Monday, July 23, 2012
July 23, 2012: Jennings on America’s Origins
[Following up the weekend’s post, this week’s series will feature quotes and ideas from Francis Jennings’ The Creation of America, along with some American Studies perspectives to which I would connect them. This is the first in the series, and as always, your thoughts are very welcome!]
On the most unique, significant, and inspiring paragraphs in Jennings’ book.
The Creation of America is ostensibly a re-interpretation of the Revolutionary era; but as I wrote in the weekend post, it also and more overarchingly represents a chance for Jennings, near the culmination of his career and life, to articulate some of his most significant ideas about American historiography and scholarship, history and culture, identity and ideals. No such idea jumped out at me more than that comprised by the final two paragraphs of Jennings’ “Introduction,” and those two paragraphs are worth quoting in full:
“Even at the very beginning of English attempts at colonization, established data suggest a need for new angles of interpretation. When Sir Walter Raleigh’s abandoned colony at Roanoke picked itself up and emigrated to Chief Manteo’s town of Croatan in 1586, ethnocentrism has dictated that bloodlusting savages exterminated those white and civilized colonists. But it seems clear that the Roanoke people went voluntarily to Croatan for refuge, and it is quite well established today that Indians all over North America were trying desperately to rebuild populations ravaged by epidemic disease. It would be perfectly rational for Manteo’s people to adopt those Roanoke refugees who had been abandoned by their civilized countrymen, and it would have been equally rational for the adoptees to settle down where they were given ‘savage’ hospitality. It is conceivable—it can be neither proved nor disproved—that Roanoke’s people became part of the ancestry of today’s tribe of Lumbee Indians. Would it not be wondrous if Virginia Dare, the first English child born on American soil, became one of those Lumbee ancestors?
I like this as a pleasanter notion than equally speculative and equally unprovable racist snarls about murderous savages. More evidence exists for subsequent events. Let us accept the door opened to them by the courtesy of Virginia Dare.”
How do I love those paragraphs? I won’t count all the ways, but I’ll highlight two of (to my mind) the most significant. For one thing, I’ll admit that I have never encountered another scholarly narrative of America’s (possible) origins that lines up more exactly with my concept of cross-cultural transformation; I named Cabeza de Vaca my 16th-century exemplary American within that definition, but Jennings’ take on Virginia Dare, while more speculative, would work just as well—and given Dare’s symbolic status as that first-born Anglo-American would make this cross-cultural experience even more overtly defining of the American experience.
But for another thing, I love Jennings’ perspective here, on two key levels. He’s straight-forwardly honest about preferring a particular take on American history and identity—obviously such preferences shouldn’t lead us to misrepresent the historical sources and facts, but as Jennings recognizes here, history-writing is always partly about an interpretation of those sources and facts, about creating our own narratives based on them; and why shouldn’t we try to find the more communal and inspiring narratives in them, rather than then most divisive and violent? Moreover, while there are of course plenty of cases in which we can’t dispute that cultural contacts led to such divisions and violence, there are likewise plenty in which they produced communal understanding and connections, and the kinds of transformations that can result from them—so why should we assume the worst of our histories, rather than arguing for the best?
Those are my favorite paragraphs in Jennings’ book, but they’re far from the only inspiring ones. Next example tomorrow!
PS. What do you think? How would you respond to these ideas?7/23 Memory Day nominee: Raymond Chandler, one of America’s (and the world’s) greatest mystery novelists, and also one of our most thoughtful and complex chroniclers of masculinity, heroism, social class, and more.