New Faculty Profile: Dr. Maria Windell

Last week, the English Department began a short series of profile posts to feature each of our nine newest faculty members. Each New Faculty Profile interview was conducted by English interns Tyler Fields and Nakkia Patrick and graduate student Craig Schmidt. Last week’s post featured Dr. Miranda Nesler. Continue reading below to see this week’s profile of Dr. Maria Windell who was interviewed by graduate student Craig Schmidt.

Dr. Maria Windell is from Fort Wayne, Indiana. Originally, she intended to major in Geology and Oceanography. But, after her first year, she changed her major to English and transferred to Purdue University. She earned her BA from Purdue University and her MA and PhD from University of Virginia. She specializes in Early American and Ethnic Literature.

Can you tell us anything about your book manuscript, Transamerican Sentimentalism in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Literary History?

What I’m really interested in is the way that US writers in the 19th century depict scenarios in which characters from different nations, cultures, and ethnicities encounter each other in contexts that are shaped by revolutions and slave rebellions. There were so many different conflicts going on in the Americas at that time, and US writers were writing about these situations—they created fictional characters who were negotiating all these conflicts even as the US was officially doing so as well.  I’m really interested in the interchange between those two things. There are ways in which some of the novels [from this period] end up supporting the spread of US imperialism, but a lot of times they try to negotiate ways around direct violence.

For instance, one of the novels that I like to work on is the first American Indian novel[b1] , Joaquín Murieta. Published in 1854, it’s about Mexican bandits and takes place in the wake of both Cherokee Removal and the US-Mexican War. While there is a lot of violence in the novel, the female characters, of which there are only a few, tend to work within a traditional sentimental paradigm and occasionally can actually overcome the violence of the male characters and create moments of sentimental interaction that appear almost unexpectedly in middle of this violence.

Is there any other research that you are currently working on (aside from your book project) or will be working on soon?

There are a couple of things that I’m interested in. Both of them have grown out of my book project. The first centers on a Civil War hero who’s never really talked about. His name is Admiral David Dixon Porter. He was a secret envoy to the Dominican Republic, and then fought in the US-Mexican War. He was particularly helpful fighting Mexico because his father had helped build the Mexican Navy after leaving the US Navy, so Porter had inside knowledge about the harbors where he was fighting in Mexico because he had travelled there with his father. He then fought in the Civil War and he would come up these extraordinary plans that would actually work. For example, he experimented with underwater ordinances, which no one really knew about at that time, and he painted a ship to look like a coal boat and sent it to bombard the guns of a fort.

His life seems like an adventure novel. One of his first experiences at sea was when his father—who was a commodore in the navy—took him to fight pirates in the West Indies when he was twelve years old. When he retired much later, he wrote non-fiction and fiction pieces. He wrote about his memories of the Civil War and a memoir of his father, but he also wrote novels and an official government report of his visit to the Dominican Republic—which reads like an adventure novel. I have a chapter on him in the book that I’m working on now, and I’m also working on a related article—but I’m interested in possibly building a whole project around military writing in general and particularly naval writing. It’s clear in Porter’s writing that he sees himself as very literarily influenced, and he often mentions Washington Irving. I want to think about how this type of writing tries to be literary and whether or not it can be seen in those terms; I’m interested in doing some archival work to look into this idea.

My second interest comes out of a recent talk that I gave about a movie called Machete, which came out a couple of years ago, and how it interacts with the American Indian novel I mentioned earlier. When Machete first came out, most people were talking about it in the context of blaxploitation films and immigration issues, but when I watched the film, I thought it seemed like a reincarnation of this 19th-century narrative, whose Mexican bandit character is very similar to Machete: a sort of noble character who’s been wronged and forced into a life of violence. I’m interested in the way that these kinds of crossovers make us rethink the contexts of contemporary cultural productions and how they reach back to older forms.  I’ve also started thinking about what happens when we view Joaquín Murieta as a border narrative—not only because it’s about Mexican bandits but also because Cherokee Removal is about borders in a way as well.

So, I’m interested in the very popular culture side, but I’m also really interested in how an author like Cormac McCarthy uses Mexican revolutionary history in Blood Meridian and that sort of crossover.

Aside from Early American and Ethnic Literature in general, is there a particular theme or author that pervades your work?

I really love the 19th century. I’m also really interested in multi-ethnic literature because it tends to get messy, and I like when things get messy or more complicated than it seems like they should. But, I guess the thing that threads through everything that I’m interested in is the interaction between history and literature.

Your profile on the Department’s website states that you specialize in environmental literature and ecocriticism. Can you explain what exactly these are and what they encompass?

In a way it has to do with the idea of thinking about “setting” in a new way, almost as if the “setting” is a character.  For instance, I’m having my students in my African American Lit class right now talk about the idea of slaves escaping. As slaves they can go hide in the Dismal Swamp or in maroon communities in hard to get to wilderness areas which are, at the same time, dangerous areas and areas where you get chased by bloodhounds. Or you can think about when slaves are trying to flee north: there are hints from the landscape that they can follow—the way that things bloom or grow that can make the landscape vital but not threatening.

I’m also interested in the divisions between authors. I had students in my Early American Survey class read accounts of very early New England by William Bradford and Thomas Morton. Morton, when he talks about New England, describes it as this Edenic space and how lush and green and plentiful everything is. Bradford talks about it as this hideous wilderness. So it’s a question of what makes them have these very different perceptions of the same place.

Are there any course ideas that you have which you are simply waiting to get a chance to put into action?

One of the things I would like to do at some point—and I think it would work well here, in the Midwest—is a class on the working landscape. So we would study farming novels or novels and stories about sharecropping and different kinds of working the land; for example, Don Kurtz’s novel South of the Big Four, a farming novel set in Indiana, some work by Willa Cather; there’s also a book by William Cronon called Nature’s Metropolis which talks about the way that various goods and farming products fed into and out of Chicago.

What sorts of activities or hobbies do you engage in outside of your scholarly work? How do you unwind and recharge yourself?

I like get out and do things. I like walk and play with my dog or go hiking. I also like to watch certain television programs, but I have a really bad habit of predicting the narratives. I’m also a huge sports fan—particularly Steelers football and Purdue basketball.

-Interview conducted by Craig Schmidt