Literary Indians: Aesthetics and Encounter in American Literature to 1920

Literary Indians: Aesthetics and Encounter in American Literature to 1920

Literary Indians: Aesthetics and Encounter in American Literature to 1920

Literary Indians: Aesthetics and Encounter in American Literature to 1920

Synopsis

Although cross-cultural encounter is often considered an economic or political matter, beauty, taste, and artistry were central to cultural exchange and political negotiation in early and nineteenth-century America. Part of a new wave of scholarship in early American studies that contextualizes American writing in Indigenous space, Literary Indians highlights the significance of Indigenous aesthetic practices to American literary production.

Countering the prevailing notion of the "literary Indian" as a construct of the white American literary imagination, Angela Calcaterra reveals how Native people's pre-existing and evolving aesthetic practices influenced Anglo-American writing in precise ways. Indigenous aesthetics helped to establish borders and foster alliances that pushed against Anglo-American settlement practices and contributed to the discursive, divided, unfinished aspects of American letters. Focusing on tribal histories and Indigenous artistry, Calcaterra locates surprising connections and important distinctions between Native and Anglo-American literary aesthetics in a new history of early American encounter, identity, literature, and culture.

Excerpt

What did literary activity look like in early America? For the Puritan communities of New England, literary culture involved “scriptural explication,” poetics, sermonic and contemplative forms of thought and expression, and material practices of textual dissemination, note taking, and transcribing. For EuroAmerican explorers and naturalists, literary production took shape around travel, mapping, social commentary, the discourse of the New Science, and dialogue with Native American guides and materials. in city coffee houses and salons, like-minded citizens cultivated “polite letters” as they circulated manuscripts and read poems aloud. Meanwhile, literary practice among the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, situated to the east of the Great Lakes, involved the creation and exchange of wampum belts and strings, crafted of purple and white shell beads, that carried precise narratives and agreements. Eloquent speakers read the belts in carefully orchestrated public ceremonies, incorporating complex imagery rooted in the sacred story of this confederacy’s founding and invoking audience interpretation and response. For the Pawnee communities settled along the Platte River in what is currently Nebraska, literary culture well into the nineteenth century took shape around seasonal hunting and planting and accompanying geographic knowledge. They incorporated bufalo and corn materials into storytelling sessions, dramatic performances, and sacred rituals to interpret and represent their surroundings and to energize their subsistence practices.

Such diverse Euro-American and Indigenous conventions were not the same, and yet they shared certain features. Much of what we might consider “literary” here “existed outside of texts”; we might stress its “creativity” and materiality in addition to its “textuality.” Drawing on various expressive forms and often privileging communal literary creation, these literary cultures integrated concerns about beauty, taste, and artistry with both material practice and social and political imagining of self and other. in the most general terms, their participants sought to elevate understanding and sensibility with carefully chosen words, images, and materials. Imaginative use of forms, preferences and tastes in modes of expression, and representational conventions were not simply features of Euro-American “civility” and “empire”; Pawnees as well as . . .

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