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  • Revisiting a Memory of Land
  • Shirley Samuels (bio)
The Land before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers, 1630–1860 annette kolodny Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984 314 pp.

I welcomed the invitation to return to The Land before Her even as I knew that I might not recover my earlier sense of fresh discovery. First, I came prepared to experience generational difference. The second challenge was to reencounter the text in the wake of redefining literary and cultural histories that include violent displacement and genocide. The Land before Her emerges as a key text for both challenges.

Kolodny acknowledges that she has limited herself to materials written in English. To focus on writing that appeared in print could probably no longer serve as an organizing principle for a book about the colonial and early republican periods, given the proliferation of digital resources now available. Based on the evolution of terms, if it were published today the book might be retitled something like "Anglo-European Women Record Their Experience in English during the Colonizing Move across the North American Continent." But "The Land before Her" does sound better.

For all the granular specificity of its detailed readings, the premises of the book remain in a concept of "fantasy." That is, as Kolodny refers to the "psychosexual dynamics of a virginal paradise," she asks what fantasies of the frontier draw both men and women who have arrived from Europe, or from eastern locations on the American continent, to head west (3). Kolodny proposes that women's writing about the frontier had not received as much critical scrutiny because women tended to focus on the domestic project—for example, on what it took to make a garden. When the frontier reached the prairies, this already cleared land appeared as a "garden that reflected back images of their own deepest dreams" (8). [End Page 887]

The early appearance of Mary Rowlandson rightly calls attention to the first best-seller penned by a woman in the colonial period. And the coincidence of religious doctrine and fantasies about occupying the wilderness certainly drove the reception of Rowlandson's text. The ambiguities of that perspective emerge when Kolodny turns to Cotton Mather's account of Hannah Dustin, given as part of a sermon in 1697 (22–23). This account is famous still because it shows a white woman slaying Indians; scholars still stumble over the picture of Hannah Dustin before the General Court in Boston with an Indian scalp trying to collect a bounty, an act that suggests a form of capitalization on the flesh of the Indians—or at the least an attempt to monetize her revenge strategy.

The ambiguity involved in such accounts continues when Kolodny presents Eliza Lucas Pinckney in charge of a South Carolina plantation in 1758. How can such an account of being in charge present its complicity with a system of slavery (51)? Kolodny refers to her "servants," which is undoubtedly the term used by her subject, but that usage seems to overlook the reality (52). To focus on Pinckney's idea of herself as a gardener is to distort the evidence.

In short, more than thirty years later, The Land before Her appears at once still controversial and an almost conventional work of literary history. That the voices it articulates are primarily the voices of white women who have mostly not entered the wilderness of their own will makes it compelling, but also frustrating. Expanding the influence of such work must include a declaration of limits as well as a celebration of the expanded horizon that the work made possible. Ideas cannot develop without a more nuanced version of the anxiety of influence that continues to haunt feminist interpretations of the literary landscapes of the United States. The emotional turmoil that accompanied an engaged overturning of masculine perspectives on the land appears when Kolodny admits that she partly writes to provide a contrast to Richard Slotkin, who she notes "ignores the crucial fact of gender" (80). The desire to come up with binary positions influences her reading, an interpretation that keeps someone like Richard Slotkin in view as the masculine view on the wilderness (notably...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-147X
Print ISSN
0012-8163
Pages
pp. 887-890
Launched on MUSE
2018-10-11
Open Access
No
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