- Colonizing the Past: Mythmaking and Pre-Columbian Whites in Nineteenth-Century American Writing by Edward Watts
Settler colonialism, Primordialism, Indigenous peoples, Print culture
Edward Watts’s Colonizing the Past is one of the first monographs to apply a settler-colonial analytic to the well-worn materials of early American myth-making. Spanning U.S. literary production from 1780 to 1915, the book is a dazzling survey of the literary construct of “primordialism”— that is, “white fantasies” of the pre-Columbian past that seek to provide U.S. citizens with a whitened ancient history by displacing Indigenous pasts (4, 76). Watts divides his work into five case studies of primordialism, each of which “diminish Indians”: the myths of Welsh Indians, Lost Tribes, Mound Builders, ancient Irish colonists, and the Vikings and Normans of the Norse Revival (7). His texts range from novels and newspaper articles to poetic epics, tracing the iconic primordial figures over the long century. In the tradition of classic American studies per Henry Nash Smith and Leo Marx, Watts places print culture within its specific historical context while also, in the style of Richard Slotkin, Annette Kolodny, John Carlos Rowe, and Amy Kaplan, attending to literary history as a vector of imperial violence.1 Colonizing the Past does not [End Page 491] merely assert that the narratives of “primordial whites” were connected to nation-building: It shows how they were central to it.
Watts’s attempt to understand the tangle of racialization, white identity, and settler colonialism in nineteenth-century print culture is a clear, compelling, and original reading of familiar as well as non-canonical texts that “reveals the moral and racial precariousness of the settler nation” (46). While notable recent scholarship has focused on Watts’s broad subject, none has situated the production of ancient pasts in the paradigm of white supremacy and settler triumphalism as clearly and insistently as Watts has here.2 In the connections he draws between marginal texts and canonical writers, Watts also makes clear that the power of primordialism was not confined to the pens of “western” writers or removal apologists. Moreover, Watts’s deep knowledge of the print culture of the early republic and antebellum eras translates into a fascinating and useful guide to U.S. literary history.
Watts’s first chapter provides a superb survey of writings on Welsh Indians, by which Watts also displays his unparalleled knowledge of the literary history of early America. Chapter 2 includes a particularly skilled reading of Lydia Sigourney’s 1822 poem Traits of the Aborigines in America and the culture of sentiment, intriguingly casting the New England writer’s anti-removal campaign as motivated not by the abhorrence of violence but rather by millennialism (75, 72). The third chapter is likewise noteworthy for its refreshing reevaluation of the “Mound Builder myth,” [End Page 492] which Watts frames in terms of the rise of industrialism and struggle over western and southern markets. Additionally, his analyses of colonialism and transatlantic folk and nationalist movements provide a thought-provoking reorientation for the immigration debates and anti-Catholic nativism of the mid-nineteenth century.
Colonizing the Past is admirable in its forceful assessment of settler triumphalism—Watts boldly indicts, for example, the “genocidal print culture of Jacksonian America”—and for avoiding euphemism or under-statement (94). One of its most compelling, if subtle, arguments is that much of early nineteenth-century literary culture was engaged in developing “fiction[s] of absolution” to excuse white settlers from the theft and murder that enabled U.S. national settlement on Indigenous lands (46, 91, 128). Indeed, the book’s major contribution to the field is its clear-eyed attention to the operations of whiteness, and to the entanglement of racialization and settler colonialism. Moreover, it provides an accessible introduction to settler-colonial theory and delivers a compelling argument for the theory’s applicability to early American literature.
The Atlantic orientation of the book, however, is a limitation that frequently led Watts to postcolonial...