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Reviewed by:
  • Possible Pasts: Becoming Colonial in Early America
  • Eliga H. Gould
Robert Blair St. George, Possible Pasts: Becoming Colonial in Early America (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2000)

Compared to its current prominence in the scholarship on nineteenth and twentieth-century European imperialism, postcolonial theory has had a negligible impact on the history of early America. Whether that fact is due to the reluctance of skeptical Americanists to overcome their antitheoretical training, — as Robert Blair St. George suggests in the introduction to Possible Pasts (p. 16), or is the result of some other factor, is open to debate. Whatever the reason, the relative paucity of scholarship grounded in postcolonial theory makes this self-consciously postcolonial collection of essays a significant addition to the literature on early American history and culture.

Naturally, the essays are somewhat uneven in their embrace of the volume’s theoretical agenda. Of the seventeen chapters, the most explicitly postcolonial deal with multicultural topics, including a Nahua playwright in sixteenth-century Mexico (by Louise M. Burkhardt), Roger Williams’ lexicography of the Narragansett language (Anne G. Myles), Inca witchcraft in seventeen-century Peru (Irene Silverblatt), the writings of the sixteenth-century Ibero-Incan mestizo Garcilaso de la Vega (José Antonio Mazzotti), and the eighteenth-century Mohegan missionary Joseph Johnson (Laura J. Murray). The volume also contains two excellent discussions of postcolonial theory and colonial discourse by Peter Hulme and Michael Warner. The remaining essays, which in some ways are the more satisfying part of the volume, owe more to cultural theory and the (now well established) new cultural history. With the exception of John K. Thornton’s wonderful piece on Coromantee rebels in the West Indies, this second group is exclusively concerned with topics internal to colonial settler (and early national U.S.) society: infant baptism in eighteenth-century New England (David D. Hall), race and scientific discourse in the Early Republic (Dana D. Nelson), mercantile communities of trust in eighteenth-century Philadelphia (Toby L. Ditz), race and gender in the invention of the American bourgeoisie (Carroll Smith-Rosenberg), portraiture in the Early Republic (Margaretta M. Lovell), corporal punishment in nineteenth-century Pennsylvania penitentiaries (Michael Meranze), courtroom theatricality in eighteenth-century Boston (St. George), the politics of gender in the Early Republic (Susan Juster), and gendered languages of American national identity (Sandra M. Gustafson).

In a review of this length, there is not space to delve into detailed discussions of individual chapters, although a number are excellent. In many ways, however, the most striking feature of this impressive volume is not the quality of its components but how those components relate to the central question of postcolonial theory and early American studies. To judge from the pattern noted above, postcolonial theory has far more to say about relations between Europeans and indigenous peoples (including transported indigenous peoples) in the Americas than it does relations between Europeans and creole settlers. As Michael Warner observes, “white creoles in British America learned to think of themselves as colonized rather than as colonizers”; however, “they were not colonized subjects in the sense intended by theories of colonial and postcolonial discourse” (p. 62). Indeed, in St. George’s introduction and Hulme’s chapter, the United States functions as a colonizing power in ways indistinguishable from France, Spain, and Britain (pre-1776). In Warner’s succinct words, ‘the shift from British colonies to American nation was a shift mainly for white men’ — and, to a lesser (but hardly insignificant) extent, white women (p. 62).

Despite the vague reference to “antitheoretical training” in the introduction, the volume as a whole thus suggests a different explanation for the scarcity of postcolonial studies of early America. Taking its rise from works like Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), postcolonial theory has achieved its greatest triumphs by puncturing the civilized — and civilizing — claims made by nineteenth and twentieth-century European imperial powers as they extended their rule over indigenous peoples in Asia and Africa. By contrast, although European settlers no longer monopolize early American historiography, they are still — and seem likely to remain — a considerable presence in the scholarly literature on the period. The postcolonial distinction between colonizer and colonized, local and imperial, European and indigenous is...

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