Peter Betjemann teaches the literature of the United States from its origins to the present, while specializing as a researcher in the period between 1789 and 1900. His current project, Revolutionary Readers: Early American Narrative Painters and the Radicalization of Literature, argues that the more than 100 extant antebellum paintings of particular literary scenes together constitute a body of highly sophisticated literary criticism. In many cases, the interpretive insights of these works (including, for instance, George Loring Brown’s Leatherstocking Kills the Panther and Robert S. Duncanson’s Uncle Tom and Little Eva) pushed the boundaries of what was meant by “America” and “American literature” in ways that print critics have only recently begun to draw out in the writing of Irving, Cooper, Bryant, Longfellow, Hawthorne, and Stowe. Returning to these often-neglected paintings, and understanding them as a corpus, helps us locate the earliest readings of “American” literature as fundamentally hemispheric; as deeply engaged with multiracial identity; and as founded on an understanding of cultural boundaries as far more fluid than characterizations of the “early national” period suggest.
Betjemann’s first book, Talking Shop: The Language of Craft in an Age of Consumption (University of Virginia Press, 2011), originated in his work as a cabinetmaker’s assistant during his years as a student. It studies the lexicons of the “artisanal” – today a familiar way of talking about everything from cheeses and coffee to mass-marketed decorative styles – as they developed in the nineteenth century. Even as his current interests tend towards art history and visual culture, he continues to publish on issues of literature, craft, and design in such journals as Word and Image, American Literary Realism, and The Journal of Design History.