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American Quarterly 53.1 (2001) 148-155

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Rethinking Early American Colonial Writings

Jacqueline Lance
University of South Florida

Colonial Writing in the New World 1583-1671: Allegories of Desire. By Thomas Scanlan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 242 pages. $59.95 (cloth).

BROWSING THROUGH THOMAS SCANLAN'S RECENT SCHOLARLY MONOGRAPH, ONE cannot help being captivated by the glossy illustrations in chapter two, and these black and white reproductions of sixteenth century engravings emerge as the most arresting attribute of the book's physicality. Indeed, these illustrations, which beautifully and graphically render natives in the New World, serve as an effective "pre-introduction" to Scanlan's work; the illustrations portray Native Americans in a variety of postures and activities, ranging from scenes of noble hunting to the horrific preparation of human flesh over an open fire. Underneath each vivid reproduction, Scanlan provides a caption indicating the source(s) in which the work originally appeared. In each instance, the artist and publisher were Europeans portraying a mysterious "other" to their "civilized" readers. Throughout his book, Scanlan posits that the European portrayal of the New World, including the natives who inhabited it, often served as an allegory in which the Europeans, regardless of nationality, addressed deeper issues plaguing their homelands. Scanlan's primary focus is the unique English and Protestant depiction of the New World and its inhabitants and the resulting allegories that emerge from these sermons, tracts, and travel narratives.

In his introduction, Scanlan places his own study of colonial writing within the context of recent scholarly conversations: "Accordingly, the [End Page 148] study of the colonial period has remained surprisingly insular, as scholars from two distinct fields have consistently failed to engage in a dialogue" (1). He criticizes those scholars who view the colonial history of the New World as either a singularly European or especially American experience and asserts that contemporary European history and upheavals cannot be divorced from their colonial efforts in the New World, especially in Virginia and New England where English efforts were most focused. Unlike their Spanish competitors, the English were trying to establish a burgeoning Protestant nation in the New World in fervent opposition to the Catholic successes and excesses of Spain's colonial expansion.

Scanlan begins by focusing on the colonial tract, Brevíssima relación la destrucción las Indias, written by Bartolomé de Las Casas, a Spaniard who "became known as a tireless advocate for Indian rights and as a proponent of a colonialism driven not by commercial interests but by the zeal for converting the native populations to Catholicism" (19-20). Las Casas, who was a Catholic bishop at the time his narrative was published in 1552, wrote of the mistreatment the natives suffered at the hands of the Spanish, and he described the humanity and nobility exhibited by the natives he encountered when he served as a Catholic missionary. Scanlan asserts that Las Casas's intention was surely to reveal "the cruelty and inhumanity of the Spanish in the New World to bring about changes in Spanish colonial policy" (8). Whether or not Las Casas was successful at changing his own country's attitudes toward the natives in the New World is not addressed in Scanlan's study, yet the effect this disturbing narrative had on the English becomes Scanlan's primary focus in the first chapter. Interestingly, Las Casas's narrative achieved widespread success in England and was "translated into English and published in London four times between 1583 and 1699" (8). To the English, the narrative provided concrete evidence of a barbaric colonialism that was propagated by the Spanish in their efforts to secure wealth and spread Catholicism throughout the New World. Further, Spain's distasteful methods of subduing the natives provided the English a model of what they did not want their own colonial efforts to become, establishing their own treatment of the natives as one dominated by a humane mixture of "fear and love." 1

England's quest for a stronger national identity through colonial effort crystallizes in two narratives that Scanlan examines: Thomas Harriot's Brief and True Report and...


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