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American Literary History 16.4 (2004) 728-757

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Colonial Studies3

The publication during the last several years of three major anthologies—over 1800 pages—of colonial writing signals a dynamic transformation of the field of colonial studies. The last comparable wave of anthologies, heralded by Roy Harvey Pearce's Colonial American Writing (1950), was concentrated in the 1960s: Milton Stern and Seymour Gross's Colonial and Federal volume in the American Literature Survey (1962), George Horner and Robert Bain's Colonial and Federalist American Writing (1966), Leslie Fiedler and Arthur Zeiger's O Brave New World: American Literature 1600-1840 (1968), Larzer Ziff's The Literature of America: Colonial Period (1970), Robert Mead's Colonial American Literature: From Wilderness to Independence (1976), and finally David Levin's America in Literature volume, The First Two Centuries, 1630-1820 (1978). Made possible by the cheap paperback format, the postwar ascension of American literature, and the heyday of Puritan studies, these collections for all their differences bequeathed a more or less stable diet of Puritans, cavaliers, and enlightened men.1 Yet by the late 1980s, this familiar canon came under pressure from multiple directions.

Most famously the quincentennial of Christopher Columbus's voyage to the West Indies thrust colonial studies into the cauldron of the American culture wars and put colonization and contact on the cover of Newsweek. A media debate quickly polarized between two positions: Columbus as Adolf Eichmann, initiating a racist genocide, and Columbus as accidental carrier, unwitting trigger for the cataclysmic exchange of pathogens, produce, and livestock.2 A number of scholars, many from within early-modern studies and the New Historicism, rose to the challenge and crafted a more culturally nuanced response.3 Attendant to regional, linguistic, economic, and cultural differences, this revisionist impulse set out to describe exploration, contact, conquest, and settlement in comparative terms and with recourse to the latest theoretical insights. Yet an earlier movement—on the occasions of the bicentennial celebrations of the Revolution and the Constitution—had a slightly different impact, coinciding as it did with the reinvigorated theoretical study of civic [End Page 728] republicanism and the public sphere, whether in the theory of Jürgen Habermas or the writings of the "republican synthesis." Working backward from the consolidation of the nation-state, scholars explored both the operative logic of print-mediated public discourse and voices excluded from institutions of civic participation. Habermas took on Thomas Jefferson in a revival of interest in Federalist-era pamphlets, newspapers, and periodicals; studies of gothic and sentimental novels, many written by women, combined with a reexamination of the founders' complicity with slavery and the awkward compromises in securing federal consolidation, all to reveal the gothic subtext of writing produced outside traditional venues of civic debate.

Thus, a pincer movement joining 1492 and 1776, The Tempest (1610) and The Federalist Papers (1788), the Black Legend and the Spirit of '76, the conquistador and the minuteman, Montezuma and Sally Hemmings, shaped the revival of colonial studies, turning its sights across the Atlantic and to the southern hemisphere, to the equator and the prime meridian. These two foci, still evident in the scholarly split between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, were in turn complemented by a frontal assault by multiculturalism extending the revision of the canon to the earlier frontiers of American culture. Here the watershed moment was 1989's publication of The Heath Anthology of American Literature, edited by Paul Lauter, which irreversibly broadened the American canon by embracing texts by women and minorities. Although its immediate motives lay in revising the canons of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it carried the inclusionary impulse into the colonial period as well, becoming the first major anthology to include Native American oral narratives and poetry and to have Hispanists among its editors. If the Heath sought to recast the constituent parts of American literary history, for colonialists it further freed the field from its traditional chore of uncovering the cultural roots of the postrevolutionary nation. Subsequently, the 1990s witnessed an astonishing number of reclamation projects: major collections...


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