AMERICAN LITERATURE IN CONTEXT TO 1865 by Susan Castillo, Reviewed by Yvette Piggush
 

AMERICAN LITERATURE IN CONTEXT TO 1865
By Susan Castillo
(Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), xviii + 185 pp., ill.
Reviewed by Yvette Piggush on 2010-10-02.

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How did the history of the New World influence the meaning and the significance of its literature? In her lively, readable contribution to the Wiley-Blackwell Literature in Context series, Susan Castillo answers this question by showing how American historical events and literary production enrich each other. This book not only summarizes historical events but also highlights what Castillo calls the "splendid untidiness" of American voices from the past (viii). Early American debates about historical context, she demonstrates, are as multi-faceted as their modern counterparts. For example, Maya historians inscribe their story of origins in a sacred text, the Popol Vhu, which tells how the Forefathers dream the world into existence (6). The indigenous peoples of what is now the northeastern United States preserve their histories in oral accounts that typically begin with an Earthdiver character who lifts the world out of a primeval flood (6-7). For early Spanish and English colonists, the history of the New World begins with their quest for military glory and treasure (18). For later colonists, such as New England's Puritans, American history is the record of God's action within human time (26). Modern scholars, Castillo demonstrates, continue this contentious conversation. They may narrate the history of America in terms of an Atlantic world-system of capital and labor, in terms of the development of highly capitalized forms of agriculture known as the "plantation complex," or in terms of individual and national regeneration through violence in the wilderness (10-11, 103). By surveying the multiple literary narratives and interpretations of the early American past, Castillo effectively supplements the major anthologies currently used to teach surveys of early American literature.

This book's eight chapters move from the Spanish, French, and English colonizations of America and the Puritan settlement in New England to the American Revolution and early national period, the Transcendentalist literary movement, and the Civil War. Four nineteenth-century authors whose individual visions resist these divisions of time and subject matter—Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman—are covered together in a separate chapter on the original ways in which they responded to their historical and cultural surroundings.

This book offers useful extras. At the front, a detailed timeline pairs texts and historical events in two side-by-side columns, for easy reference. The bibliography lists a range of primary and secondary sources, including essay collections and other anthologies, which will be particularly useful to readers just being introduced to early American culture. The book also provides a handful of black and white illustrations. Some, such as a page from the New England Primer,are becoming more widely available. Others, like the nineteenth-century engraving of a scene from James Fenimore Cooper's novel The Prairie, are more unusual.

Castillo's approach interweaves history and literature as co-producers of what counts as context. Most pages have one or more extended quotations from literary works, both poetry and prose. This book models, therefore, a give-and-take conversation between literature and history rather than a one-way determination of one by the other. For instance, Castillo frames her chapter on the British colonization of the New World with a quotation from the "Panegyrick Verses" that preface John Smith's Generall Historie of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles. Since these verses compare the European settlement of the Americas to the classical myth of Jason's quest for the Golden Fleece, Castillo explains that this kind of imagery motivated colonization as a search for glory and treasure (17-18). But, when another poet's verse preface to the Generall Historie compares Smith's leadership of the Virginia colony to the god Vulcan hammering at his anvil, colonization is made to consist of manual labor and a struggle against the elements. As Castillo shows, then, the poems prefacing Smith's work are not simply decorations but expressions of the conflicting notions of colonization—"the anvil and the golden fleece"—that shaped the European conquest of the New World (17).

The New World itself was composed of different places and changing times. If literary imagery shapes historical perspective in colonial Virginia, worldly events stimulate an otherworldly Transcendentalist literature in nineteenth-century New England. Castillo treats Indian Removal and Manifest Destiny before turning to New England writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller. By presenting the philosophical idealism of the Transcendentalists after treating the history of the American West, Castillo reveals the violent social realities that accompanied and even motivated the Transcendentalists' spiritual search for individual and aesthetic freedom.

Several areas of literary, religious, and scientific history covered by this book strike me as particularly useful to its target audience. The opening chapter includes a helpful introduction to Indigenous literature, especially the Trickster tale. The chapter on colonial New England provides basic background on how John Calvin's theology influenced Puritanism. It also summarizes the events and impact of the Antinomian Controversy, a dispute between a Puritan woman, Ann Hutchinson, and the Massachusetts Bay leadership over the theology of divine Election and salvation. Finally, at the outset of the chapter on post-Revolutionary America, Castillo summarizes the debate between European naturalists and Thomas Jefferson over the alleged inferiority of New World plants, animals, and humans. Her discussion sheds a great deal of light on the scientific principles behind the debate, which are unfamiliar to most modern readers.

Nevertheless, with all of its attention to the complexity and multiplicity of early American history and culture, this book left me wishing that it could have jettisoned its 1492-1865 time frame, which ties its account of American literature to the development of the United States. Outside this book, Castillo's intellectual training and comparative colonial approach to American literature have blazed a path away from this traditional chronological framing. As she explains in the introduction to her monograph, Colonial Encounters in New World Writing, 1500-1786: Performing America (2005), Castillo came to study early America from a background in French, Spanish, and Portuguese language and literature. She wrote her Ph.D. dissertation in Portuguese on the Native American author Leslie Marmon Silko (Colonial Encounters, 3). Together with Ivy Schweitzer, she edited the path-breaking anthology, The Literatures of Colonial America (2001). This work includes many texts from French, Spanish, and indigenous literary traditions outside the traditional early American canon of works by English-speaking writers. Colonial Encounters, which emerged out of the anthology project, uses a methodology informed by the study of performance to recover the multiple voices of early America. It shows how relations of colonial dominance and resistance emerge in European and Amerindian writing that takes the form of a dialogue or that narrates a play or ritual. In Colonial Encounters, Castillo praises "the move beyond conventional disciplinary and linguistic boundaries" in early American studies (18). She rejects a teleological paradigm in which the literatures of America progress towards European forms and U.S. national culture. "Given the complexity of the literary history of the Americas," Castillo argues, "and taking into account their linguistic and historical diversity, a paradigm of literary analysis predicated on the boundaries or the evolution of the nation-state is limiting and reductive" (CE, 19). American Literature in Context does introduce the reader to North America's literary and historical complexity, but it does so within a chronological framework determined by the evolution of the United States from the Thirteen Colonies to an independent nation.

In highlighting these differences between Castillo's other work and this book, I do not wish to trivialize the remarkable range of material it incorporates or to disparage its value as an introduction to early American literary context. I make this juxtaposition because it raises larger questions for all those reading early American literature. Castillo's work in The Literatures of Colonial America and in Colonial Encounters eloquently demonstrates that colonial America is much more than a prequel to the United States. How can we bring scholarship that challenges the U.S.-based framing of early America into introductory texts? How can we loosen the grip that United States nationalism has on colonial America while still engaging historical frameworks? Can curriculum committees, publishers, and casual readers be convinced that early American literature should be hemispheric, multilingual, and multidisciplinary?

In the end, this book is an innovative soul within a traditional body. It presents the historical context of American writing from a variety of perspectives within a period structure relevant to many current college courses.

Yvette R. Piggush is Assistant Professor of English at Florida International University.


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