- Literature Before 1800
This essay is organized around a number of key concepts—or “keywords,” to follow Raymond Williams—central to the study of early American literature in 2014. Some of them represent relatively new or newly emerging loci of analysis for the field; others represent longstanding approaches that retain their value even as the field shifts and develops. Transnational, global, and Atlantic-world topics continue to pervade the scholarship, as they did last year—indeed so much so that “transnationalism” does not receive a section of its own but imbues all categories. This might be designated the year of the edited collection in early American literature, with a number of cleverly conceived and ably executed volumes providing a welcome depth and range of analysis. Volumes on indigenous communications, slave narratives, and the Black Atlantic ensure that race receives deserved attention, while scholarship on women’s cultural productions continues to be sparse. A number of books and articles take genre-based approaches. The periodical essay, the novel, drama, environmental fiction, biography, the episode, conversion narratives, the gothic, slave narratives, memoirs, sentimental novels, and western literature all receive meaningful scrutiny. With the opening up of the canon, early Americanist literary scholars in recent decades have busied themselves with recovering a wide and diverse range of genres characterizing textual production during the period. It is perhaps the next step of recovery—and thus the next step in the development of the field—to provide interpretive frameworks for engaging with those genres. [End Page 189]
A body of work explores modes of affiliation and relation in early America, exploring how individuals came together to form communities or corporate identities. Two scholars examine the spaces in which these affiliations formed in the colonial period. In her important book Seasons of Misery: Catastrophe and Colonial Settlement in Early America (Penn.) Kathleen Donegan views settlements as “liminal places” situated between exploration and established colonies that existed during “a perilous time after the English formulated the intention to establish permanent colonies but before those colonies could maintain themselves as social and economic entities.” Donegan argues that the characteristic “event and discourse” of this “foundational” period is catastrophe. Catastrophe came to “mark a threshold between an old European identity and a new colonial identity, a state of experiential and narrative instability.” Catastrophe also linked suffering and violence, which for Donegan is “the inescapable condition of becoming colonial.” Chapters in the book examine the Roanoke, Jamestown, Plymouth, and Barbados settlements. In “The Crisis of Restoration: Mary Rowlandson’s Lost Home” (EAL 49: 327–56) Bridget Bennett examines Rowlandson’s shifting notion and use of the word home. Bennett focuses on home as an important aspect of the colonizing process and reads the term from a perspective shaped by transnational narratives focused on trauma, exile, and diaspora. As “a site of both intimate relationships and colonial encounter,” Bennett views the home as “nam[ing] a set of connections and relations linking the material with the intangible and affective.”
Other scholars examine the efforts to forge new American communities and identities in the wake of the Revolutionary War. In Intimacy and Family in Early American Writing (Palgrave) Erica Burleigh conceptualizes intimacy as a mediating term between public and private. She defines intimacy as “the combination of social, emotional, spatial, and legal terms by which a person comes to be bound to another person or to a community.” She examines how authors used the language of kinship and familial relations to structure “modes of relation—ranging from gossip to family admonishment to patriotism”—as they “struggled to understand and express the competing demands of various allegiances in the emerging nation.” Chapters on 18th-century writings focus on Benjamin Franklin’s essays, Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy, Hannah Webster Foster’s [End Page 190] The Coquette, and Charles Brockden Brown’s late novels Clara Howard and Jane Talbot. In “The Aesthetics of The Federalist” (EAL 49: 89–119) Joseph Fichtelberg proposes that these aesthetics “are best understood as a series of relations in which feeling and form, intention and extension, incorporation and discrimination combine and clash to render a composite...