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  • Before the West Was West: Critical Essays on Pre-1800 Literature of the American Frontiers ed. by Amy T. Hamilton and Tom J. Hillard
  • Edward Watts (bio)
Before the West Was West: Critical Essays on Pre-1800 Literature of the American Frontiers Edited by amy t. hamilton and tom j. hillard Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014 357 pp.

The introduction to Hamilton and Hillard’s insightful collection describes the marginal presence of early “western” American writings in the history of the Western Literature Association and its journal, Western American Literature. By querying orthodox definitions of “western,” “American,” and “literature,” the editors reimagine the borders—geographical and chronological—of their field in ways that spill over those of early American literature. While critics have become adept at “examining the where and what western American literature is, the question of when is still largely a blank spot on the map” (1). Hamilton and Hillard’s effort overlaps with conversations reflecting similar border disputes in our own Society of Early Americanists and its journal, Early American Literature: as early Americanists, we base ourselves in the when, but quite often stay within old ideas of the where and the what. Moreover, as each field seeks to expand in ways that more genuinely represent the entirety of its ambit—western or early—it encounters new who’s—who’s speaking and writing different languages, for whom the “west” might be north or south, and for whom our “early” might be their “late.”

In both cases, issues of period, language, nation, race, and geography have recently been challenged as each field reimagines itself to accommodate new ways of thinking about the entangled histories of writing, politics, and history in North America before 1800. As the complexities of the contact, conquest, and colonial eras carried over into more recent communities, countries, and empires, Hamilton and Hillard comment, “Yet the history of North American ‘frontiers’—whether defined by borders of settlement or zones of contact between peoples, cultures, and landscapes—is much older than the nineteenth century and much more geographically widespread than the states west of the Mississippi” (13). The collection’s essays take up this challenge in three ways. They variously show how “early” texts must be rethought of as “western” texts and, paradoxically, that “west” just means west of somewhere else from an author’s perspective: [End Page 945] for example, Vinland was west of Iceland. Third, by revealing the literatures of intercultural exchange that perform the early West in ways that demonstrate its exciting messiness and complexity—often stripped of the obligations of narrating any given of nation, race, or gender—they argue that written texts might both announce and denounce imperial and European dominion, demonstrating the instability of empires—Spanish, French, British, and American—in their early iterations.

As a whole, these essays represent an important intradisciplinary convergence within western and early American literary histories, signaling a moment when each group of scholars needs to attend more closely to the work of the other. As a regular attendee at the conferences of both, I am always struck by the missed opportunities for productive conversation. In addition, the overlapped area in the implied Venn diagram further intersects with the emergent field of borderland studies in its multilinguistic range and methodologies based on postcolonial and subaltern interventions. Pushing back the chronology before Columbus, ignoring the Mississippi and the Appalachians, and energetically building on the work of leading scholars from all these fields, the essays in Before the West Was West bring to light fascinating accounts of literary representations of “early” American literature as a place east of nothing more than the Atlantic. Like Daniel Richter’s Facing East from Indian Country (2001), they force us to spin the map, and view these accounts and texts as products of directional perspectives long obliterated by the westward-moving, Anglocentric, and Anglophone literary and cultural narratives that we all too often take for our own.

Not unexpectedly, Before the West Was West features a few essays—those by Annette Kolodny and SEA president Gordon Sayre in particular—that epitomize the collection’s accomplishments in reconceptualizing the overlapping nature of both western and early Americanist scholarship...


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pp. 945-948
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