- New World, Known World: Shaping Knowledge in Early Anglo-American Writing
In New World, Known World: Shaping Knowledge in Early Anglo-American Writing, David Read wants to promote the value of specifically literary interpretation in the face of the general turn toward cultural studies that has come to dominate the study of colonial writings. Such cultural approaches, Read contends, ultimately provide less "accurate" readings of colonial texts because, among other reasons, they rely on what Read argues is a rather narrow and presentist definition of just what "colonial" means in the first place (10). In order to demonstrate the peculiar knowledge provided by what he categorizes as literary analysis, the author reads works by John Smith, William Bradford, Thomas Morton, and Roger Williams as "literary objects" (15).
Read describes the "object" of his study as an examination of the way four authors who "had ties with New England in the first half of the seventeenth century" wrote works that tried to render the experiential knowledge [End Page 214] these authors gained in the new world so as to "make that world distinct from the one—'Old' or just generically familiar—that previously formed the ground of knowledge" (1–2). Read's introduction lays out his general method and aims, while chapter 1 argues that Smith's Generall Historie of Virginia shows the inadequacy of attempts to speak of a single "'discourse of colonialism'" through the incoherent view of history one finds in Smith's book (22). Chapter 2 proposes that Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation be read as a very early instance of a historical mode focusing on the secular, corporate, and economic details of everyday life rather than, as previous scholars have contended, as a failed attempt at providential history. Read again calls our attention to the commercial in his third chapter, where his analysis of Morton's New English Canaan aims to show that London's social and commercial centers provide the model for Morton's vision of the ideal, new world community he hopes to found. Roger Williams's Key and Bloudy Tenant serve in the final chapter as the foundation for Read's attempt to "illuminate . . . the distinctive, even anomalous, open-endedness of Williams's writing during the 1640s" (96). He then provides a brief conclusion and an appendix in which he disputes Perry Miller's reading of Williams.
While I found the work to have an engaging prose style that is often smart and sometimes quite provocative, in the end I do not see precisely what the book will contribute to the body of knowledge in the field of early American literary studies. At least part of my sense that the book has relatively little to offer scholars grows out of what I found to be fundamental problems with the ideas that organize and give rise to his study. So, for instance, I found much of what he says here about cultural and ethnic studies to be more a caricature than a genuine engagement with those approaches. Read compares his method to the method he says is used by those in "cultural studies," who see early modern colonial texts as merely a "repository of illustrations and anecdotes" (14). When performed by literary critics, Read tells us, these analyses are often attempts to "recover the silenced voices" of Native Americans, slaves, and women (14). It is in opposition to precisely this kind of criticism that Read offers his own approach, which, he tells us, will avoid the "abstractions and half-truths" used to describe the colonial past by, presumably, the kind of criticism to which he objects (15). What are these "abstractions and half-truths"? Read provides the following examples: "'The Pilgrims were narrow-minded prigs,' for example, or, 'The [End Page 215] Jamestown settlers were incompetent scoundrels" (15). He provides no citations to let us know who says these things, but I suspect that is because none of the very best or even the most middling of work in the field actually does. Read does his argument no favors in...