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Meet Assistant Professor Rachel Trocchio

The beauty and peculiarity of Puritan sermons led to this scholar's focus on Early American literature
December 12, 2019

This fall, the Department of English welcomed Dr. Rachel Trocchio as a new assistant professor here at Minnesota. Professor Trocchio received her BA in English from Columbia University, followed by a PhD in English from the University of California, Berkeley in 2017. A specialist in pre-1800 American literature, she was previously a visiting assistant professor of English at Franklin & Marshall College and a visiting postdoctoral fellow at Yale’s Beinecke Library.

"Like many people,
my expectation was
that the Puritans
were bleak killjoys
and Puritan writing
was bone-dry."

Would you describe your current book project? What led you to this topic?

My book project, American Puritanism and the Cognitive Style of Grace, is the first study to orient Puritanism around its participation in the history of “the craft of thought.” Broadly speaking, the phrase refers to mental devices for making thoughts. In colonial Massachusetts, I argue, this craft manifest as a series of literary responses that reckoned with predestination (the idea that God determined one’s eternal fate before the beginning of time) and the ordeals that the doctrine posed (including, quite basically, the ordeal of thinking about it).

I went to Berkeley fully intending to be a Modernist—I thought I would be a Woolf scholar—and then I happened to take a graduate seminar my first semester, Kathleen Donegan’s “Colonial America in the Circum-Atlantic World”: both she and it turned me on my head. What was it that turned me, in particular? Sermons. The sermon literature of first-generation Puritan divines, from the 1630s-40s. The sermons were unlike anything I had ever read, just gorgeous and bizarre and brilliant and affecting. Like many people, my expectation was that the Puritans were bleak killjoys and Puritan writing was bone-dry. Now, these myths are two of the first I try to dispel in my classes.

Your favorite work to teach?

This might be Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette (1797), one of the earliest American novels. It’s based on the true story of a woman abandoned by her lover and is really quite salacious! You can visit the grave of the real Elizabeth Whitman, who gave birth to a stillborn infant and died at an inn in Danvers (now Peabody), MA. It was something of a pilgrimage site for young women in the 19th and 20th centuries, equal parts warning and intrigue.

You taught a new and popular course on "Witchcraft, Possession, Magic" this fall. What led you to create this class?

The witchcraft course grew out of material I was reading about the Salem witchcraft crisis for a survey I was teaching at Franklin & Marshall College. I wanted to extend discussion of the topic in ways that could pay respect to the fact that Salem both was and was not unique: on one hand, it’s part of a piece with witch hunting in Europe; on the other, it intersects with crises that are distinctly colonial (doubts about ministerial authority, Anglo-Native warfare, settler-colonialism more broadly and catastrophically). It’s also full of holes, meaning that there are huge gaps in the archive—most consequentially, around the person of Tituba, the slave woman first accused. It seemed to me imperative to think with students about who gets to fill those holes, and with what.

In my class, we come to the question by moving from a section on witchcraft in Europe, where we read demonology tracts, case histories from the 16th and 17th centuries, and Matthew Lewis’s 1796 potboiler, The Monk, to “New Worlds,” where we explore everything from Iroquois supernatural to obeah in Barbados, to the “novel” retelling of the Salem crisis, I, Tituba, written by the French-Caribbean author Maryse Condé in the voice of Tituba herself. The most surprising—and thrilling—thing about the class was how much students made the material their own, in the form of class presentations that brought our readings to bear on a truly incredible range of subjects of their choosing: witchcraft in Indonesia; the recent supernatural horror art film Suspiria; the Mexican Inquisition. I’m eager, and honored, to integrate their original insights into future iterations of the course.

Most intriguing book you've read this year?

Up there would have to be a book of essays by Jia Tolentino called Trick Mirror: Essays on Self Delusion (Random House, 2019). It’s a really clear-eyed look at varieties of delusion we encounter (or inflict) in our digitally saturated age, in incredibly smart prose by a young female author at the top of her game.

What are you most excited about in joining the English faculty at the University and living in Minnesota?

There’s a kind of large-heartedness that’s new to me, coming from the East coast, and I find that it characterizes how people think and write. The scholarly, creative, and pedagogical commitments that my colleagues demonstrate are profound, not just in their depth and scope but in their authenticity. I’m lucky to have an office across from Doug Kearney’s, and every time I hear him speak with a student it’s an inspiration. It’s also humbling to be able to work with the very scholars I read. I’m working on an article on quite an understudied connection between the Puritans and a Jewish group called the Karaites. I was looking—just this week—for articles to help me along. I found two, without paying attention to who the authors were. Then I discovered I had landed on one essay by John Watkins, and another by Nabil Matar.