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Reviewed by:
  • Quixotic Fictions of the USA, 1792–1815
  • Thomas Scanlan (bio)
Quixotic Fictions of the USA, 1792–1815 Sarah F. Wood New York: Oxford University Press, 2005xiv, 295 pp.

In her straightforwardly titled study, Sarah F. Wood explores the influence of Cervantes's magnum opus on American letters during the early national period. While Don Quixote has, of course, received an enormous amount of critical attention from scholars working in a range of fields, Wood reminds us that hers is the first book-length study to explore in a systematic fashion the role that Don Quixote played in American literature written during the early national period. As most of us who work in the field can attest, references to Don Quixote are ubiquitous. While this presence of Cervantes's iconic and ironic hero has not been ignored by scholars, no one has undertaken the painstaking work of excavating and examining the prevalence and the meanings of the almost innumerable deployments of Don Quixote in early American literature. The fact that it has taken this long for someone to write a book like this is itself a source for wonder. The result is an engagingly rich book that will be of interest to historians and literary scholars on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the first chapter of her study, Wood offers "a discussion of the Don's place in British culture" (6). While her quick survey of this topic might seem superficial to scholars who reside in the British eighteenth century, Wood is absolutely right to assert the importance of the ongoing British fascination with Cervantes to the emerging literary culture of North America. As she reminds us, 45 editions of Don Quixote were published in English during the eighteenth century, while only 33 were published in the original Spanish during the same period. It is of course not surprising that many of these English translations found their way onto the shelves of colonial booksellers, where people like George Washington—to name but one—were able to purchase them. Along with the tangible editions of Don [End Page 233] Quixote came something that was intangible, namely, "two contradictory interpretations, two conflicting Quixotes" (13). Although these two interpretations grew out of England's own specific political culture, they were easily adaptable to "the political discourse of post-Revolutionary America, with Quixote used, on the one hand, to signify the obsolescence of outmoded Federalist assumptions and, on the other, to embody the extravagance of Republican democratizing tendencies" (13). And so the American adaptations of Quixote bore the marks of what Wood calls the "polysemic legacy" that the newly independent nation had inherited from its former parent (36).

Long before he appears in fiction, Quixote has insinuated himself into American letters, and this forms the topic of chapter 2. While she begins the chapter with a brief mention of Father Bombo, the fictional Quixote created by Philip Freneau and Hugh Henry Brackenridge while they were still undergraduates at the New Jersey College, Wood moves quickly into a fascinating history of American Quixotes that begins with writers like Thomas Morton and Roger Williams and concludes with conflicting deployments of Quixote during the first decades of the new nation. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, for instance, both drew on Cervantes as they embraced the opposing ideologies of Federalism and Republicanism, respectively. While the competing Quixotes of the Federalists and Republicans battled in private letters and public diatribes, a peculiarly American innovation emerged in the fiction of the new nation. In a departure from their British counterparts, many American Quixotes were would-be authors themselves. Characters like Updike Underhill, Diedrich Knickerbocker, Arthur Mervyn, and Dorcasina Sheldon form a group of "fictional Quixotes [who] are bursting to relate and write down their own tales" (73). According to Wood, these "fictional Quixotes" exhibited an almost writerly ambiguity and uncertainty: "Whereas political writers tended to use Don Quixote as a satirical butt with which to bludgeon their opponents," writers of fiction "embraced the interpretive instability of the knight." As a result, "their fictional Quixotes were large and contradictory characters who contained the multitudinous contradictions of their age" (74). It is this American version of the Quixote that forms...


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