- The Risks of Reward in Early America
Perceptions of danger, or risk—whether potential or realized, apparent or apparitional—manifest social rationalities. Eighteenth-century expressions of risk—in literature, diplomatic exchanges, court records, imperial decrees, periodicals, maps, and other cultural ephemera—provide important clues to the complex, often mystifying, actions and reactions of European colonists. Two recent works of literary and geopolitical history present textual and nontextual illustrations of risk in attempts to underscore localized social processes and comprehensive imperial policies. Though methodologically dissimilar, Paul Mapp’s and Joseph Fichtelberg’s studies are united in their appreciation of risk as a psychosocial and sociopolitical determinant. For Mapp, anticipated risks of exploration, both political and corporal, kept much of America’s northwestern territories untouched and unmapped by eighteenth-century European cartographers; for Fichtelberg, popular perceptions of risk both exemplified and fomented an evolving pre- and postcolonial American social consciousness.
Early representations of risk in North America are, Fichtelberg argues, self-conscious outlets for European anxieties. Stories of performative risk, in which actions are favored above ideas, provide Fichtelberg with genuine representations of social consciousness. Performance, he contends, enlivens text and becomes a “trope for the mutually challenging effects of language and power” (7). Literary examples of performance therefore lend greater accuracy to assessments of cultural expression than does textual evidence alone; performative texts are not simply reflective, but productive social and cultural agents. Chronologically arraigned chapters gather performative expressions of risk from distinct but not entirely disparate sources; John Smith’s Virginia Accounts, testimonies from the Salem witch trials, works of slave resistance, and documents related to the Burr conspiracy serve as reactionary guides to feelings of social and emotional distress. They are at once self-justifying and self-perpetuating, literary emollients for peoples thrust into unfamiliar territories.
John Smith’s interactions with native peoples focused on personal risk, risk of insecurity, and the unknown risks of contact. Tales of capture at the hands of the Powhatan, for example, provide descriptions of performed discourse; Smith’s captivity is a series of apologetic perorations and prostrations. His supplicatory tone in these events does not portend defeat but, Fichtelberg believes, demonstrates attitudes and “accents of authority,” attempts to take ownership of vulnerability and rationalize an irrational world (18). In his role as captive, Smith also becomes the natural focus of native attentions; textual descriptions and woodcut illustrations depict elaborate scenes in which Powhatan warriors form hostile rings around the unarmed and defenseless Englishman. Here again, performative descriptions of risk both reflect colonial anxieties and bolster attitudes of English superiority. As the perceptual center of Powhatan curiosity, Smith elevates himself above his captors, becoming a “mystified spectator” of strange and exotic peoples. “Indians,” [End Page 304] Fichtelberg argues, “represent not merely colonial subjects to be dominated but urgent puzzles to be solved if the colony is to survive” (37).
Subsequent chapters make similar uses of performative risk. Testimonial records from the Salem witch trials present deviated linguistic conventions as a “language of trauma,” common responses to physical and religious insecurities. Stoic submission and resigned, desperate suffering, as described in the poetry of Phillis Wheatley, is not submission to but a limitation of white authority. The fiction of Susanna Rowson demonstrates, through stories of distress and abandonment, failures of the public sphere, concerns with society’s evolving concept of language, trust, and honor. Fichtelberg extends the concept of performative risk past the eighteenth century in a concluding chapter dedicated to the Burr conspiracy. Here, apprehended textual risk unites with America’s emerging national consciousness.
Aaron Burr, a man forever associated with the murder of Alexander Hamilton, was an energetic champion of western settlement in the years following his term as vice president. To some, his efforts simply threatened Spanish–American relations; for others, they were machinations foretelling a secessionist plot. Public vilification for acts of self-motivated, authoritative pretension as well as public notoriety...