In Search of First Contact is a monumental achievement by the influential literary critic Annette Kolodny. In this book, she offers a radically new interpretation of two medieval Icelandic tales, known as the Vinland sagas. She contends that they are the first known European narratives about contact with North America. After carefully explaining the evidence for that conclusion, Kolodny examines what happened after 1837, when English translations of the two sagas became widely available and enormously popular in the United States. She assesses their impact on literature, immigration policy, and concepts of masculinity. Kolodny considers what the sagas reveal about the Native peoples encountered by the Norse in Vinland around the year A.D. 1000, and she recovers Native American stories of first contacts with Europeans, including one that has never before been shared outside of Native communities. These stories contradict the dominant narrative of "first contact" between Europeans and the New World. Kolodny rethinks the lingering power of a mythic American Viking heritage and the long-standing debate over whether Leif Eiriksson or Christopher Columbus should be credited as the first discoverer. With this paradigm-shattering work, Kolodny shows what literary criticism can bring to historical and social scientific endeavors.
In Search of First Contact is an informative, exhaustive analysis of changing Euro-American attitudes towards the idea that the medieval Norse had visited the North American continent and encountered the people that lived there, centuries before the great “Age of Exploration” that led to the European domination of the Americas. Annette Kolodny delves deeply into the cultural ideas of what this “first contact” entailed, and how it was seen by Euro-Americans and indigenous people alike. What happened when the Norse first visited North America and encountered its people? Did it have any lasting effect on either? Where did these encounters take place? Questions such as these address the long-standing internal debate by Euro-American intellectuals and the public alike, trying to justify their own existence on a land that had been, centuries earlier, someone else's. In this book, Kolody sheds a lot of light onto how stories of earlier contacts have been framed to serve changing purposes throughout time.
Using the medieval documents of the Vinland Sagas, Euro-American literature from the eighteenth to the nineteenth centuries, and the preserved oral cultures of Algonquian peoples, she examines how these stories of the Norse visit were used to to reflect cultural changes and anxieties among these groups. Kolodny explores this by focusing on the history of speculation as to a Norse presence somewhere on the continent a thousand years before, and how this “first contact” narrative was used, later, to justify and cement the Northern European presence on the continent. Especially after the formation of the United States, Euro-Americans began searching for ways to link themselves to an older legacy in the so-called New World and downplay the importance of indigenous people.
Kolodny does a wonderful job using the literature of the time to illustrate these changes through time, including a slightly over long but interesting analysis of the Vinland Sagas, the pieces of medieval Icelandic literature that preserved older oral histories of Norse travels in the western Atlantic. After a resurgence of nationalism in Scandinavian countries brought the existence of the “Vinland Sagas” to the attention of educated Americans, especially New Englanders, this purported earlier colonization sparked their imagination. Throughout New England, Euro-Americans manufactured and found evidence that located Vinland (and their “ancestors”) right there in the heart of the colonies, in Rhode Island and Massachusetts and Maine. As experts had already decided that the great mounds and other earth works could not be the work of indigenous peoples, the Norse were a convenient origin, making the white conquest of the continent a “reconquest.”
In addition to the American responses to the Scandinavian studies of the Vinland sagas, Kolodny looks at the poetry and writings of some of the literary luminaries of New England, including Longfellow and Lowell, as they wrestled with a purported Norse past and their guilt regarding the “inevitable” fate of indigenous Americans (extinction or cultural assimilation). At the same time, the myths surrounding the discovery of Christopher Columbus began to coalesce, leading to a debate among Euro-Americans as to who was the more important “spiritual founder” to base their concepts of American society upon. Finally, Kolodny closes with discussion of a few of the oral histories and stories from some Algonquian sources, and ponders their significance in framing the first encounters between them and Europeans through their own cultures, and the changes that would result once European nations, unlike the Norse, began to commence colonization efforts. All in all, a thought provoking work, and a very important resource for scholars and those interested in American cultural studies, immigration in US history, and the encounter between different cultural groups.
Even in the years after the discovery of L’Anse aux Meadows, these conversations have continued and during her presentation at the U of M, this, of course, came up. Kolodny also discusses some of the apocryphal artifacts that were brought forward to strengthen the case of the Norse inhabiting the borders of the US, the Newport Tower in Rhode Island, Maine’s Spirit Pond Runestones, and Minnesota’s own Kensington Runestone. While she focuses on the 18th and 19th centuries, these contradictions and debates have continued to roil today in much the same way Kolodny explores in her analysis. Many Euro-Americans continue to insist upon a greater and more important past in North America and this book is a great place to begin studying this contradictory and troubling legacy.