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America in European Consciousness, 1493-1750…

America in European Consciousness, 1493-1750 (Institute of Early American…

by Karen Ordahl Kupperman

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Collection of articles dealing with the impact of America on Europe. Noting the many ways in which the European contact with native populations has been characterized (discovery, encounter, swarming, invasion, invention), in her introduction Kupperman covers the wide range of thought on the impact which America had on the European consciousness of the time. Setting the range of thinking between Grafton and Greenblatt, Kupperman marks the extreme ends of the playing field. Grafton sees the contest within the cannon and Greenblatt sees the cannon as blinding the Europeans to native ways, making it impossible for the Europeans to assign any value to indigenous cultures. Noting that there is a wide range of ways in which power relations worked themselves out in the new world, Kupperman points to Seed's interpretations of "ritual speech" and J. Brian Harley's analysis of maps as instruments of power and domination. Just as some call the treatment of the Indians "genocide" today (Stannard and earlier Jennings), and thereby inflame the already conflicted interpretive terrain, the very conflict yields sharper insights.

The articles vary widely as to the impact America had, hence making a synthesis elusive. Peter Burke studied the historians of the period and determined that for them America was peripheral in the 16th and 17th C. David Armitage, on the other hand argued by studying the writings of Richard Hakluyt that a new conception of history emerged in Europe at that time. They agree, however, that understandings of America by Europeans were self-referential.

As David Quint's contribution shows, even Montaigne was using the natives for his own ends in condemning his European contemporaries. Headly also showed that Thommaso Campanella likewise viewed the Christianization of the natives as a way to enhance Europe, to spread the empire of Christianity and relieve the shortage of labor for Spain. Christian Feest studied the contents of European museums to place the objects back into context using modern ethnographic techniques. He found that Europeans had decontextualized the artifacts, rearranging them in their museums in ways that made sense to the European and not the native sensibility. European thinking about the American experience, in short, was fraught with European concerns.


Savagery was a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the native populations were forced to enter the European world in marginal roles. As Jennings and Crosby both argued, the environment was transformed, with devastating effects for native populations.

In Europe, the arrival of new knowledge served to "open up" Europe, with the new sources of information coming from ordinary people like mariners and colonists. Intellectual Europe was forced to deal with new "authorities". Explorers returned to publish their own accounts of the new world. These works took their place alongside the ancient texts, challenging the learned to incorporate the new evidence into their world view. When learned Europeans came to America, they found little of interest to study. It was the "practical" men who explored the new world for profit and out of imperial motives. For them, understanding the native population and the new world was absolutely necessary to survive. Out of such pragmatic endeavors as the study of native languages grew new philosophical approaches to comparative linguistics.

Another practical way in which the European world was transformed was through the introduction of new foods to Europe. Maize, beans and sweet potatoes had a tremendous impact on the health of Europeans. Also mass consumption was fueled by imports of sugar and tobacco from the colonies. Popular literature showed the effects of America, and many Europeans did migrate to the new world. Kinship ties amongst immigrants drew more to the new world and lead to a general awareness of the new world in the old.

As with the native populations, as the colonists developed their own identities the Europeans projected their own fantasies on the new "Americans." Charging them with "Creole degeneracy," the colonists were put at pains to defend their new ways. By this time (Mid-18th C), the native people had been pushed aside as primary subjects of the dialogue. Now it was Europeans versus Americans.
  mdobe | Jul 24, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0807845108, Paperback)

The five hundredth anniversary of Columbus's first transatlantic voyage has provoked an outpouring of scholarship on how European exploration and colonization affected America. This book of eleven essays from leading scholars in the fields of intellectual and cultural history reverses that trend by focusing on the ways in which contact with the Americas transformed European thought.

The result of an international conference sponsored by the John Carter Brown Library, this collection addresses the impact of Spanish, French, and English experiences in the New World. The essays consider whether and how knowledge of America changed the mental world of European thinkers as reflected in their understanding of history, literature, linguistics, religion, and the sciences.

In assessing the process by which Europeans sought to understand America, this volume responds to issues raised by Sir John Elliott nearly a generation ago, and the collection concludes with an essay in which Elliott reflects on the scholarship of the last twenty-five years on this subject.

The contributors are David Armitage, Peter Burke, Luca Codignola, J. H. Elliott, Christian Feest, Roland Greene, John M. Headley, Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Henry Lowood, Sabine MacCormack, David Quint, and Richard C. Simmons.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:03 -0400)

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