yet found ways to surmount those obstacles. In those narratives you rarely see a successful first attempt at escape. Instead, you see determination at play and ingenuity at its finest.

Which nineteenth-century food or culinary dish seems most disgusting to you, and why?

Blood pudding, whose name is explanation enough. I do not find pork appealing, especially when I consider how enslaved persons were often tasked to make meals out of the discarded and undesirable portions of the pig. I don’t eat much red meat so the bear, buffalo, muskrat, opossum, rabbit, racoon, and terrapin that Americans ate in the 1800s does not appeal. The mush that Frederick Douglass describes eating with a shell as his utensil also fails to entice, as does the practice of eating almost all of one’s vegetables pickled or overboiled. I’m very happy to live in an era where sanitation conditions mean we don’t have to eye our fresh vegetables with suspicion. On the other hand, one nineteenth century dish I would have loved to try would be sweet potato pone. Every time I revisit Charles Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars and Rena Walden serves her brother John some of their mother’s ‘tater pone and a cup of persimmon beer, I want to taste it.

If you were to embark on a transatlantic voyage in the nineteenth-century, how do you imagine your steamship experience?

As an African American woman, I would rather not imagine myself on any transatlantic voyages taking place during the nineteenth century.

If you could stumble across the secret diary of any nineteenth-century figure, whose would it be? What would you hope to read?

I’m very fortunate that many of the writers I study, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Chesnutt, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson (Alice Ruth Moore) kept journals which are available to us in the present day, but I would love to stumble across the secret diary of Elleanor Eldridge. There isn’t one because Eldridge was functionally illiterate. Her amanuensis, a white woman, took down her memoirs but exercised quite a bit of creative license and played up the romantic and sentimental aspects of Eldridge’s tale at the expense of celebrating Eldridge’s hard-earned entrepreneurism. I would love to read the story Eldridge actually wanted to tell and not the one her amanuensis decided upon.

What nineteenth-century fashion trend would you like to bring back, and why? 

I wouldn’t mind seeing the return of custom-made clothing alongside the practice of keeping one’s garments and altering them rather than tossing them when they’re out of season. By custom-made clothing I don’t mean let’s do away with ready-to-wear clothing and pay for expensive couture outfits so much as I mean that I’d love to return to the idea of wearing clothing made to fit you rather than twisting and squeezing yourself to conform to fit your clothing. It must have been freeing to live with nonstandard sizing rather than defining yourself as a size and a number on a label. The nineteenth century trend of keeping fashion by altering a garment e.g. adding a collar or shortening a skirt’s hem to revamp an outfit would definitely be better for the environment than our current fast fashion moment where we are quick to dispose and slow to mend.

Leave a Reply