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Colonizing the Past

Mythmaking and Pre-Columbian Whites in Nineteenth-Century American Writing
Edward Watts

BUY Cloth · 292 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813943862 · $75.00 · Feb 2020
BUY Paper · 292 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813943879 · $37.50 · Feb 2020
BUY Ebook · 292 pp. · ISBN 9780813943886 · $37.50 · Feb 2020

After the Revolution, Americans realized they lacked the common, deep, or meaningful history that might bind together their loose confederation of former colonies into a genuine nation. They had been conquerors yet colonials, now politically independent yet culturally subordinate to European history and traditions. To resolve these paradoxes, some early republic "historians" went so far as to reconstruct pre-Columbian, transatlantic adventures by white people that might be employed to assert their rights and ennoble their identities as Americans.

In  Colonizing the Past, Edward Watts labels this impulse "primordialism" and reveals its consistent presence over the span of nineteenth-century American print culture. In dozens of texts, Watts tracks episodes in which varying accounts of pre-Columbian whites attracted widespread attention: the Welsh Indians, the Lost Tribes of Israel, the white Mound Builders, and the Vikings, as well as two ancient Irish interventions. In each instance, public interest was ignited when representations of the group in question became enmeshed in concurrent conversations about the nation’s evolving identity and policies. Yet at every turn, counternarratives and public resistance challenged both the plausibility of the pre-Columbian whites and the colonialist symbolism that had been evoked to create a sense of American identity. By challenging the rhetoric of primordialism and empire building, dissenting writers from Washington Irving to Mark Twain exposed the crimes of conquest and white Americans’ marginality as ex-colonials.


Colonizing the Past is an important contribution to the study of U.S. settler-colonialist and imperialist ideologies. The book’s primary significance lies in its demonstration of how prevalent these now largely forgotten narratives of pre-Columbian whites were in constituting whiteness.

Timothy Sweet, West Virginia University, author of American Georgics: Economy and Environment in American Literature, 1580-1864

In this important work, Watts (Michigan State Univ.) provides the first book-length study of white America’s 19th-century obsession with an explicitly white foundational mythology—a mythology asserting that whites predated Columbus in North American and thus legitimized the US’s settler colonialist presence and expansion....

Summing Up: Essential. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty.


About the Author(s): 

Edward Watts is Professor of English at Michigan State University and author of In This Remote Country: Colonial French Culture and the Anglo-American Imagination, 1780–1860, among other books.

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