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Reviewed by:
  • Contested Spaces of Early America ed. by Juliana Barr, Edward Countryman, and: Encounters in the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People by Elizabeth A. Fenn
  • Phillip H. Round (bio)
Contested Spaces of Early America
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014
Encounters in the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People
New York: Hill and Wang, 2014

The field of early American studies has undergone a sea change in the first two decades of this century. No longer cowed by the Puritans, scholars reveled in exploring a new colonial world animated as much by mercantilism and materiality as by Ramist rhetoric and biblical typology. Colonial women increasingly entered the historians’ field of vision; the South and Mid-Atlantic regions took their rightful stations as coequals with New England in the establishment of British America; and European critical theory finally found its place at the table as early Americanists deployed the work of Roger Chartier and Jürgen Habermas to theorize how the material practices involved in writing, reading, and printing opened the way for the constitution of “the public” in the colonies. Inspired by innovative work in area studies, scholars soon worked to integrate non-Europeans into their analyses, interweaving postcolonial scholarship with a sophisticated empirical understanding of the Atlantic world and its imperial and mercantile systems.

It is true that some of the old guard were not too sanguine about these developments. As recently as 2016, the dean of historians of the American Revolution, Gordon Wood, complained that the flagship journal in the field, the William and Mary Quarterly, “no longer concentrates exclusively on the origins of the United States,” and was thus “in danger of losing its way.”

The younger generation, however, appears undaunted, clearly embracing a hemispheric definition of America in all its multicultural and geographic complexity. Where their predecessors employed conceptualizations of the frontier, the wilderness, and even the public sphere to map the ground for social interaction and meaning making, they claim that [End Page 816] space—an evanescent cultural field fabricated through human intervention in the natural world—moors all human societies to the patch of earth they occupy. Nature shapes human behavior and humans shape the natural world. Space is thus a field of relations—military, economic, social, political, religious. Space effectively channeled the flow of peoples and cultures across the Western Hemisphere in the early modern period, its circuits formed well before contact by the geopolitics of the indigenous past.

Encounters in the Heart of the World and Contested Spaces of Early America epitomize this trend. Both argue that early America began well before 1492 and that its material shape was quite literally constructed in the indigenous urban trade centers, small townships, farms, and hunting grounds that flourished in the Western Hemisphere during the first few centuries of the common era.

Editors Juliana Barr and Edward Countryman originally conceived of Contested Spaces as a tribute to their friend and mentor, Latin American historian David Weber, who had taken up the torch from Herbert Bolton and others to construct a fresh hemispheric vision of early America at the close of the twentieth century. With Professor Weber’s untimely death in 2010, Barr and Countryman reimagined the collection of essays as a memorial volume, gathering historians from a variety of subfields to present the fruits of Weber’s labor—an early America comprising a contiguous land-mass stretching from Vancouver Island to Argentina in which “the Indian population was the defining commonality” (23) of European experiences in the Western Hemisphere.

Contested Spaces is divided into four parts that consider the spatial dimensions of early American history from a variety of angles. The first examines what Pekka Hämäläinen, in her contribution, calls “the shapes of power,” those “deep historical currents” (31) that predate contact and trace the complex indigenous geopolitical alliances that determined how Europeans would encounter both the New World and its peoples. Allan Greer’s contribution to this part is similarly sweeping and conceptual, demonstrating how Spain and England brought two completely different discourses of land tenure into their negotiations...


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pp. 816-821
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