Etta Madden, Author

I write often of individuals in communities–past and present. The theme runs through my work, from as long ago as the 1990s. This photo in the courtyard of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, or Hieronymite Monastery, in Belém, Portugal, for example, reflects three topics I often consider: communal life, American literature, and Americans learning through travel.

Communal Life and American Literature

This monastery interests me in part because Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, wrote about it.  More important, though, is that Melville was interested in communal and religious life. Like his contemporaries, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Melville was aware of the diverse views of religious communities. They wrote of New England experimental religious and secular communes, social activism of Quakers, and pitfalls and benefits of Roman Catholic cloisters. Their views, which run the spectrum from positive to negative, are central to concepts I address in my work.

In Bodies of Life: Shaker Literature and Literacies, for example, I explain how some see communal life as blissfully escapist and isolated.  Others consider it controlled and corrupted by indulgent leaders. And still others deem it unnecessarily ascetic. Such variations and tensions are central to studies of “utopia,” or the “perfect place.” As the introduction to my volume Eating in Eden: Food and American Utopias defines the term, “utopia” is not only  a “perfect place” but also always “no place.” In spite of its non-existence and impossibility, people keep dreaming of better places in which they might co-exist with others.

Learning through Conversations and Travel

As an author I draw from historical examples but underscore contemporary concerns. People long to be part of communities even though they see their flaws.  I brings forward ideas from the past–still pressing today–not only in my writing but also through lectures, group workshops, and educational trips.  Posts on this site and links to books, articles, and reviews provide a glimpse of these activities. Subscribe to follow my blog if you would like to learn more about my research and writing.