Colonial Transformations: The Cultural Production of the New Atlantic World, 1580-1640, and: The Story of A: The Alphabetization of America from "The New England Primer" to "The Scarlet Letter.", and: The Consent of the Governed: The Lockean Legacy in Early American Culture (review)
- American Literature
- Duke University Press
- Volume 74, Number 2, June 2002
- pp. 403-405
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American Literature 74.2 (2002) 403-405
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Three new books in colonial studies present new constellations of texts by breaking down conventional national and generic boundaries. Each in its own way attends to the mechanisms by which ideas and tropes are circulated, thus specifying and making material the traditional literary topics of influence and intertextuality.
Rebecca Ann Bach's Colonial Transformations proposes an important reorganization of knowledge, claiming not just transatlantic influence but an essential identity between Renaissance English and colonial American literature. Bach revisits figures considered safely canonical within the British canon, redefining them as colonial writers. Jonson's court masques, for example, help establish England's sense of itself as a colonial power, thus underwriting the colonial project; in a productive and surprising juxtaposition characteristic of a book that denies nationalist distinctions, Bach follows up with a discussion of John Smith's Generall Historie, which, she shows, joins that colonial enterprise by rewriting his earlier account of a Native American women's dance as a Jonsonian masque. Bach's reading of Spenser challenges conventional boundaries in a different way. While others have acknowledged Spenser's own colonialist role as an Irish landlord and have read the Faerie Queene in this context, Bach argues that even the Amoretti, love sonnets usually considered exempt from geopolitical considerations, need to be read in the context of colonial activity. Bach's reading of the sonnet sequence makes the case forcefully that Spenser's language there is much stronger and more violent than conventional tropes such as the-beloved-as-warrior would [End Page 403] demand. Collating the work with colonialist texts, including Spenser's own View of the Present State of Ireland, Bach shows definitively that even these so-called private love poems are part of colonial discourse.
An important part of Bach's work is her discussion of resisting texts by the colonized: Irish poetry, for example, that depicts Ireland not as a readily submissive female but as a weeping one. While Irish and English works might present contrasting figures of Ireland, each is a relatively direct and unambiguous ideological construction. Brown's and Crain's books stay on the American side of the Atlantic. By choosing more local foci, Brown and Crain call attention to the technology of culture, giving more emphasis to the subtle contestations and negotiations that are always part of that project. Both do this by studying how children learned in the colonial (and for Crain, nineteenth-century) United States, and with the help of what books.
Copiously illustrated and beautifully produced, Crain's The Story of A is a pleasure to hold, look at, and read. Playful and allusive in her treatment of texts, Crain's wide-ranging analysis includes commentary on such present-day communication technologies as postmodern art, children's television programming, and the World Wide Web. She treats the primer as a "boundary genre" that unites elements of literate and folk culture, letters, and iconography. These hybrid texts or "festivals," as she calls them, may register both the mechanisms by which ideas are diffused through culture and possible subversive processes as well. One strength of Crain's book is its willingness to treat primers as complex texts amenable to sensitive close readings. "In Adam's fall we sinned all" is the tag line most often used to illustrate the function of The New England Primer. But as Crain shows...