Forum in Teaching Early American Writings



Carla Mulford, The Pennsylvania State University

In a session called What is an Early Americanist? sponsored by the Society of Early Americanists at the 1993 American Literature Association conference, the ongoing conversation turned to the inevitable question, What is early American literature? While some in the room proposed the early Americanist model provided by Anglo-American history, others insisted that to be comprehensive, early American studies should also, given the multicultural historical circumstances of the Americas, include Spanish, Dutch, French, and Native American materials. The question and heated debate was temporarily resolved when someone proposed that the Society of Early Americanists sponsor a forum in 1994 on teaching early American materials. The Society did so. Tom Shields’s comments below, along with his highly useful course outlines and selected bibliography, were part of that 1994 teaching forum. Other participants’ commentaries and materials, we are hoping, will appear in subsequent issues of The Heath Anthology Newsletter.

Before turning to Shields’s selection, though, I’d like to return to the question about what constitutes the study of early American writings. My concern is with one 1993 participant’s discomfiting question, echoed by many in the room, about teaching materials which don’t exist originally in English. The comment specifically related to historical Spanish materials, which our colleague considered outside the province of early American studies. It is a concern many colleagues express. As my essay in the last Newsletter (no. 11, spring 1994) might have suggested, I do myself teach early Spanish materials, and not without some awareness of the problems of teaching translated materials. For me, the answer to my troubled colleague’s question about teaching Spanish materials has become a different question, one having to do with the assumptions behind my own training: Why was it that we rarely questioned, when I was an undergraduate, the validity of teaching Homer, or Ovid, or Boccaccio, or Petrarch, or Dante in translation in United States classrooms, but we question the teaching of Spanish materials in translation especially with regard to issues in early American studies in classrooms today? To extend this question, I wonder if my own uneasiness with the question of teaching Spanish materials lies less in the issue of teaching translated materials than in issues of what constitutes nationhood and cultural identity, then and now. These are important indeed, crucial questions, it seems to me, questions which early Americanists seem peculiarly advantaged, if they are willing to entertain the challenge, to begin to try to reckon with.

Tom Shields’s offering of a commentary and materials can provide just the beginning we might need. Two graduate students currently enrolled in my graduate seminar, Colonialism and Discontents (on colonial and Native American writings), have already found Shields’s lists of primary sources in translation especially helpful for their projects, independently chosen, in colonial Spanish writings. Shields’s approaches are somewhat comparative and delightfully non-prescriptive. His bibliographies provide reliable information about primary readings that will be useful for anyone interested in attempting to answer some of the questions early Americanists now seem to be posing.

With the publication of Tom Shields’s materials, we are continuing a thread, in effect inaugurated in the last newsletter issue, on teaching early American materials from a multicultural perspective. For those who are still searching for general readings which would help place some of the issues in cultural context, let me suggest just a few more sources. For an especially informative account of the eleventh- and twelfth-century Reconquest of Hispania and the Reconquest mentality of Hispania’s leaders who engaged in colonization efforts in the Americas, see Lyle N. McAlister’s Spain and Portugal in the New World, 1492-1700 (Minnesota, 1984). But read as well, as something of a corrective to the commentaries about missions of Reconquest, the wonderfully evocative When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846 by Ramón Gutiérrez (Stanford, 1991), which treats in measured ways the cultures of Pueblo peoples as they were encountered by Spanish conquistadors and missionaries. More narrowly, I have recently found useful, especially with regard to the complicated colonialist situation of translation, Vicente L. Rafael’s Contracting Colonialism: Translation and Christian Conversion in Tagalog Society under Early Spanish Rule (Duke, 1993), and more broadly, I have enjoyed the essays in 1492-1992: Re/Discovering Colonial Writing, ed. René Jara and Nicholas Spadaccini (Minnesota, 1989). Finally, I have found invaluably insightful the "Teaching Innovations Forum published in recent issues of Perspectives, the American Historical Association Newsletter. In particular, let me recommend Vince Noble’s White Professors, Black History: Forays into the Multicultural Classroom (Vol. 31, no. 6, Sept. 1993); Donald A. Grinde’s Teaching American Indian History: A Native American Voice (Vol. 32, No. 6, Sept. 1994); and Ronald Takaki’s Teaching American History through a Different Mirror (Vol. 32, No. 7, Oct. 1994). These last are essays designed for the historian, but they address the questions many of us seem to be wondering about: What is American about American writings, and to what extent should we be engaging students in these questions.

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Go to: Forum in Teaching Early American Writings: Part 1: The Uses of the Spanish Imperial Past in the Early American Classroom

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This page was prepared by Audrey Mickahail at the Center for Electronic Projects in American Culture Studies (CEPACS), housed at Georgetown University, under the direction of Randy Bass, Department of English.