The following is a guest post by Jason Michael David Steinhauer, program specialist in the Library of Congress Office of Scholarly Programs.
The John W. Kluge Center welcomes promising young scholars from the United Kingdom to conduct research at the Library of Congress. The scholars—all currently pursuing doctorate degrees—are funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), which have been collaborating with the Library since 2006 to provide short-term opportunities for scholars based in the U.K.
Tell us about your research.
My research explores the reception and literary influence of Robert Burns’s work in late-Eighteenth and early Nineteenth-century America. My current focus is on how his work was disseminated and received by Scottish emigrants in the U.S.
How was his work received by Scots in the U.S.?
In 1788 the Scots emigrants Peter Stewart and George Hyde published the first American edition of Burns’s Poems Chiefly In The Scottish Dialect in Philadelphia. Similar editions followed shortly afterwards in New York in 1789 and 1790. For Scots who had settled in America, Burns’s poetry became a vehicle for them to reach back and connect with the “homeland.” In focusing on the initial transmission of Burns’s work in America, I hope to assess his—as well as other Scots poets’—role in the creation and maintenance of a Scots diasporic culture and network in America, which continues to the present day.
Has Burns played a role in creating the Scots diasporic culture in America, in your estimation?
His poetry, songs and subsequent “cult” (in the form of Burns Suppers and Clubs) most certainly played—and still play—some part in maintaining a Scots diasporic culture. However it’s important not to over-emphasize his role in creating it. Scottish groups in America such as the St. Andrews Society of New York pre-date Burns by some margin, and a sense of community would have been established earlier through religion, namely Presbyterianism.
What Library of Congress collections are you focusing on for your research?
I’m primarily using the digitized collections of American historical newspapers, which are accessible through several databases and also in physical format in the Serials and Periodicals room. Databases such as “America’s Historical Newspapers 1690-1922” are word-searchable, thus making it convenient to learn what American public opinion of Burns was in any given time period. I’m also working with the staff at The American Folklife Center to trace the genealogy of Burns’s songs in America, particularly in Appalachia, where traditional Scots ballads took on new variants and forms.
How did you first get interested in Robert Burns?
Like most Scots, I grew up toasting Burns each year on the 25th of January and was, of course, acquainted with some of his most famous poems from an early age. However, it wasn’t until my final year of undergraduate study that I fully grasped the complexity, depth, and intellectual vigour of Burns’s works. Upon studying poems and songs such as “When Guilford Good” and “A Man’s a Man for A’ That”, I became captivated by the political engagement, idealism, and poetic craft of a writer who had so often been romantically reduced—in my experience—to a sentimental figure void of the credibility associated with many of his literary contemporaries.
Where is your research ultimately taking the discussion of Burns’s poetry?
I’d like to emphasize that Burns wrote his “American” works (poems that deal with America) in the volatile decade that followed the American Revolution. The loss of the thirteen colonies not only affected cultural and commercial ties, but also heavily divided political opinion in Britain. While there is a tendency to reflexively consider him as a pro-American anti-establishment radical, this image is not always founded on thorough critical analysis. Therefore I’d like to form a more nuanced assessment of what Burns’s opinions of America might have been, and subsequently explore how his work went onto influence various aspects of American culture.