Reading settler fiction: Oana Godeanu-Kenworthy, ‘Creole Frontiers: Imperial Ambiguities in John Richardson’s and James Fenimore Cooper’s Fiction’, Early American Literature, 49, 3, 2014, pp. 741-770


Excerpt: In his 2010 article “Settler Postcolonialism as a Reading Strategy,” Edward Watts argues that by using settler theory to study early American literature, scholars in the field can move away from the binary of empire and resistance, toward a better understanding of the multiple experimental and alternative nationalisms of the early Republic. This timely decentering of the nationalist narrative builds on the shift toward postcolonial studies in American literature, while reflecting the more general transatlantic and hemispheric turn in American studies in recent years. In Watts’s reading, then, settler theory has the potential to transcend what Ralph Bauer describes as “the limitations of critical and theoretical concepts, as well as markers of identity current in US American studies … across cultural and disciplinary borders” (“Early American” 225). On the one hand, postcolonial theory has created useful comparative frameworks for discussing local colonialisms; on the other, the dominant Anglo-American emphasis on the colonizer-colonized conceptual binary fails to prove consistently useful in a hemispheric context. Furthermore, traditional periodizations of literary studies that separate the colonial and the national artificially normalize the American experience of decolonization, since the US model was the exception rather than the norm in the hemisphere until at least 1820 (Bauer, “Early American” 225). Thus, settler theory has the unique potential to address both disciplinary shortcomings by positing the early Americans as just one group of Euro-Creoles in the Americas, simultaneously agents and subjects of imperial power, whose identities and relationship to the land were triangulated across multiple political formations.

This article examines the relationship between such political formations and the competing narratives of indigeneity and authenticity that underpinned frontier fiction in the United States and Canada in the 1820s and 1830s. James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851) and his contemporary and admirer, Canadian novelist John Richardson (1796–1852), have been traditionally read through the lens of the national canon as early representatives of Canadian and American literatures, respectively. The works of both have long drawn comparisons, which I do not intend to revisit here. Rather, my goal is to illuminate the commonalities of these two Euro-American Creoles via an examination of the role that the land, empire, and whiteness play in their literary invention of competing national and prenational pasts. In doing so, my use of settler postcolonialism dissociates the term Creole from its racial connotations, dominant in American studies scholarship, and uses it as a marker of difference in the relationship between metropolis and its colonial outposts. At the same time, rather than positing Richardson as a British colonial epigone of Cooper, I view him as the translator of a literary model into a cultural paradigm shaped by different historical circumstances, and informed by different transatlantic and hemispheric power relations. Central to my argument is the fact that, although both authors engage the same empires and the same geography, they wrote from within two concurrent political regimes, one colonial, one national, whose structures and conventions informed their respective “frontiers.”

In the early decades of the nineteenth century, the northern borderlands of the American Republic were underpinned by real, albeit contested, ideological fault lines. Early American settlerhood evolved in dialogue with the colonial settlerhood of British North America. British literature was widely read in the colonies, but so were American authors. Early Canadian fiction engaged not only with British imperial narratives and tropes of belonging but also with American nationalism, defining itself in relation to both. Similarly, throughout the nineteenth century American culture remained involved in a series of complex political, cultural, and literary negotiations with Canada. Early American and British North American writers courted a shared transatlantic book market united by the use of the English language but separated by political divisions (Fleming and Lamonde). Canadian authors often wrote to three implied audiences: colonial, metropolitan, and Anglo-continental, adapting their writings to suit local sensibilities (Mount). Much like their American counterparts, writers north of the Great Lakes struggled to manufacture and emphasize a sense of political difference between the two Anglo communities in North America. In their efforts to craft usable pasts for the competing nationalist and imperial projects on the continent, American and Canadian authors grappled with the contradictions between the shared geography…

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