Navigating Two Worlds: Samson Occom and William Apess

I am always amazed at the similarities between texts in class. I pair texts together for a reason, but it is always satisfying when other similarities and points of discussion arise between paired texts. This happens all of the time, and when I taught Samson Occom (Mohegan) and William Apess (Pequod) last week, new aspects arose that strengthened reading the two authors, separated by about sixty years, together.

Specifically, what came to the forefront during my discussion of Occom and Apess was the ways that both worked to navigate a culture that expected one thing from them, and expected to see them in a specific way, and how both worked to maintain a Native American identity to preach to others in their own communities. Scholars such as Dana Nelson, Bernard Pyer, Barry O’Connell, and Maureen Konkle point these aspects out. Today, I want to focus on a couple of items from both Occom and Apess that link the two writers and also highlight the liminal spaces they ultimately occupied.

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David Walker and the Composition Classroom?

For various reasons, I always like to teach David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829) in my Early American literature courses. Typically, I do not have students read selections from Walker’s Appeal until later in the semester; however, as I noted in a previous post, I am having students read it at the very beginning of the semester before moving backwards to Thomas Jefferson, William Bradford, Mary Rowlandson, and others. I did this for a couple of reasons, but recently, after teaching excerpts from the Appeal last week, I found another important reason to teach Walker’s text first. This reason does not deal with thematic elements in the Appeal that relate to our current milieu or to destabilizing the traditional literary survey, even though those are important reasons for choosing to have students read this text first. Rather, Walker provides a key bridge for students coming to a literary survey after taking their core composition courses because he highlights writing and reading as a conversation.

Over the past few years, I have been structuring my composition courses around Kenneth Burke’s Parlor Metaphor and the idea of writing as a conversation instead of as a solitary activity. While this may seem intuitive, I can recall that during my early days in the classroom, I did not do this. However, once I started to teach writing, and reading, as a conversation, I saw students become more engaged in the course because they felt like they could actually contribute their own voice to an ongoing conversation. For me, Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say”: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing along with Mike Palmquist and Barbara Wallraff’s Joining the Conversation: A Guide and Handbook for Writers have proven to be good textbooks to bring the idea of writing as a conversation into the classroom.

Burke’s metaphor is pretty easy to follow. Imagine that you arrive at party and hear the people that are already there talking about whether or not college athletes should be paid or not. You stand to the side, possibly, and listen to the conversation as it progresses, taking in both sides of the debate. A couple of people leave,  and the debate continues. Eventually, you decide that you understand the tenor of the conversation enough to throw your own ideas into the ring. A new person arrives, listens, then joins in the conversation. You realize it’s getting late, and then you leave. However, the conversation continues. It started before you arrived, carried on while you were there, and continues after you leave. This is the underlying idea of writing as conversation.

Now, what does this have to do with Walker’s Appeal? Why is the Appeal a good text to bridge that gap between a freshman composition course and a sophomore literature survey?  Throughout his Appeal, Walker highlights writing as a conversation and debate about ideas that existed before he was born and that continue to this day. For our purposes today, I am only going to focus on one such instance where Walker does this, with part of his discussion of Thomas Jefferson’s thoughts on race. This is not the only instance where Walker displays Burke’s metaphor. He does it with Daniel Webster, the American Colonization Society, and others as well.


In “Article I: Our Wretchedness in Consequence of Slavery,” Walker joins in the contemporaneous conversation surrounding race during the early part of the nineteenth century in America. He quotes, and refutes, Jefferson’s ideas on race, specifically the thoughts he espoused in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1784), where the third President of the United States claims, “I advance it, therefore, as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to whites in the endowments of both body and mind” (465). Walker takes Jefferson’s “suspicion” to task, asking, “Has Mr. Jefferson declared to the world, that we are inferior to the whites, both in the endowments of our bodies and of minds?” (514). After asking the question, Walker presents the image of two deer, one caged and one able to run free. If the caged deer gets released, Walker says, it will have to struggle to achieve the abilities of the deer that could run free, even if it was in bondage. Walker then returns to the biblical reference of the Egyptians allowing slaves, Joseph and Moses, to rise among them, while whites in America refuse to allowed free slaves to own land.

Walker’s argument is more intricate than just refuting Jefferson’s ideas, because Jefferson’s ideas influenced others as well. Walker makes a note of this later in “Article I” when he solicits his readers “to buy a copy of Mr. Jefferson’s “Notes on Virginia,” and put it in the hand of his son” (517). By stating this, Walker does not say that Jefferson’s ideas are valid and correct; instead, he asserts that in order to refute claims like those made by Jefferson about the inferiority of blacks, one must know what the other side says. As well, Walker realizes the power of the printed word and its ability to influence people’s thoughts. That is why he wanted his Appeal to circulate as widely as possible, sending it with sailors and others all  over the country.

There is a lot more that could be said here with the relationship between teaching Walker’s Appeal, or other texts,  in relation to the idea of writing as a conversation in composition courses. Showing students this link gets them interested in examine literature in different ways and provides them with a foundation for exploring texts that they may not be familiar with. More importantly, it empowers students from the very beginning of a survey course when they may feel intimidated because they have never been introduced to the texts or concepts of the course. By framing Walker in the context of writing as a conversation, students can draw on their previous knowledge to encounter unfamiliar texts.

What are your thoughts? As usual, let me now in the comments below.

Jefferson, Thomas. From Notes on the State of Virginia. America Literature. Eds. William E. Cain, Alice McDermott, Lance Newman, and Hilary E. Wuss. 2nd Edition. Boston: Pearson, 2014. 462-465.

Walker, David. From Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. America Literature. Eds. William E. Cain, Alice McDermott, Lance Newman, and Hilary E. Wuss. 2nd Edition. Boston: Pearson, 2014. 512-520.

Early American Literature Survey Syllabus

Note: Here is the syllabus I am discussing.

This semester, I’m teaching an Early American Literature survey course (through 1865). Typically, I have approached this course chronologically, having students read Native American creation stories, Christopher Columbus, William Bradford, and so on, in that order until we reached Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. However, this semester, I am trying something different. Instead of assigning students a set of readings that follow a specific sequential pattern, I am organizing the readings around paired themes and questions.  This approach is nothing new, I know, but this semester marks the first time I am personally constructing a survey course.

Today, I want to share with you my syllabus and discuss how I foresee this shift in organization possibly affecting the way that students read and approach the assigned texts over the course of the semester. Over the course of the semester, I want students to interrogate specific ideas and “myths” about our nation.

  • Is there such a thing as the American Dream?
  • What does “All men are created equal” actually mean?
  • What authors should be included in the canon when we look at Early American literature?
  • How are these texts still relevant today in our current cultural milieu?
  • How are these authors in conversation with one another?

For me, the last question is the most important, especially when thinking about how I teach students in my composition classes. There, I center the class around writing and reading as a conversation that involves more than just the student sitting idly by him or herself putting words down on paper or reading them from a page. Having students grasp this concept, in composition or literature classes, will open their eyes to the other questions, and more, mentioned above. With the idea of literature, and writing, as an ongoing conversation, I want to share with you how I chose to organize the readings. I’m not going to go through all of them here, but if you would like to see the full reading list, you can check out the syllabus here.

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David Walker                                                                  Thomas Jefferson 

Rather than starting with Columbus, I decided to have students begin the semester by reading an excerpt from David Walker’s Appeal (1829-1830). I chose this text for a couple of reasons, but first and foremost, Walker’s pamphlet highlights reading and writing as a conversation because in the excerpt students read Walker interrogates Thomas Jefferson’s ideas on race, specifically quoting the Founding Father. (I’ll expand upon this in the next post.) Walker’s Appeal, as such, argues about who can be considered American, a topic that Jefferson and others discuss in writings from the Revolutionary period onward.

After Walker, students will read Jefferson’s texts to see what, and why, Walker challenges the third president. As well, they will read excerpts from  J. Hector St. John de Crévecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer (1782), a book that gives us the image of America as a “melting pot.” By having students read these texts after Walker, they will see the cultural milieu that Walker encountered and why he constructed his arguments the way he did. Ultimately, my goal is to get students to question the narratives they have been taught so far, and by starting the semester off with a black nationalist text, I hope to decenter them and have them think about these issues from the viewpoint of someone like Walker. Following these readings, students will look at Samson Occom and William Apess before delving into texts by Columbus and Mary Rowlandson. Again, the thought process here is to have students look at the way Native Americans responded to writings then to see what those writings were.

As the course progresses, I have paired texts more along the lines of themes, race, gender, and class. For example, Harriet Jacobs immediately follows Rowlandson’s narrative. I do this to show students that Rowlandson’s and Jacobs’s texts can both be read as “captivity narratives,” albeit in different contexts. They can also both be examined in the experiences that women, white and black endured, and the differences in those experiences. Jacobs’s “slave narrative” leads us into “travel narratives” and “conversion narratives” such as Sarah Kemble Knight, Olaudah Equiano, and John Marrant. Each of these narratives overlap in regards to theme and convention.

Through this construction, students will see that we cannot place texts into neat little prepackaged boxes such as the “slave narrative,” “captivity narrative,” “travel narrative,” or “conversion narrative.” Instead, these narratives overlap and flow into one another creating a malleable interweaving of textual conventions that highlights, rather directly or indirectly, a literary conversation. The rest of the semester plays this out throughout different centuries, pairing Anne Bradstreet with Emily Dickinson and Phillis Wheatley with Frances Ellen Watkins Harper for example.

I do not present the five authors of F.O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance (1941) until the end of the semester because these are names, whether students have read them or not, that students know in some capacity: Whitman, Melville, Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne. Even with this, though, each of these authors writes back to a text we will have read throughout the course of the semester. For example, Hawthorne writes back to the Puritans. So even if these are the traditionally “canonical” authors, they did not appear out of nowhere. They appeared within a conversation and added to that conversation.

What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know either on Twitter or in the comments below.