A Conversation with Angela Vietto
[Early 2002 saw the appearance of a landmark new volume, Oxford University Press's Early American Writings, a 1,129-page anthology of American literature from pre-Columbian times to the end of the eighteenth century. A great trove of myths, tales, letters, journal writings, sermons, reports, tracts, and (of course) poems and stories, the book presents many familiar stars: Bradstreet, Mather, Paine, et al. Its distinguishing feature, though, is its "cast of thousands"well, dozens, anywayof less familiar voices: Spanish, French, and Dutch writers (some of them translated here for the first time); anonymous contributors to the Native American oral tradition, stretching back to pre-Colombian times; writers in English who were considered important in their day but were later forgotten. Generous headnotes and introductory discussions help a reader to keep his or her bearings amid all these cultures, languages, tradition, and eras. The result is an anthology of great historical authenticity, one that gives a vivid sense of the overall intellectual and literary context of early America.
One of three editors of this important volume was none other than our own Angela Vietto, who joined Eastern's English Department in Fall 2000. When I managed to corner Angela at an undisclosed location in cyberspace, she demurred over my main question"My God, what next?"but spoke very informatively on many others, as follows.J.K.]
A: Thanks! Carla Mulford, who was my dissertation adviser, was approached by Oxford and recruited for the project. Carla had edited the early sections of the first three editions of the Heath anthology of American lit and was in the course of editing an MLA volume, Teaching the Literatures of Early America, which came out in 1999. Both of those projects took a multicultural and multiethnic approach to early American lit, and that was the approach Oxford was hoping to push even further than the Heath anthology had done. When Oxford asked her to take on the project, Carla asked Amy Winans (another of her former students) and me if we would serve as associate editors. The three of us were at that time still completing an earlier editorial project, a volume of the Dictionary of Literary Biography, American Women Prose Writers to 1800 (1999). What struck me then and still strikes me now is Carla's generosity in involving us in the project. It was her reputation that attracted the publisher, but she knew she couldn't do it alone and wasn't about to use her graduate students' labor without appropriate credit.
The book was a huge part of my life from 1997 until we finished proofing it last September kind of like a family member, although not a stable one. Sort of like your eccentric aunt who comes to visit unannounced and expects your undivided attention for as long as she cares to stay, and then rushes off again. One of the first intensive phases of the project was the semester when Carla and I team-taught a senior seminar in early American literature that was designed as research for the anthology. From that point on, "the anthology" was always on my to-do list in some form or other.
Q: Tell us your job description as an editor. What particular part of the project fell to you?
A: It was truly a collaborative project. In the early stages of selecting the texts, Carla, Amy and I each researched groups of texts from which to propose materials to include. To be honest, I can't remember who did what at that early phase, except I know that Amy, whose research is on early African-American literature, focused on those texts, and I focused on writings by English and French women. Carla worked intensively on the Dutch and German materials (some of which have never been translated before) and on Franklin, who is the subject of her current research. Other topics we simply split up. We met a number of times to describe previously unanthologized materials that we thought merited a place in our representation of early American literatures. Once we had established a table of contents, we split those materials up and each took responsibility for preparing copy text, introduction, and explanatory notes for groups of selections. When we reached the end, Carla handled queries from the copyeditor at Oxford, and Amy and I shared the proofreading (hence all the stacks of proofs on my desk this summer and fall). In addition, I've been working with Carla on preparing electronic texts that will be housed on the University of Virginia's electronic library site as a supplement to the book. So, the truth is, even though the book is out, the project isn't really over.
Q: Did you have any doubts that you were ready to participate in a project of such magnitude?
A: Yes and no. When the project began, I just recently passed that moment I know I share with many others, when you first understand the enormity of what you don't know. But I knew that Carla had tremendous breadth of knowledge regarding the materials we ought to look at, because she had been doing that research for a decade through her work on the Heath. Carla also has wonderful connections among both historians and literary scholars in early American lit; she founded the Society of Early Americanists. I knew she would have appropriate contacts to draw on when we needed advice and expertise. Amy and I had developed considerable breadth of knowledge on women writers through our work on that DLB volume, and my dissertation surveyed women writers pretty broadly (as Amy's did for early African-American writers). So I knew there was plenty of support, but I also felt I had something to contribute. Finally, I knew that a lot of the work was excavation work in the library, and I had no doubts about my ability to do that.
Q:Was there any effort to position this anthology vis-à-vis others currently available?
A: Absolutely. Oxford knew what they wanted done differently that made this a project they thought was worth doing, and we agreed with them. We were shooting for broader regional representation, but wanted to maintain the integrity of individual works by including longish selections wherever possible. Those characteristics differentiate our volume from the Heath and from Myra Jehlen and Michael Warner's English Literatures of America. At the same time, we were advised that no more than a third of the book ought to vary much from the most commonly used textbooks, if we hoped to have the book adopted by teachers who had used those texts.
Q: The key question for any anthology is what goes in and what doesn't. That must have been especially hard here because the goal was so broad-"to provide an understanding of written commerce then" according to your Preface, so readers will understand "the reading and writing culture of that day." I take it that there were no restrictions as to genre, and that what we used to call with such confidence "the judgment of posterity" played a small part if any?
A: Actually, the "judgment of posterity" played a really important role, at least in my opinion. I was hoping-am hoping-to have some effect on that judgment. One of the most interesting things to me in researching the volume was to discover that as late as the 1930s and 40s, anthologies included a lot of the writers we had decided to include. We weren't so much including "newly discovered" materials as materials that were considered valuable not so long ago. If attitudes could change so drastically in the 1950s, I don't see any reason why our anthology can't be part of another change in attitudes toward early American writing.
It's true, though, that if we refuse to consider the aesthetic values of the 16th, 17th, or 18th centuries when evaluating the writings of those eras, we'll continue to find rather limited materials that we think worthy of the approval of posterity. Our goal was to present a broad enough cross-section of the print culture of the colonial and Revolutionary eras to allow readers to develop a sense of what people of those periods might have valued about their literatures.
A great example is the poetry of Anne Bradstreet. Recent anthologies present almost exclusively the poems that were not published in Bradstreet's lifetime: the poems about the death of children, her love for her husband, the burning of her house. From the book that was published during her lifetime, the one we know she had some control over, usually the only poems reprinted are the prefatory poems-the ones that express Bradstreet's sense of inadequacy as a poet, in gendered ways. The poems in which she took on a more public voice, writing about history and natural philosophy, recent anthologies have ignored, in my opinion because they make Bradstreet less of a confessional poet. To read those poems and understand that they were the ones that would have been more highly valued at the time they were printed asks us-and, I hope, our students-to think about where aesthetic values come from and to understand that they are indeed relative to time and place. So it was important to me to get some of that material into the volume. On the other hand, we knew we couldn't ditch the personal poems, and I wouldn't have wanted to do that. But I do hope that we're offering readers a broader sense of what literary values of other eras were like (something I think scholars of British literature generally do a better job of, perhaps because American lit is perceived as so recent). With any luck, exploring earlier aesthetic values will allow readers to deepen their understanding of twentieth-century literary tastes as well.
Q: How about aesthetic concerns-pleasure, beauty, truth, the tendency of your scalp to tingle or not when you read a piece? How did you weigh these against the need to fairly represent peoples, genres, periods, historical processes?
A: For me, it's not a question of balancing aesthetics versus representation. I find a great deal of pleasure, beauty, and truth in materials that span peoples, genres, periods, and historical processes. Last semester I used some of these texts with students in my Early American Lit class, and I found they responded with much more pleasure to the plot twists and turns of Pierre-Esprit Radisson's narrative of his captivity among Iroquois peoples than to the poetry of Edward Taylor, championed for decades as the best poet of colonial America.
Q: Would it be fair to say that it's a text that might be used in History courses as much as in English courses?
A: That's a tough question. It's hard to teach these materials in a meaningful way without talking a lot about history. But many of the materials would seem very peripheral to a historian.
Q: Will there be a Teacher's Guide?
A: Not immediately, although we've discussed the possibility of creating an on-line teacher's guide.
Q: I read with great pleasure the Algonquin story of Great Rabbit-but then noticed that what I was really enjoying, as your footnote explains, was "a modern version by Richard Erdoes and Alfonzo Ortiz, based on a nineteenth-century source." I knew there was some explanation for those Wile E. Coyote allusions! Seriously, there's some kind of lesson here regarding the difficulty of true cross-cultural understanding. Can we ever really recover much of the worldview of these vanished oral cultures? Or are we condemned to recover, instead, our own projections and largely unfounded constructions?
Luckily, those oral cultures aren't really vanished. We relied heavily
on the work of scholars in Native American studies, who are of course
reconstructing an earlier period of oral culture, but who do so with a
pretty thorough familiarity with both the present state of Native American
oral cultures and their history. What we recover is of course a reconstruction.
But I hope that we do so in a way that may run counter to stereotypical
projections. It might be that all we achieve with the Native materials
is to make readers aware that there were radical differences between Native
American cultures and European cultures. Even if that's all we achieve,
though, that's meaningful, because it sheds light on the cross-cultural
encounters that are so prominent in American literature from the colonial