This authoritative study offers a radical new reading of American literary history, as well as fresh insights into the powerful pull of primitivism in United States culture, and into the interactions of gender and race ideologies. Looking back to the birth of the United States, Helen Carr analyses how responses to the existence of Native American traditions have shaped ideas of American identity and American literature.
Gary Snyder talked of the Indian as the vengeful ghost lurking at the back of the American mind, the painful reminder that the country's revolutionary ideals had been tarnished from the beginning by the desire for westward land. Both guilt and desire lay behind the idea that the Native American, for better or worse, was an earlier form of mankind, a primitive precursor of civilisation, closer to Nature, and doomed to disappear. It is only at the end of the period which this book covers that this idea was challenged, and even then it was largely assumed Native American cultural traditions would die away. But if the notion of this vanishing race remained a constant, in other ways ideas about Native Americans and their traditions were changeable, unstable and contradictory, inflected by political pressures, by changing racial and literary theories, and by class and gender issues.
The book examines a series of texts, both literary and anthropological, which describe, inscribe, translate and transform Native American myths and poetry. Drawing on post colonial and feminist theory, as well as ethnography's recent 'textual turn' Carr reveals the conflicts and ambivalences in these texts. These writers and anthropologists were attempting to preserve through their writing a culture which their country, with their help or connivance, was trying to destroy, and the contradictions and tensions of this position are the subtext of their work. Yet, although there is no simple narrative of progress in this story, as it moves from the responses of eighteenth-century primitivism to those of twentieth-century modernism, the book also shows the process by which the richness and complexity of Native American traditions came to be recognised.