American Literary History 15.2 (2003) 367-394
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From Manitoba to Patagonia
Dana D. Nelson
1. Lost in Early America
Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra's How to Write the History of the New World begins with a provocative claim: "By and large, the story I am about to tell has remained untold. Moreover, although this book is about debates on how to write the history of the New World, it omits the historiography produced in the British American colonies. Compared to the vast amounts of scholarship put forth by Spanish American Creoles, British colonial historiography appears negligible and derivative. That this has not been recognized before is unsurprising" (5). Unsurprising, according to Cañizares-Esguerra, because of a stable, three-legged North American academic bias, the first a malingering from British imperial belatedness combined with the legacy of the Black Legend; the second, the historical bequest of an only slightly more recent and ongoing cultural, political, and economic imperialist stance of the US toward Latin America, its own hemispheric "Third World" basin; and the third, a lack of familiarity combined with suspicion at best and, at worst, repudiation, of indigenous knowledge and historiographies.
But there is another, more basic reason: simply put, comparative work is hard to do. Yet increasingly it is clear that much of the most compelling and innovative scholarly work on early America is comparative in nature, and it seems that the more deeply comparative and interdisciplinary the work, the more challenging and exciting it becomes for interested scholars. The books under review here provide a good sample of what I would like to think of as a developing conversation about how to rethink early America. Many are already acclaimed and award winning. 1 But the oldest have not yet had the impact on the fields they intersect that they deserve—at least in part for the reason that they demand so much of us working from inside the circuit of our disciplinary training.
I hope it is bracing for my Americanist colleagues in English departments when I point out that much of this work has not come [End Page 367] from among us. Rather, this comparativist and interdisciplinary proto-school seems largely to be emerging around us—in history, comparative literature, and Spanish departments, and Latin American studies programs. When it does come from English departments, often as not it comes from the non-Americanists: postcolonialists, performance theorists, or specialists in the (British) eighteenth century. 2 Even having acknowledged that, it is still clear that some of the very best energy, vision, and expertise for this new comparative project comes from outside English departments entirely, where scholars work unblinkered by our narrowly Anglophilic and Novanglophilic concerns and by Britain's Johnny-come-lately entry into the colonial theatre. 3
It is not as though English-department Americanists working on the colonial period have not contributed to a comparativeand/or transnational understanding of early America. There havebeen a number of recent studies, moving in different directions along circum-Atlantic/inter-American axes, such as David Shields's Oracles of Empire (1990), Thomas Scanlan's Colonial Writing and the New World: Allegories of Desire (1999), and Eric Wertheimer's Imagined Empires: Incas, Aztecs and the New World of American Literature, 1771-1876 (1999), as well as germinal...