Tuesday, December 6, 2011

December 6, 2011: So What 1

If you’ve been well trained by a literary analyzer like this AmericanStudier, one of your main responses to the new definition of cross-cultural American diversity I advanced in yesterday’s post might be “So what?” I tried to address some of the broadest national narratives that could be transformed by my ideas back in the “What would changeseries of posts (written the week that the book in which I make this argument was released), and certainly I would still emphasize such broad topics (language, mixture, the melting pot, and a phrase like “All-American”) in response to your hypothetical analytical query. But within that book, each main chapter focused on a particular century in American post-contact history and culture, and along those lines I would also argue that a definition of American identity and diversity focused on cross-cultural transformation would allow—in fact require—us to rethink some of our dominant images (both positive and negative) of different time periods. For the rest of this week’s posts I’ll address one particular period and what would change, relying in part on an exemplary recent work of AmericanStudies scholarship to help me make my case.
For a long time, our national narratives of the first European arrivals to the Americas have focused on two distinct, in many ways opposed, but each in their own way oversimplifying stories. Some of the most defining national narratives have of course focused on the Puritans, and most especially on the Mayflower Pilgrims; those narratives have tended to be largely positive and celebratory, as exemplified by the recurring “city on a hill” imagery which leaders like John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan have used both to describe the Pilgrims and to carry forward their idealizing visions of their mission and community. In the dominant Pilgrim narrative, Native Americans tend to figure mostly just as friendly helpers (a la Squanto) who help the Pilgrims survive and then, well, more or less vanish from the story. On the other hand, another defining national narrative emphasizes Christopher Columbus and 1492 as key origin points; for at least the last few decades, driven by multicultural historical revisions and the rise of disciplines like ethnic and Native American studies, that narrative has tended to be largely negative and critical, as illustrated by the many protests that met the 1992 Columbus quincentenary and sought to turn the conversations both to the many cultures that constituted the Pre-Columbian Americas and to the often horrifically violent and destructive aftermaths of Columbus’s “discovery” for those cultures.
There’s certainly both historical accuracy and contemporary relevance to the positive and the negative narratives of European arrival, but my definition requires a different vision: one that emphasizes not arrival itself, not the cultures doing the arriving, and not those already here and affected by the arrivals, but instead the relationships and interconnections between and ultimately mutual transformations of all of those cultures. And to that end, I can’t recommend highly enough Cynthia Van Zandt’s Brothers Among Nations: The Pursuit of Intercultural Alliances in Early America,1580-1660. Van Zandt’s book is exemplary as historical scholarship, utilizing archival primary sources in consistently clear and complex ways, and refusing to settle for anything less than a fully rounded analysis of the multiple cultures and moments and encounters on which she focuses. But it’s just as exemplary, to my mind, in its fundamental purpose, in Van Zandt’s desire to examine aspects of the arrival era that are centrally defined neither by European success nor by cultural oppression or violence; instead, she argues convincingly throughout, many of this period’s central interactions were hesitant, tentative, partial, and most significantly cross-cultural in every sense. If they did not always extend into the remainder of the 17th and 18th centuries, that does not mean that they are not crucially defining American interactions, both because future cultures and communities would likely not have existed without them and because, through a more 21st century lens, they provide inspiring evidence that separation, hierarchy, and violence were far from the only options available to early American cultures.
More tomorrow, another time period that needs reexamining and another great recent work that can help us to do just that,
PS. What do you think? Any aspects or stories of the arrival and exploration era you’d highlight?

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