Teaching the Literatures of Early America

By Johnson, Vernetta | Style, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview
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Teaching the Literatures of Early America

Johnson, Vernetta, Style

Carla Mulford, ed. Teaching the Literatures of Early America. New York: Modern Language Association, 1999. xii + 402 pp. $40 cloth; $22 paper.

Fulfilling its professional responsibility to prepare and showcase enlightened scholars, especially those freshly arriving in the literary studies profession, the Modern Language Association has established a series of resource books entitled Options for Teaching. Begun in 1975, the series targets literary categories in areas of composition, film studies, oral traditions, and contemporary theory. The concentration on specialized literary topics furnishes instructors with opportunities for deeper, more diverse study in the increasingly competitive arena of academic hiring, promotion, and tenure.

The fifteenth volume of the series highlights an area of American literature receiving renewed attention from literary critics. Contemporary critical approaches to literature and history addressing issues of race, class, and gender have prompted educators to revise their definitions, portrayals, and understanding of the early years of North America after European settlement and the literature that describes it. This reexamination of America's founding years entails challenging the version of American history often depicted in traditional early-American studies. Consequently, instructors are expanding, replacing, supplementing longstanding mythologies embedded in this literature that traces the development of the United States, its relationship to other North American countries, and its interaction with indigenous peoples and with non-English colonists.

For decades, educators have struggled with defining the words "literature" and "America." These two terms become even more enigmatic when they converge in a course that explores the body of literature recognized as documenting the creation of a nation. Students have been overeducated in the literature that records the explorations of Columbus, the establishment of the Puritans at Plymouth Plantation, and the subsequent colonization of the "uncivilized, barbarous Indians" that led to the emergence of the "founding fathers." The recent confirmation, however, of Thomas Jefferson's romantic involvement with his slave Sally Hemmings attests that the formation of the United States was not the simple, linear progression from discovery to nationhood often presented in American literature. These documented interactions also counter the projection of a superior European race that was responsible for elevating the subhuman ideas and customs of native North Americans.

Confronting these complex exchanges in colonial culture, literary scholars are now exploring works that span the spectrum of North American colonial writing. While editor Carla Mulford admits that Teaching the Literature of Early America does not reflect "the full range" of colonial writing, she asserts that the text expands the present scope, definitions, and categories of early American literature. For example, the collection includes the territory of the Caribbean islands and presentday Canada. In addition, it addresses literary genres beyond traditional classifications of poetry, fiction, and autobiography. Therefore, the collection's portrayal of early America is more representative of the early American perioda period when society lacked the rigid geographical boundaries, literary classifications, and cultural divisions facilitated by the formation of the United States of America.

This collection combats presentism by supplying instructors with the methods and resources required to expose students to the abundant quantity of early American literature and to situate them in the multifaceted culture of colonial times. A number of literary educators have been introducing students to the various literary works represented by Jesuit captivity narratives, female Spanish explorers, Native American narrative forms, and also to the concept of the social role of saloons and clubs in British colonies.

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