- Medical Encounters: Knowledge and Identity in Early American Literatures by Kelly Wisecup
Until the publication of Medical Encounters: Knowledge and Identity in Early American Literatures, scholars tended to proceed from the assumption that European colonists’ texts offered little, if any, access to Native American or African knowledge systems (see for example works by Stephen Greenblatt, Anthony Pagen, Ed White, Joyce Chaplin, and Cristobal Silva). Reading colonial texts for nonimperial perspectives, it seemed, would be like standing in front of a one-way mirror expecting to see reflected back a person standing directly behind it. And yet hard to shake is the suspicion that Native American and African ways of knowing surely influenced colonial writing and knowledge making, meaning that such ideas and cosmologies would, therefore, be present in the archive—and available to analysis. What early American scholarship invested in studying interculturalism required was a way to read for that epistemological influence without being blinded by colonialist perspectives or, worse yet, reifying colonizing processes in our research. Medical Encounters offers us that sorely needed critical methodology.
Reading for “texture,” Kelly Wisecup argues, turns inquiry toward places where European, Native American, and African knowledge sources, whether they collaborated or clashed, remain present. In its most basic sense, texture is defined as a surface’s consistency and appearance—an apt [End Page 596] metaphor for Wisecup’s approach since her analysis begins from what we might imagine as the rough “bumps,” “knots,” and “tears” in colonial texts. For instance, she examines how in the hands of colonists a genre such as historia (used in early modern Europe to describe the course of diseases) ends without typical narrative conclusions. Instead, lists, recipes, satires, and footnotes show us where to look for Native American and African influence on colonists’ ways of knowing. Native and African alterations to the fabric of colonial knowledge become visible in the “rhetorical discontinuities” located in “shifts from historia to non-narrative literary strategies and finally to classificatory forms” (32). Of course, texture is not simply a metaphor. Building from the work of anthropologist Neil L. Whitehead and literary critic Myra Jehlen, Wisecup locates in the textual anomalies, inconsistencies, lapses, and incoherencies discussed by these other scholars the opportunity to avoid “read[ing] colonial texts transparently” and begin parsing “the contexts that colonists, Natives, and Africans shared and … the ways in which these people responded to colonial encounters” (12). Wisecup may be focusing on medical writing (and the way in which it was constituted by more than Euro-American discourses), but her book is a model for how, regardless of the textual archive to be examined, texture gives unprecedented access to encounter’s various facets.
This methodology allows Wisecup to offer an important insight into the triangulated nature of colonial identity construction. To be sure, binaries such as black versus white or savage versus civilized would come to characterize the way that difference was articulated during the nineteenth century. But as Medical Encounters emphasizes, “before the end of the eighteenth century colonists employed a triangulated notion of identity by comparing themselves to Natives and Africans on the one hand and to Europeans on the other” (20). Such a critical intervention matters because it corrects the way we understand why certain colonial views came to be standard. For example, we know that colonial interpretations of Native American and African knowledge equated it with witchcraft. We might be tempted to think that colonists were simply relying on Old World natural philosophies or that they found the knowledge systems of other cultures “incompatible with a focus on natural causes and mechanical theories” (31). But rather than assume that such a view was “characteristic” of Europeans in the New World, Wisecup uncovers the process that crystallized it (32). Back in the metropole, it was commonly held that American climates caused colonists’ [End Page 597] bodies and mental faculties to degenerate, making the medical knowledge they gathered suspect. By casting Native American and African knowledge as “diabolic, inappropriate magic,” colonists defended their intellectual products from bias and made “religion and...