The Prenational Past in Postmodern Literature

Christopher K. Coffman

Recent poems and fictions set in the early Americas are typically read as affirmations of cultural norms, as evidence of the impossibility of genuine engagement with the historical past, or as contentious repudiations of received histories. Inspired particularly by Mihai Spariosu’s arguments regarding literary playfulness as an opening to peace, Rewriting Early America: The Prenational Past in Postmodern Literature adopts a different perspective, with the goal of demonstrating that many recent literary texts undertake more constructive and hopeful projects with regard to the American past than critics usually recognize. While honoring writers' pervasive critiques of hegemony, this volume trades a preoccupation with antagonism for an interest in restoration and recuperation. It describes how texts by John Barth, John Berryman, Susan Howe, Toni Morrison, Paul Muldoon, Thomas Pynchon, and William T. Vollmann harness the ambiguities of the colonial past to find sociocultural possibilities that operate beyond the workings of power and outside the politics of difference. Throughout, this book remains devoted to uncovering the moments at which contemporary writers proffer visions of American communities defined not by marginalization and oppression, but by responsive understanding and inclusion.



This is a brilliant book, whose scope ranges beyond literary criticism, even as it excels at it. Coffman combines luminous close-reading with well-digested, comprehensive theoretical background to analyze the way very different writers address the colonial past and pre-conquest history, questioning the often unacknowledged preconceptions that still underlie our contemporary views. . . . This critical reprise of how writers revise their mythologized, national, transnational or adopted past makes for a refreshing read. It is no small prowess to have written a page-turner of such intellectual scope.

— Françoise Palleau-Papin, Professor of American Literature at the University of Paris XIII