Q-and-A with Miami graduate student awarded two prestigious honors

By Margo Kissell, university news and communications

Cynthia Smith, a literature graduate student at Miami University, was recently awarded the Albert M. Greenfield Foundation Dissertation Fellowship at the Library Company of Philadelphia.

Cynthia Smith The independent research library was founded in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin and houses one of the most significant collections of early American manuscripts and documents. Smith, who earned her master’s in creative writing at California State University, Sacramento, will reside there for four months beginning this fall and hopes to finish her dissertation project on the figure of the sentimental sailor in 19th-century American literature.

Earlier this year, Smith was awarded the Harriet Beecher Stowe Society Award for Up and Coming Scholars. She will attend the American Literature Association conference in late May to present her research on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. We caught up with Smith, who plans to defend her doctoral dissertation next spring and aspires to become a professor specializing in the literature and culture of early and antebellum America. Here are excerpts from the interview:

Why did you choose Miami for your PhD program?

First, I really liked the professors in the English department and was eager to study under them. And second, the English department has a very strong teacher training program. Not only do graduate students teach classes during their entire time at Miami, but the department also takes a great deal of care to train first-year graduate students with teacher training courses. In addition, the literature program at Miami has an apprenticeship program where a Ph.D. literature student will shadow a literature professor to receive specialized training with pedagogical practices in literary studies.

I see the dissertation fellowship is a four-month residency with a stipend of $10,000.

I’m overjoyed about the fellowship and am really looking forward to going to Philadelphia. It has also been very rewarding to see how happy my mentors are about the fellowship (Andrew Hebard, associate professor of English, and Michele Navakas, assistant professor of English).

You'll be finishing the portion of your dissertation on the figure of the sentimental sailor in 19th-century American literature. What attracted you to this subject?

Some of the reasons why I find the sentimental sailor fascinating is that this character appears in multiple genres throughout the first half of the 19th-century. Obviously sentimental sailors are in tales about ocean adventures, but these characters also appear in women’s fiction such as domestic novels, poetry, slave narratives, captivity narratives and frontier narratives. There are also a variety of sentimental sailors — some have positions of power as sea captains, some are regular mariners, and some pirates. And as the women’s rights movement and abolitionism grew in popularity, there were sentimental sailors who are heroines and also enslaved persons.

Is the Library Company of Philadelphia a potential treasure trove for someone like you? 

Yes, I’m very excited to see what I’ll find there. The LCP has such a rich historical collection — I’ve basically been given the ability to travel back into time to study and interact with the original texts from colonial and 19th-century America. I think that each day there will be an enormous amount of fun for me, like going to an academic Disneyland.

Regarding the Harriet Beecher Stowe Society Award for Up and Coming Scholars, can you say a little bit about your research as it relates to that best-selling novel of the 19th-century?

I noticed in Uncle Tom’s Cabin that there are several unexamined moments when the enslaved hero, Tom, figures as a sailor. Stowe, in fact, calls him an “Italian sailor,” a “mariner shipwrecked,” and a “half-drowned mariner.” The novel’s villain, the slaveholder Simon Legree, is also, ironically, a pirate.