Professor Katy L. Chiles’s Transformable Race: Surprising Metamorphoses in the Literature of Early America was published by Oxford University Press in January 2014.
As surprising as it might seem now, during the late eighteenth century many early Americans asked themselves, “How could a person of one race come to be another?” Racial thought at the close of the eighteenth century differed radically from that of the nineteenth century, when the concept of race as a fixed biological category would emerge. Instead, many early Americans thought that race was an exterior bodily trait, incrementally produced by environmental factors and continuously subject to change. While historians have documented aspects of eighteenth-century racial thought, Transformable Race is the first scholarly book that identifies how this thinking informs the figurative language in the literature of this crucial period. It argues that the notion of transformable race structured how early American texts portrayed the formation of racial identities. Examining figures such as Phillis Wheatley, Benjamin Franklin, Samson Occom, and Charles Brockden Brown, Transformable Race demonstrates how these authors used language emphasizing or questioning the potential malleability of physical features to explore the construction of racial categories.
“Transformable Race adds measurably and convincingly to our understanding of the early American understanding of race. Katy L. Chiles shows how early American literature was a venue for many subtle and incisive explorations of racial mutability. Configuring a diverse archive—featuring especially Occom and Wheatley, Franklin and Aupaumut, Crevecoeur, Marrant, Brown, Equiano, Brackenridge, and Tyler—early American literature emerges here as a richly experimental space where the concept of racial mutability was examined, dramatized, questioned, criticized, and itself transformed.”
Christopher Looby, UCLA, author of Voicing America: Language, Literary Form, and the Origins of the United States