This fall, Dr. Steven W. Thomas joined the English department at Wagner College. Originally from Southern California, Dr. Thomas completed his B.A. at Brown University, taught English in Japan for two years, and finished his Ph.D. at Penn State University. He then taught at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University in Minnesota for five years before moving to New York for his new position at Wagner. His scholarly and teaching interests include early American literature, Atlantic studies, globalization, movies and media, and cultural theory. He has begun working on a book about the cultural relationship between the United States and Ethiopia.
About two months after his arrival, his essay “Taxing Tobacco and the Metonymies of Virtue: The Poetics of Thomson, Browne, Byrd, and Cooke” was published in a book entitled Global Economies, Cultural Currencies of the Eighteenth Century, edited by Michael Rotenberg-Schwartz. This interdisciplinary book collects essays by scholars of literature, history, and art history that examine the cultural responses to eighteenth-century economies. Dr. Thomas’s essay in particular seeks to change the way we typically think of both eighteenth century British literature and early American literature by revealing how both are responding to the same debates about the transatlantic trade.
The regulation and taxation of the tobacco trade was so controversial in the 1730s that it led to violent street riots in London and the burning of inspection warehouses in Virginia. Dr. Thomas’s research reveals not only that poets cared about this issue, but that they actively attempted to intervene through their writing. In England, James Thomson’s long poem Liberty presented a political position against the new taxes. Another poet, Isaac Hawkins Browne, ridiculed Thomson’s poem in his own parodic satire, A Pipe of Tobacco. Across the Atlantic, the Virginian William Byrd II emphasized his scientific and moral authority for judging matters of trade in his belletristic account of a survey expedition to settle boundary disputes, The History of the Dividing Line betwixt Virginia and North Carolina. In Maryland, Ebenezer Cooke satirized the debate in his poem Sotweed Redivivus: The Planter’s Looking Glass. Before Dr. Thomas’s essay, no scholar had revealed the extent to which writers on opposite sides of the Atlantic were so connected to each other through their involvement in the same trade dispute.