In Search of First Contact: The Vikings of Vinland, the Peoples of the Dawnland, and the Anglo-American Anxiety of Discovery

September 20, 2012

At school in Philadelphia in the 1960s, I was taught that "America" was "discovered" by Christopher Columbus in 1492. No one mentioned the statue of the Icelander Thorfinn Karlsefni erected in Fairmount Park in 1920, let alone the splendid painting The Landing of the Norsemen commissioned by a Philadelphian in the 1840s and depicted in this book. Yet an alternative story of which Europeans reached the Western Hemisphere first had been known in the 1740s to Philadelphia's most famous son, Benjamin Franklin, when he had been persuaded by a Swede "that America was discovered by their Northern People long before the time of Columbus". The literary sources for the Norse voyages to the west (primarily the medieval Icelandic texts known as the Vinland Sagas) became widely known with the publication of C.C. Rafn's Antiquitates Americanæ in 1837. Reliable archaeological evidence came in the 1960s from the excavation of Norse remains at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. But Columbus' "discovery" was of Central America, while the indubitable archaeological evidence for the Norse is restricted to Canada, leaving the US without its own European origin myth. Annette Kolodny considers literary, historical and archaeological attempts in the 19th century to fill that gap, both by stretching the evidence of the sagas and by a more general appropriation of the Norsemen as the literal and figurative ancestors of the Anglo-Americans of the US.

Kolodny is a scholar of American literature and culture who has for many years, somewhat to the surprise of her students, taught the Vinland Sagas in an American literature course, as early examples of "contact narratives". Her chapter "Contact and Conflict: What the Vinland Sagas Tell Us" provides useful insights into these much-discussed texts in the context of a detailed analysis. The rest of the book is concerned with both Euro-American and Native American responses to the literary and other evidence, and with the cultural, political and religious reasons why many Americans (particularly Anglo-Americans) preferred their founding father to be Leif Eiriksson rather than Columbus, the Italo-Hispanic Catholic. A parallel chapter "Contact and Conflict Again: What Native Stories Tell Us" shows that Native tales provide no reliable evidence for Norse influence a millennium earlier but concludes interestingly with Joseph Bruchac's 1979 short story The Ice-Hearts, in which this Native American author appropriates the saga narratives to explore the concept of "first contact". For Kolodny, this is a parable of US history that illustrates that "we need not always fear or attempt to destroy the Other". In "The New England Poets of Viking America and the Emergence of the Plastic Viking", Kolodny brings out Norse and Viking themes in the work of the canonical poets Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier and Robert Lowell, and the cultural contexts that led Longfellow to be as interested in Olaf Tryggvason as in Hiawatha. His main concern, and that of the other poets, was anxiety about identity in a fast-growing, fast-changing nation. Nowadays, however, the nation is "unequivocally multi-ethnic, multicultural, and interracial" and a "single defining origin story that begins in Europe" is no longer appropriate or even needed.

Kolodny is sometimes unsure with her Norse and Viking material and misses two important publications, Geraldine Barnes' Viking America: The First Millennium (2001) and Andrew Wawn's Vikings and Victorians: Inventing the Old North in 19th-Century Britain (2000), both of which treat many of the same themes. Otherwise, this is a fine book that tells a compelling story about formations of national identity in the US.

In Search of First Contact: The Vikings of Vinland, the Peoples of the Dawnland, and the Anglo-American Anxiety of Discovery

By Annette Kolodny. Duke University Press 448pp, £77.00 and £18.99. ISBN 9780822352822 and 52860. Published 25 July 2012

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