- "Stories Were Everywhere"
I was in graduate school in 2003 when my adviser, Shelley Fisher Fish-kin, told me to be on the lookout for a new book by Annette Kolodny that would shift our thinking about the origins of American literature and the ways in which we narrate "first contact" between indigenous peoples of the Americas and European outsiders. Kolodny would show that long before Columbus launched from Iberia, the Vikings and the Wôbanakikiiak1 had interacted and inscribed their own stories of contact and discovery, the traces of which were found in Norse mythology, Atlantic Coast archaeology, and a range of indigenous texts. The next year, as president of the American Studies Association, Fishkin promoted the "transnational turn" in American studies, naming Kolodny's manuscript as one of the ground-breaking works in Native American studies that would reorient our thinking about the global circuits of indigenous travel, text making, and cultural exchange on this continent's shores and far beyond (14–15).
In Search of First Contact: The Vikings of Vinland, the Peoples of the Dawnland, and the Anglo-American Anxiety of Discovery both answers and confounds its central question. Intending to read European and indigenous texts contrapuntally, Kolodny set out to discover how Nordic and native peoples perceived each other, to place "Vinland," the site of encounter, on a map, and to understand how these transatlantic narratives fit into the foundations of American literature. It was not an easy task by any means. As her work progressed, Kolodny found that "reliable facts and conclusive evidence were hard to come by, while stories were everywhere" (10, emphasis [End Page 917] in the original). Soon her project became something even more expansive than she first imagined: a story of stories.
In the first third of the book, Kolodny elegantly pieces together close readings of Norse sagas and archaeological evidence to show that early, fraught encounters between the Norse and "Skraelings" (a generic term in the sagas for North American indigenous peoples) took place around the year 1000. The stories of these events circulated as oral histories until the mid-fourteenth century, when they were first recorded as The Greenlanders' Saga and Eirik the Red's Saga. Through Kolodny's detailed readings of the sagas, and coupled with her on-the-ground research into sites that could have been the lush "Vinland," we learn much about how images of native peoples first appeared in European stories. These readings pair beautifully with earlier work on transnational indigenous representations, such as Philip Deloria's Playing Indian (1998) and more recent work such as Kate Flint's The Transatlantic Indian (2008) and Coll Thrush's Indigenous London (2016).
But this is not, as it turns out, the main question that propels the book. The significance of what happened historically is matched by how that story is told and retold at various moments in time. "First contact" narratives matter, Kolodny writes, because "how we shape and reshape our stories about discovery and first contact reveal how we are simultaneously shaping and reshaping our understanding of who we think we are as Americans" (11). The central section of the book is devoted to fierce debates in nineteenth-century popular culture, as played out in journalism, history, literature, and visual and decorative art, over the "true" European foundations of America. At various moments through this tumultuous century, the embrace of a Viking origin story upheld racial orders that placed northern Europeans at the top and subjugated all others; it also fueled the anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiment of anti-Columbus narratives. What emerged in the nineteenth century was the "plastic Viking," as Kolodny names it: a figure that could be shaped, remolded, and deployed in the popular imaginary to uphold any number of claims to the American nation, especially who truly belongs here. In this analysis, Kolodny pays close attention to the social anxieties and political uses of the Nordic discovery tale, which proliferated at the time. While...