Monday, March 25, 2013
March 25, 2013: National Big Read Recaps, Part 1
[This past Saturday, I chaired my NeMLA Roundtable on a National Big Read. Each of the six participants shared interesting and provocative perspectives on his or her chosen book or author, and so I wanted to follow up those presentations with some quick further thoughts. Not least so you can add your take on these and other books and authors that all Americans could read at the same time!]
The nominee that would help us think about some of the worst and best of where we started.
The roundtable’s first presenter, Frank Hillson of the University of Delaware, nominated Mary Rowlandson’s personal narrative (originally titled The Sovereignty and Goodness of God). As Frank noted, the book was perhaps America’s first best-seller, returned in full force in the Revolutionary moment and has been in print ever sense, and helped originate one of the nation’s (and perhaps world’s) most defining and persistent literary genres, the captivity narrative.
Frank focused in his talk (I was a harsh taskmaster and limited each speaker to about 8 minutes, and I know each has plenty more to say of course) on one of the captivity narrative’s principal features, the creation of a savage “other” against whom the captive must struggle; as he noted, reading Rowlandson thus introduces us to some of the ways in which European Americans have consistently created and defined themselves against such cultural “others” since the first post-contact decades. Certainly that’d be a vital takeaway for all American readers.
Yet there would be more inspiring potential lessons as well, takeaways that Frank likewise mentioned but one of which I wanted to reiterate here (and that I also discussed in this earlier post). Despite her originating and to some degree overarching emphases on cultural division and hostility, Rowlandson cannot help but document the many cross-cultural kindnesses and, to my mind even more importantly, social and economic relationships that develop between her and many of the Wampanoags. While early (and general) American history did not go in those unifying and inspiring directions nearly frequently enough, they were nonetheless part of our originating moments and community—and ones that we would do well to remember. Rowlandson can help us do that too.
Next nominee tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this nomination? Other nominees for an Even Bigger Read?