Shifting semantics

A New World of Words
June 23, 1995

Contrary to what might be expected, there are few devout puritans or Yankee pioneers in this book, little of the New England Mind or errands in the wilderness. A generous transatlantic spirit takes the place of a nationalist quest for origins, allowing William Spengemann to trace some interesting interconnections.

John Smith's True Relation of Virginia (1608), a private letter made into a promotional pamphlet by a third party in London, is read as the site of tensions between genres in which one can discern the emergence of new ways of articulating cultural differences. A history of the word "Columbus" in English from the mid-16th century to the early 19th follows the semantic shifts which accompanied the increasing size of the colonial entities Columbus was said to have founded.

This concern with the linguistic ramifications of the encounter between the Old World and the New leads Spengemann to make some useful contributions to a growing body of work. The insights here were no doubt made possible by the act of "redefining" referred to in the title, but they are also restricted by its generality.

Writings by the inhabitants of what would become the United States have usually been thought to fail the universal test of literature, and have been adjudged as simply American. Spengemann challenges the assumption that prevents them being literary and American at the same time. In order to do so, however, he finds it necessary to broaden the field to include any writings, in English, which are marked by "efforts to make room in the language for the New World". Of these a small number have introduced changes in the language which have endured and appear to "speak directly to the present". Such texts constitute American literature.

If there is much that is suggestive in Spengemann's formulations, a good deal is lost in the elaborations which follow. American Literature becomes anything which a reader can recognise as modern, exhibiting, at the very least, the first stirrings of a post-Enlightenment secular rationality. Spengemann's contention that Milton was an American poet, or that Northanger Abbey has as much to say about the US as the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, has a certain appeal. But not when it turns out to rest on the rather unexceptional observation that they all show signs of trying to make sense of a world where God is no longer taken for granted and the future is contingent on human action.

At this level of abstraction it is not easy to see why A New World of Words needs to claim to be about America or literature at all.

Alasdair Pettinger works at the Scottish Music Information Centre, Glasgow.

A New World of Words: Redefining Early American Literature

Author - William C. Spengemann
ISBN - 0 300 05794 6
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £20.00
Pages - 254

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