- Purchase/rental options available:
Eighteenth-Century Studies 38.2 (2005) 367-371
[Access article in PDF]
New Observations on the Literatures of Early America
Early American Studies has made great strides in recent decades to locate itself within a wider geographical and historical context. The results of this work have brought the American case into comparative proximity with the rest of the globe, availing scholars of new methods and perspectives on the early American experience. The three books reviewed in this essay offer useful examples of the variety in content and method now characteristic of this field. Ralph Bauer's The Cultural Geography of Colonial American Literatures: Empire, Travel, Modernity is essentially a study of knowledge and power vis-à-vis eighteenth-century prose narratives. There are several interconnected layers of analysis: philosophical, geographical, political, and thematic. "Colonial" literature in this case includes writings from both the Spanish and English empires from approximately 1500 to 1800, and concentrates primarily on three themes: travel, shipwreck, and captivity narratives. Bauer traces "truths" in these narratives by putting the writings in historical context, discussing their various purposes, speculating on the motives of writers and editors, and most importantly, tracing changes within various versions of the texts themselves. Further, Bauer hypothesizes that the texts not only provided knowledge about the Americas but also ways of knowing. The interconnectedness of ways of knowing is the "modernity" referred to in the title and further assumes that British and Spanish colonial writings were not only influenced by, but had an influence on the literature of both their respective and rival empires mirroring political and historical developments. Early American literature cannot be understood in isolation, insists Bauer (3). Not only can it not be understood in isolation, it must be considered as an inextricable part of its time and place.
Typically, "interconnectedness" suggests intricate relationships of a circular—if not random—nature. For purposes of this study, however, Bauer relies on a more or less binary analysis to impose order on a number of complex topics. [End Page 367] Some examples of these include: empirical fact vs. natural philosophy, data collection vs. scientific theory, Catholicism vs. commerce, creoles vs. imperial administrators and—in a larger sense—knowledge production vs. knowledge consumption. Production of knowledge is, we know now, a form of control; empires were able to control their possessions only to the extent that they were able to control knowledge inside and outside those possessions. Early American accounts of travel, shipwreck, and captivity not only provide a narrative of new forms of knowledge production, "but also . . . a way of knowing and representing the world in the globalizing economies of transoceanic empires" (9). Reading reductively, shipwreck narratives led to a way of knowing about oneself in a strange environment. Travel narratives served as a way of knowing (and attracting colonists to) the New World. Captivity narratives offered a way of knowing oneself and one's culture in contrast with an other. Bauer traces these processes from the empire-building of the sixteenth century to the empire-dismembering (Bauer's description) of the eighteenth.
Generally, The Cultural Geography of Colonial American Literatures is overly ambitious in scope and possibility. And, while the book claims to document narrative in both the English and Spanish empires, the reader is left with a solid English perspective. Perhaps this is a consequence of England being the "winner" in empire-building? Or perhaps it isa consequence of the way England built its empire throughcommerce as opposed toconquest. Bauer "can offer only exemplary case studies intended to illustrate the importance of cultural geography to literary history" but the reader is left with an unsatisfying definition of what "cultural geography" actually means (29). The author...