Behind the Research: Sarah Rivett, English & American studies

“I had Colonial America in my imagination from childhood,” says Professor Sarah Rivett, who grew up in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y.
Illustration: Agata Nowicka
Sarah Rivett is firmly rooted in Colonial America. The Princeton English and American studies professor grew up in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., a quaint Hudson Valley town made famous by Washington Irving’s 1820 short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Today, Rivett focuses on the interplay among language, religion, and indigenous New World cultures. She was drawn to this time period because “it’s both connected to the United States today and very different from the United States today. And one of the ways that you can trace connections across time is through literary form.” For example, she says, it’s possible to see how sermons from the 17th century have been repurposed into political rhetoric in the 21st century. “History is distinct from the contemporary moment, but the contemporary moment has a lot to learn from history,” she says. “I really enjoy that tension.” 

Rivett’s Work: A Sampling

Mikel Casal
SCIENCE FOR THE SOUL  Early New England may seem a paradox: Settled by deeply religious Puritans, the region flourished during the Enlightenment, a period of scientific discovery. However, the Puritans were not far removed from their era, Rivett argues in The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England (2011). “They actually employed a number of natural philosophical and early scientific methods for discerning evidence of God’s grace in human souls,” she says. Rivett adds that the Puritans examined documents such as deathbed speeches for empirical evidence of the divine to validate their religious practices and try to get around “some of the theological limits on what humans could know.”       

Mikel Casal
LANGUAGE OF CULTURE  From 1788 to 1809, Thomas Jefferson attempted to create a compendium of indigenous languages by translating the same 200 words in various tongues. In Unscripted America: Indigenous Languages and the Origins of a Literary Nation (2017), Rivett details how one Nanticoke woman substituted “words that were very specific to the Nanticoke landscape — local aspects of the land, the waterways.” By reinventing Jefferson’s rubric, the woman saved some of her culture, giving “native people a way to write their language and their history into the archive in some surprising ways.”

Mikel Casal
GHOSTS OF THE PAST  Historians have long wondered how the 1693 Salem witch trials in Massachusetts, where 19 people were hanged, might have coincided with the emergence of key Enlightenment figures like John Locke. To Rivett, the supernatural elements — from the witchcraft allegations to the sightings of apparitions — represent a re-emergence of folk or pagan religions. “The trials themselves are really about the breakdown of Enlightenment epistemology in the face of these older religious forms resurfacing,” she says, noting that fascination with the otherworldly tends to accompany social unrest. “The supernatural provides a fantasy, an escape, or a kind of allegory for thinking through those anxieties.”