The Bulletin is the student newsletter of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Printed eight times during the academic year, and updated continually online, the Bulletin profiles PhD and master's students and reports on GSAS news and events.

When it comes to the study of slavery in the Americas, Nicholas Rinehart often imagines the disciplines of literary studies and history as ships passing in the night. “They share similar concerns,” he says. “But literary scholars and historians examine slave testimony in distinctive ways that are rarely compatible.”

While many historians are interested in literature and many literary scholars do historical work, they tend to stay in their lanes: historians read the work of historians and literary scholars read the works of other literary scholars. But Rinehart, a third year PhD student in the Department of English, believes that there should be more cross-talk between these two disciplines. “The goal of my dissertation is to get literary studies and history to speak to each other in like terms,” he shares.

And what he wants them to talk about is slave testimony, or autobiographical accounts produced by enslaved people, such as renowned “slave narratives” by Frederick Douglass (A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave) and Solomon Northup (12 Years a Slave). “The ‘slave narrative’ is one of the most cherished forms in literary scholarship, where it occupies a sanctified position as a truly American genre and the beginning of the African American literary tradition.”

Both historians and literary scholars study slave narratives, but in Rinehart’s opinion, they frequently differ in their use of sources and accompanying reading practices. “Literary scholars tend to focus on documents that fit nicely within the ‘slave narrative’ tradition, whereas historians are much more willing to deal with messiness,” he explains, “but they’re also more reluctant to analyze or theorize the messiness itself.” That is, historians use a number of documents that literary critics are unaware of or reticent to use because these documents don’t fit into their understanding of the slave narrative tradition. One main aim of Rinehart’s dissertation is to make such historical documentation intelligible to literary scholars, and he plans to do so by proposing a set of concepts that will enable literary critics to read them as forms of narrative.

On Staying at Harvard

For Rinehart, whose work is a blend of both the history of slavery and African American literature, slave testimony is where he could get these areas to talk. His interest in these fields was sparked by a number of courses he took as an undergraduate at Harvard, in particular classes taught by literary scholar Werner Sollors and historian Walter Johnson. His research on slave testimony came together as Rinehart found a group of faculty he clicked with and, as he explains, “who made my brain work in exciting ways.”

One of the members of that faculty group is Glenda Carpio, a professor of African and African American studies and English. Carpio was Rinehart’s advisor for his undergraduate thesis and now serves in the same role for his graduate dissertation; she is also one of the main reasons Rinehart decided to stay at Harvard for graduate school. “Professor Carpio has known this project for as long as I have, and she has seen it develop and understands where it’s going.”

As he began writing his undergraduate thesis, Rinehart soon realized that the subject of the first chapter was substantial enough for an entire thesis and decided to put aside the other areas he had planned on exploring. His current dissertation work is his chance to finally explore those topics; staying at Harvard and continuing to work with Carpio guaranteed that Rinehart could “hit the ground running” when it came to his research.

Prize-Winning Work

In the spring 2016, Rinehart was awarded the Bowdoin Prize for Best Graduate Essays in the English Language for “In Human Bondage: Reconsidering the Slave Relation.” Essays for the Bowdoin Prizes are submitted anonymously, with a pseudonym. Rinehart’s was “Poot Lovato”—a reference to a meme about Demi Lovato, the American singer and actress—a brief moment of levity before his exploration of how scholarly work is obsessed with the idea that during slavery “persons were treated as things and how that paradigm mystifies or clouds our collective historical vision of enslavement.”

The Bowdoin Prizes are one of Harvard’s oldest student awards, given in recognition of the best work written by both undergraduates and graduate students in English language, natural sciences, Latin, and Greek. In winning a Bowdoin Prize, Rinehart joins a prestigious roster of past winners that includes Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Updike, but there’s more. Rinehart is one of the few people who can say he’s won the award twice: once as an undergraduate and now again in graduate school.

“In Human Bondage” did not just win this year’s Bowdoin prize, it was also recently published in the Journal of Social History. The paper’s publication in a journal read almost exclusively by historians is important for Rinehart, who considers himself a part-time historian. It demonstrates that not only can he do both literary scholarship and historical research, but that he can also make his work generative and interesting to professional historians.

But maybe the most important aspect of winning the Bowdoin is knowing that one’s work is meaningful to people who are not specialists in African American literature or the history of slavery. For Rinehart, the ability to make one’s work intelligible to a larger audience, whether that audience is his father—“he will not let it go if I use a word he doesn’t understand,” he admits laughing—or the Bowdoin committee, is something that all academics should always keep in mind. Winning the Bowdoin prize is proof that he succeeded in that. 

Opening Dialogue

Photos by Molly Akin