Turning Our World Upside Down:
Reconceiving Early American Literature
Philip F. Gura
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Despite all the hoopla that has accompanied American literary scholarship based in the “New Historicism,” the study of colonial American literature has remained strangely untouched by it, a fact more worth the pondering given the fact that the history of colonial America long has been a particularly vibrant field. But the study of colonial American writing seems moribund, the occasionally imaginative reading of Anne Bradstreet, the significant bibliographical discovery of another Edward Taylor manuscript, or the provocative response to one of Charles Brockden Brown’s novels only marking eddies in a stream whose source and direction has long been charted.
In contrast, for the last two decades historians of colonial British America have sharply challenged each other and their readers to rethink the premises of their field. Why hasn’t there been more fruitful commerce between scholars in the two disciplines, particularly now that the New Historicism is all the rage? Why haven’t the historians’ efforts fertilized the study of colonial American writing? And perhaps most importantly, why hasn’t the significant shift in emphasis, from New England to the Chesapeake and middle colonies, evident in the work of so many colonial historians, encouraged literary scholars similarly to refocus their attention and so to draw on the ever-increasing body of historical work for these areas?
I suggest that we cannot be New Historicists without better knowing our history, that is, without attention to what the best historians of colonial America are saying about a region or a period, even if subsequently we choose to reject their formu-