This essay introduces the concept of imperative reading as one solution to the tension between implicitly suspicious historicist methods, on one hand, and, on the other, postcritical practices of reading that prioritize readerly pleasure over readerly paranoia. Imperative reading reveals the network of historically inflected obligations that can produce or intensify the expectation that reading should be pleasurable. This insight comes to view in the writing and reading practices of Samson Occom, late eighteenth-century Mohegan minister, theologian, and hymnodist, and cofounder of Brothertown, a political experiment in Indigenous survivance in the face of settler colonial incursion during the late colonial era and the early republic. For Occom and his fellow Algonquians, reading and writing, to say nothing of readerly pleasure, were not foregone conclusions. Reading and writing could be sources of pleasure, and they could also be sites of resistance to the era’s ascendant liberalism. Occom’s archive shows him exploiting these possibilities. This experience of alphabetic literacy, however, was neither uniform nor always consensual. Imperative reading names the experience of literacy as Esther Poquiantup Fowler, Samson Occom’s sister-in-law, knew it. Sometimes, despite Occom’s best intentions, liberalism cunningly inflected his relations with his kinswoman, and it did so most forcefully in his expectation that she slowly, maybe even symptomatically, read his writing and that she take pleasure in it, too. Fowler understood that expectation; she felt it as an imperative. Yet she didn’t refuse it so much as defer it. Her delicate negotiation of reading as an imperative directs attention to the personal and political history of the expectation—for her, a burdensome one—that reading should be self-evidently fun. Fowler’s strategies for alleviating this burden renew our understanding of historicist methods and the symptomatic mood of critique. They are instruments for future repair even as they afford us practice in noticing and interpreting the particularities that liberal society encourages us to forget.

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