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Wayne State University


If American literary histories so often begin with the New England Puritans, it is because histories with such a starting point are able to tell an appealing national story of coherent community and religious freedom. So, at any rate, suggests T. H. Breen when he notes that beginning the national narrative instead with John Smith and the Virginia colony would require telling a far less pleasing tale of American greed, domination, and exploitation. Philip Gura has likewise wondered how Sacvan Bercovitch's model of an "American self," formulated from exclusively Puritan New England materials, might be complicated by John Smith's mercantilism. Why, Gura asks, have the "economic origins of the American self" been overlooked, and where might we locate the sources of this alternative notion of selfhood?(1) These suggestions were made a decade ago, and have been followed by a series of similar challenges to the continuist, exceptionalist, regionally narrow, and prevailingly religious terms that have dominated the enframement of colonial American studies. A number of critics have joined in the call to displace the cultural and geographic privilege of the Puritans and New England, often explaining such privilege as one effect of a retrodetermined paradigm which imposes on colonial American literature the role of anticipating later events, such as the American Revolution or American Romanticism.(2) But by setting John Smith against John Winthrop, and Virginia against New England, Breen and Gura run the risk of perpetuating the impoverishment and imbalance they otherwise hope to remedy within studies of colonial America. For the dominant narrative whose terms they seek to revise has historically tended to suppress attention not just to John Smith, but to the pressures of economic conflict, class struggle, and colonial exploitation within early American literature generally, including those Puritan New England texts that have otherwise seemed to represent America's origins in a coherent community dedicated to religious and civil liberty.



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