April 15, 2008
Sean Ross Meehan, assistant professor of English at Morningside College, had his book, “Mediating American Autobiography: Photography in Emerson, Thoreau, Douglass, and Whitman,” published this month by University of Missouri Press.
Photography was introduced at the same time that important American literature was emerging from authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Douglass and Walt Whitman. In his new book, Meehan examines how photography affected the way these authors thought about writing, particularly when portraying themselves in autobiographies. For example, Meehan explores an autobiography that Whitman called fragmentary, messy and unfinished.
“At one point in a letter, he says, ‘I was willing to make a mostly “negative” book,’” Meehan said. “There are different things ‘negative’ can mean there. I’m suggesting he’s thinking about it as a kind of photographic negative that’s not a finished product. It’s unfinished until the reader develops it in some way. That’s a case where I argue that autobiographical writing sort of becomes an unfinished process.”
Also in his book, Meehan bridges the late 19th century with the present era – for both are times of great technological advances – and he finds lessons from the past regarding how we might think about technology and literature today. As one example, Meehan said it’s a relatively recent idea to separate science and technology from the humanities.
“There’s an important lesson from these writers of the 19th century,” Meehan said. “Technology and communication have always gone together, and it’s always been multimedia. They don’t automatically see photographs as being different from essays or other kinds of writing.”
As a result, Meehan encourages students at Morningside to think about technology when doing literary criticism – and also when exploring ways to improve their own writing.
For instance, Meehan said photographers are taught to shoot an entire role of film if they want to get one good shot. He said they are also told to deliberately overexpose and underexpose a picture, just because you never know which shot will end up turning out the best. Meehan uses this as an analogy when working with young writers, as a way to introduce them to the revision process. He said he congratulates them on their initial work, but then he asks them to deliberately change something, just to see if it makes the draft better.
Meehan was awarded three grants that helped him finish his book – two from Morningside College and one from Harvard University. From Morningside, Meehan received a grant from the academic affairs office, and he also received a Ver Steeg Faculty Development Grant to travel to the former home of the founder of Kodak to do research on photography. From Harvard, he received the Ralph Waldo Emerson Memorial Association Fellowship so he could spend a month researching Emerson at Houghton Library, Harvard’s principle rare book and manuscript library.
Meehan joined the Morningside faculty in 2004. He received his undergraduate degree in English from Princeton University, a master’s degree in English and American literature from State University of New York at Buffalo and a doctorate in English and American literature from the University of Iowa. He is the author of several published articles, which have appeared in journals such as “Criticism,” “Arizona Quarterly” and “Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly.”