Through the use of several iconic early American authors (Anne Bradstreet, James Kirkpatrick, Benjamin Franklin, and Edgar Allan Poe), Jim Egan’s Oriental Shadows: The Presence of theEast in Early American Literature explores the presence of “the East” in American writing.
The specter of the East haunted the literature of colonial British America and the new United States, from the earliest promotional pamphlets to the most aesthetically sophisticated works of art of the American Renaissance. Figures of Persia, China, Arabia, and other Oriental people, places, and things played crucial roles in many British American literary works, serving as key images in early American writers’ efforts to demonstrate that early American culture could match—and perhaps even surpass—European standards of refinement. These writers offered the East as a solution to America’s perceived inferior civilized status by suggesting that America become more civilized not by becoming more European but instead by adopting aesthetic styles and standards long associated with an East cast as superior aesthetically to both America and Europe.
In bringing to light this largely overlooked archive of images within the American literary canon, Oriental Shadows suggests that the East played a key role in the emergence of a distinctively American literary tradition and, further, that early American identity was born as much from figures of the East as it was from the colonists’ encounters with the frontier.
The encounter between European and native peoples in the Americas is often portrayed as a conflict between literate civilization and illiterate savagery. That perception ignores the many indigenous forms of writing that were not alphabet-based, such as Mayan pictoglyphs, Iroquois wampum, Ojibwe birch-bark scrolls, and Incan quipus. Queequeg's Coffin offers a new definition of writing that comprehends the dazzling diversity of literature in the Americas before and after European arrivals. This groundbreaking study recovers previously overlooked moments of textual reciprocity in the colonial sphere, from a 1645 French-Haudenosaunee Peace Council to Herman Melville's youthful encounters with Polynesian hieroglyphics.
By recovering the literatures and textual practices that were indigenous to the Americas, Birgit Brander Rasmussen reimagines the colonial conflict as one organized by alternative but equally rich forms of literacy. From central Mexico to the northeastern shores of North America, in the Andes and across the American continents, indigenous peoples and European newcomers engaged each other in dialogues about ways of writing and recording knowledge. In Queequeg's Coffin, such exchanges become the foundation for a new kind of early American literary studies.
Susanna Rowson: Sentimental Prophet of Early American Literature opens the early American writer’s works to new, provocative interpretations based on the theory that her responses to social issues incorporate notions of righteousness, justice, accountability, and loyalty drawn from prophets in the Hebrew Bible. Steven Epley argues that Rowson’s sentimentalism—a literary mode that portrays characters undergoing strong emotions and evokes similar responses from readers—reflects the rhetorical style of the Bible’s first prophet, Moses, and its understanding of the “heart” not just as a metaphor for human kindness and tenderness but also as a source of wickedness. Epley relocates the widespread introduction of Jewish values into American discourse from the height of Jewish immigration (roughly 1890 to 1940) to the early republic, given Rowson’s vast audience and influence on American letters. Her novel Charlotte Temple outsold every other American work of fiction until Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the 1850s.