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Locating Settler Colonies in the Postcolonial Imaginary
As its subtitle suggests, this book is an argument for the use of postcolonial studies in early American history. It is not the first. A mounting tide of fine articles and at least one prior collection, Robert Blair St. George's Possible Pasts: Becoming Colonial in Early America, have already opened the conversation.1 For several reasons, though, Messy Beginnings may prove among the more controversial of these initiatives.
The volume grew out of conference sessions of the Society of Early Americanists and the American Studies Association and it takes these two constituencies—early Americanists and postcolonial scholars generally—as its primary audiences. To early American historians, Messy Beginnings argues for the utility of postcolonial methodologies in the study of early American culture. This will not be an easy sell. As a field, early American history tends to be doggedly antitheoretical, and early American historians of a less cultural bent still grumble that postcolonial methods offer little more than an esoteric vocabulary and tortured syntax. To these skeptics, Messy Beginnings contends that postcolonial approaches can offer a way out of the cul-de-sac of American exceptionalism that has long dominated and constrained the study of early American history. As most early American historians would now agree, to debate whether the United States was simply a variant on European imperialism or a beacon of enlightened self-determination is pointless. It was plainly both. More important, in the view of the book's editors, Malini Johar Schueller and Edwards Watts, it was also, strictly speaking, neither. America's settler communities, whose histories were intensely local and endlessly contradictory, defied simple description as either "American" or "European." Rather, they constituted an "entanglement of imperial and colonial experiences and identities" that postcolonial methods are particularly well suited to pick apart (5). [End Page 1223]
But the real target audience of the volume is postcolonial scholars, many of whom remain loath to identify the early American colonies (or other settler communities) as postcolonial sites at all. From this perspective, the Americans were clearly colonizers (albeit perhaps colonizers at the low end of the imperial pecking order); efforts to treat them as postcolonial disclaim both the ongoing project of internal racial colonization that constituted those communities and the continuing struggles of African Americans and Native Americans to resist those strategies. Here Messy Beginnings offers a response that is intriguingly parallel to its critique of early American historians—that in positing "too singular versions of empire and too singularly assumed models of postcolonial theory," postcolonial scholars themselves have tended to "reinscribe an exceptionalism logic" on early American history (6)—and, one might add, on other settler colonies that seem to defy simple distinctions between colonizer and colonized. A failure to interrogate seriously the shifting and complex identities of settlers, often at odds with one another and with cosmopolitan ambitions, flattens and oversimplifies the cultural technologies through which colonization occurs and upon which it depends. Precisely because it was a "settler colony," Schueller and Watts contend, early America can afford postcolonial theory a sharper understanding that "'colonized' and 'colonizing' are not mutually exclusive but rather simultaneous and contemporary" and that the "processes through which colonial hegemony was formulated were, in fact, fuzzy and fluid, in short, messy" (8)—presumably not only before 1898 but after, and not only in the United States but elsewhere.
This, then, is a book about the formation and transformation of white settler subjectivities in early America (understood here as including the territories that later became the United States and covering the years from early settlement to the mid-nineteenth century). Its essays are mainly in the vein of literary studies, providing close explications of published texts. The volume as a whole is organized into four large sections—"Puritan Imperialisms and Postcolonial Resistance," "Intraracial Colonialisms," "Race, Gender, and...