Utopian cannibals: Rewriting the encounter in early American literature

John Morsellino
Department of English, State University of New York at Buffalo
July, 2006


Utopian Cannibals examines the ambivalent tension American society, which often manifests itself as a will to multiculturalism and a will to monoculturalism, and traces its origins back to the first encounter between Native Americans and Europeans; it then offers the radical suggestion that it is a tension that is also explored by America's earliest literary authors. Instead of advocating, in the spirit of the old scholarship, that American authors, like J. Hector St. John de Crecoeur, were primarily concerned with constructing a monocultural identity for the new nation (white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant), Utopian Cannibals suggests that American authors were rewriting the Encounter by offering a creole paradigm for the new republic, intimating that an admixture of diverse races and cultures would become the true life-blood of a democratic society founded on diversity. The nationalistic construct called an "American" would then give way to a radical new synergy, one that saw in multiplicities rather than in reduced binaries. Early American authors understood that a dynamic admixture of races and cultures, which had been part of the experience in the Americas from the earliest days of the Encounter, would need to be interpreted, negotiated, and reassembled into this ever-changing construct called "America." In addition to asserting that American authors shared a creole vision of American society, Utopian Cannibals offers the exciting possibility of resituating American literature within a literature of the Americas. If the problems of colonialism and the need to interpret and negotiate radical difference (race and the contested space of the other) are woven inextricably into the history of our hemisphere, then this shared sense of "historical trauma" has created common concerns among the authors of the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Instead of viewing American literature in the spirit of the old scholarship as an exceptional national literature, we are free to reconceptualize it as part of a pan-American consciousness, one that is engaged in a dialogic with an America situated within the Americas. By resituating American literature in this way, we can venture towards a hermeneutics of multiplicities, wherein differences become not something to be feared but something vital to the nexus of relations which is the history of the Americas.