Susan Castillo and Ivy Schweitzer, eds. The Literatures of Colonial America: An Anthology. Malden, MA and Oxford: Blackwell, 2001. xxii+602pp.+4 illus. ISBN 0 631 21125 X.

Jess Edwards
Manchester Metropolitan University

Edwards, Jess. "Review of Susan Castillo and Ivy Schweitzer, eds. The Literatures of Colonial America: An Anthology". Early Modern Literary Studies 11.1 (May, 2005) 10.1-9 <URL:>.

  1. Susan Castillo and Ivy Schweitzer's 2002 anthology The Literatures of Colonial America will take its place on my shelves alongside several related texts, collected in my career as a student and teacher of early American literature: two editions of The Norton Anthology of American Literature, volume one (the second edition of 1979 and the fifth of 1998); Myra Jehlen and Michael Warner's The English Literatures of America (1997); and the fourth edition of The Heath Anthology of American Literature, volume one (2002). The contents pages of these various anthologies alone make interesting reading as indicators of continuities and changes in the field. At the heart of all of these anthologies is a canon of colonial and revolutionary writing running from William Bradford to Thomas Jefferson which remains more or less untouched, if variously edited, from the earliest anthology to the latest. The canon of early American literature is still identifiably a canon, but it has expanded, both outwards and backwards.

  2. My earliest anthology--the 1979 Norton--commences with the first successful English settlements, suggesting that American literature begins with John Smith's Virginia and William Bradford's New England. Twenty years later, the 1998 edition of the Norton has thought again about this narrative of origins, incorporating 150 pages of pre-1620 excerpts that define early American literature as a literature of discovery and exploration as well as settlement. As well as an extended canon, reaching back to Columbus, this is an expanded one, which incorporates French and Spanish as well as English colonial writing, and carefully differentiated native voices: genesis stories and trickster tales from various tribes. Supporting this extension of the canon are additions to (but not subtractions from) the original cast of editors: additions such as Arnold Krupat, who contributed his expertise on Native American oral literatures, and Wayne Franklin, scholar of discovery, exploration and encounter as well as settlement. The second section of the 1998 Norton, now titled "Early American literature 1620-1820," expands the extended canon principally in its addition of women colonial and revolutionary writers--Anne Bradstreet, Mary Rowlandson, Mercy Otis Warren and Susanna Rowson--and one black writer: Olaudah Equiano. If the novelty of some of these inclusions is surprising, we might reflect how emphatically the field has changed.

  3. The extension and expansion of the canon in the once unchallenged Norton anthology responds to and complements interventions by a growing array of competitors. Impelled both by poststructuralist concerns with identity and power and by a growing interest in the material cultures of writing, publishing, performing and reading, these anthologies have made inroads from various directions on a traditional canon viewed as informing a blinkered and amnesiac nationalism. Jehlen and Warner's anthology uses the common ground of Anglophone textual culture to unsettle the exceptionalist paradigm of American literary studies, exploring an ongoing textual transatlanticism from the first figurations of America on the London stage to the cross-fertilisations of various Enlightenments. The Heath Anthology has thoroughly pluralized the canon, making the most dramatic single impact on the field to date. Most conspicuously, the Heath emphasizes the cultural diversity of the American seventeenth century, sandwiching the sectional categories of New Spain, New France and the Chesapeake between 90 pages of Native American oral narrative and poetry and the New England canon.

  4. The structural organisation and content of Castillo and Schweitzer's new anthology for Blackwell bear a strong relation to the Heath, taking its pluralizing agenda still further. In fact the editors stake a claim to go beyond mere pluralism, challenging the nationalist teleology of traditional early American studies. They want us to read the literatures of colonial America not just as a prelude to the national literatures of the United States, but for their own sake, and against the grain of the cultural consolidations we imagine after them. The anthology divides its material into three sections: pre-1600, seventeenth century, and eighteenth century. Within these sections, somewhere between a third and a quarter of the 86 extracts make available to students material unavailable in other anthologies in English, often through Susan Castillo's new translations, though sometimes through retrieving Anglophone texts excluded from the traditional national canon. These additions supplement the expanded canon presented by the Heath consistently across its chronological and geographic range, offering new Spanish and Portuguese accounts of sixteenth-century exploration and first contact; new writing from all of the seventeenth-century sectional communities (including New Netherland, excluded from the Heath); and new writing from the later colonial and revolutionary eighteenth century. Short introductions to each section provide digested context and signal loosely binding themes through which to focus the diversity of these new perspectives. These themes--of encounter, translation, creolization, mobility and mediation--suggest alternatives disruptive to the narratives of cultural consolidation and self-definition that have traditionally framed U.S. pre-history. They seek to guide a "hemispheric," "transnational" approach to the literatures of colonial America that is true to its original diversity, and that fosters a conception of U.S. culture as not just post-revolutionary, but also post-colonial.

  5. This hemispheric approach makes for some remarkable insights. In section one the newly anthologized narrative of Hans Staden, a German Lutheran taken captive in 1548 by the Tupi Indians of Portuguese Brazil, tells us much about the complexity of early encounters. Staden himself is a typically migrant figure in this anthology, and as fluent in cross-cultural communication as the Indians with whom he deals, posing as French to gain favour with a people used to trading with some Europeans and warring with others. Section two is a particularly rich weave, making for entirely new perspectives on the canonical English literatures of settlement. While foregrounding the distinct national cultures of American colonisation this selection also allows us to appreciate much common ground. Newly translated writers such as El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega invoke Roman precedents for Spanish colonial practice, write to correct scurrilous domestic rumours about the colonies, and struggle with scepticism about the very genre of colonial history and relation--all much like their English counterparts. Various writers reverse the polarities of cultural stereotypes long regarded as distinctive tropes of English colonial writing. Newly translated Carlos de Siguenza y Góngora inverts the "black legend" of Spanish brutality in America, detailing his own abuse at the hands of English pirates, and their abuse of natives on the islands at which they stop. Jacob Steendam depicts New Amsterdam as a maiden raped by English Swine: a counter to familiar figurations of America as a willing bride to English conquest, or the rescued victim of its ravishing natives.

  6. Beyond the diversity of sectional perspectives here, and the common ground between them, it is the hybridity of individual selections that often makes for the most striking and disruptive intervention. Many of the writers newly collected here have been obscured to date not just because they have fallen through the mesh of a narrowly pre-national U.S. history, but because they sit uncomfortably even within the more expansive categories of a pluralist approach. John Lederer, for instance, like Hans Staden a migrant German who lived in America under the auspices of a foreign colonial nation, was resented by English-speaking Virginians for his role in exploring and describing their territory. This apparently marginal figure, who in reality played a central role in the cultural mapping of his colony, brings marginal concerns to the centre of his map. Like his predecessor Staden, Lederer foregrounds the intercultural skills required by a traveller amongst the Indians, providing a particularly striking perspective on one of the most famous encounter stories of early American history: the legend of Pocahontas. John Smith would have benefited from Lederer's advice that the traveller prepare to be treated ceremonially as a prisoner on entering an Indian village, however friendly his relations with the inhabitants. Across the three sections of the anthology, many of the new inclusions are authored by figures analogous to Lederer: figures apparently marginal to those paradigms through which we frame colonial cultures yet in reality central in their capacity to negotiate highly unstable cultural geographies. One such figure is Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala, an Inca who worked closely with the Spanish in Peru, and who produced a huge manuscript history of Christendom documenting the Conquest. Guamán Poma de Ayala offers advice in an imaginary dialogue with Philip III on how colonial administration might be stabilized through more equitable treatment of the natives and stricter regulation of corrupt colonial bureaucracies. Another such figure is Prince Hall, a black Freemason who fought tirelessly for abolition, but also preached loyalty in the 1770s to the existing civil institutions of British colonial government.

  7. The writing of the acculturated Inca and the counter-revolutionary black bourgeois pose singular challenges even to that pluralist pedagogy which allows neat slots for timeless native "voices" and slave narratives. Another kind of challenge is posed by generic misfits and mediations. Alongside a range of revealingly analogous attempts by European writers to translate America into neoclassical form, it's particularly heartening to find Richard Lewis's Augustan poetry in this new anthology. Like so many of the writers included here, Lewis, a Maryland schoolteacher, is a retrieval: a writer of whom most students and teachers of early American literature will have heard little if anything before. Yet Lewis's is not a private voice newly publicized. His attempts to pastoralize the American landscape were sufficiently well known in his day to earn ridicule in Pope's Dunciad. As such he sits slightly outside the primary remit of his editors, and brings me to my sole reservation with this generally excellent anthology.

  8. If recent revisions of the American canon have been driven by two distinct if related impulses--a poststructuralist concern with subjectivity and power, and a materialist concern with the politics of textual culture--the editorial ethos of this anthology leans markedly towards the former. The editors remark in their general preface, for instance, that they have preferred "personal narratives" over "public works" as more "revealing of colonial subjectivity." This comment begs several questions. Many students and teachers may think that it is precisely public, and indeed popular, works that tell us most about the cultures within which they circulated: not just about writers, but about readers. This is why we read Benjamin Franklin when we study American literature, as well as the great yet sometimes distinctly un-popular novels of the American Renaissance, and it is certainly why we are beginning to read popular writers such as Susanna Rowson. Many may also think that genre is just as formative of subjectivity in the ostensibly "private" as in the "public" work. Witness the many highly formulaic journals and spiritual autobiographies included here. And it is precisely in the area of genre and the cultural work it does that much of the most interesting scholarship has been going on in recent early American studies, shedding new light on the earliest American novels and most recently on drama. This anthology has little to say to these developments, not just because it includes almost no material from either genre--a decision defensible on formal and practical grounds--but also as a product of its approach to subjectivity, history and the text.

  9. While sorting the selections into generic categories might have inhibited the interplay of diverse voices intended by the editors, students do need to know a little more about what the authors of these texts thought they were writing. In many instances, and particularly in the case of previously obscure selections, I wanted to know more about the print or preservation history of the text. While we are given a good biography of the Creole poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, for instance, we are told little about the circulation, preservation and generic form of her extraordinary poetry and drama. Without this context we are in danger of reducing the highly specific cultural mediations performed by her writing to generic poststructuralist categories of marginality and resistance. This reduction helps students bridge the historical gap within which they might lose their own issues of subjectivity and identity, a leap which the editors undoubtedly intend. But it also compromises another editorial objective of this anthology: that of resisting teleologies which point to the formation of the modern (American) self, and of honouring the difference of a truly pre-national, early modern America. A little more editorial work in a future edition would address these reservations, strengthening an anthology that, as it stands, is remarkable and groundbreaking.


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at

© 2005-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).