In Search of First Contact is a monumental achievement by the influential literary critic Annette Kolodny. In this book, she offers a radically new interpretation of two medieval Icelandic tales, known as the Vinland sagas. She contends that they are the first known European narratives about contact with North America. After carefully explaining the evidence for that conclusion, Kolodny examines what happened after 1837, when English translations of the two sagas became widely available and enormously popular in the United States. She assesses their impact on literature, immigration policy, and concepts of masculinity.
Let me stipulate here that I have not read the complete book, and the following discussion is based primarily on lengthy excerpts available through ScribD and other sources. Therefore, what follows is not a review of the book but rather a discussion of a few points that stood out for me.
Let’s start with some of the interesting material that the book does well. Kolodny’s primary concern is to describe how white Anglo-Americans embraced claims that the Vikings preceded Columbus to America. She chronicles the way elite opinion makers, especially New Englanders, adopted the Vikings as fictive ancestors, ostentatiously proclaiming Viking heritage. The nouveau riche robber barons sought to associate themselves with Norse and Celtic history as a way of legitimizing their new fortunes and tying it back to “old money.” And the Victorian debate over immigration—which people would be counted as “real” Americans—took shape over the competing claims of Columbus and the Vikings; that is, whether Latin peoples were “white” enough to become Americans. It was in the context of this debate that in 1892 Thomas Sinclair famously tried to make his ancestor Henry II Sinclair, Earl of Orkney (son of the more famous Henry I), not just heir to the Vikings but the true discoverer of America. Sinclair claimed that this both justified white domination of Native peoples and discrimination against inferior Latin peoples, particularly Italians.
This is very interesting, but the other part of the book—in which Kolodny asks us to accept the Viking Sagas as the start of “American” literature, and Native oral histories as true accounts of Viking colonization, is less persuasive.
Kolodny approaches the Vinland Sagas from a literary point of view, and she accepts that the sagas recorded correct details for the native peoples they encountered. Thus, she takes Vinland to refer to wild grapes, which grow only as far north as southern New Brunswick, though the “vin” in “Vinland” could also refer to meadows or pastures rather than wine. It is not at all clear that the sagas are reporting a fact that grapes were found in Vinland rather than attempting to explain why the land had a name that was not quite understood. (If you don’t believe that the medieval people had a thing for fake etymology, try reading Isidore of Seville.) That said, there is nothing absurd about the suggestion that Vinland was a bit south of L’anse-aux-Meadows, around northern New Brunswick, or that the Vikings may have explored as far south as Nova Scotia. There is no evidence for this, though, other than the sagas, which are more literary than factual. As I pointed out previously, the very oldest text on Vinland, by Adam of Bremen, seems to have borrowed its description of Vinland from medieval descriptions of the Fortunate Islands, like that of Isidore of Seville (Etymologiae 14.6.8), which were defined (in both instances, and in near-identical words) as lands where grapes grow wild and the ground produces untold types of fruit. This same description appears, again almost verbatim, in the Life of Merlin by Geoffrey of Monmouth around the same time to describe the island of Avalon. Isidore, with his “grape vines which of their own accord clothe the hillsides,” wrote 400 years before the Vikings landed at Vinland. Without accounting for the mythical identification of the far-off world with the Fortunate Islands, it is fruitless to go grape-hunting in New England or Canada.
Nevertheless, Kolodny therefore suggests that the “skin boats” the Skraelings used had to refer to the Micmac (Mi’kmaq) rather than the Arctic peoples. However, the predecessors of the Inuit, the Thule, were using skin boats as far back as 1000 CE, though they did not take over the Canadian coast until closer to 1300. To be fair, the Dorset, who preceded the Thule, did not use large boats when the Vikings arrived at L’anse-aux-Meadows in 1000 CE, but the sagas were composed around 1300 CE and included a hodgepodge of material that also talks of areas where the Thule were living in 1000. I’m not sure how you would separate out the various strands of the sagas into a strict geographical correlate after two hundred years of retelling and change.
Kolodny describes several Native American oral traditions, reporting without comment one informant’s claim that Native traditions report events dating back 10,000 years. She mentions several stories that have been traditionally seen by scholars as reflecting contact between northern peoples and the Vikings alongside seemingly-modern Micmac stories. For example, she tells us that some Micmac today claim Viking ancestry because European explorers noticed their light colored skin, but she also points out that this can better be explained by known European colonization events—though she does not mention that skin color was not synonymous with race in the 1500s, as we have seen in more than one place where modern writers take European references to Native skin tone as evidence of Caucasian heritage.
I can understand the appeal of oral tradition, especially among academics like Kolodny who explicitly set out to be deferential to Native beliefs—she gave her Native informants veto power over the final manuscript, for example—but I worry about how a legend recorded “for the first time” in 2005 can tell us anything about alleged Viking excursions to Nova Scotia in 1000. According to this legend, from the Penobscot, a people who are very clearly European (“whitish, pale skinned and a lot of hair on their faces”) came in a “large” canoe bigger than any other, stayed two days, and left. But Kolodny herself notes that there is no way to know when this took place, and I would add that there is no way to know that the story as told is how it would have been told in 1800, 1500, or 1000. Kolodny wonders why the legend, recording “first” contact, mentions no surprise or alarm among the Native people. She explains this with recourse to the myth of Glooscap, whom you will remember as the Micmac god Frederick J. Pohl identified with Henry Sinclair. Kolodny suggests (cautiously, and does not insist) that Glooscap might have been (yes) an early European voyager! Even the most sympathetic of observers can’t resist implying that Native Americans ended up worshiping white people by mistake—even though this was certainly not her intention.
Let me give a clearer example that I think will help illustrate my concern. In her second book about ancient fossil hunters, Fossil Legends of the First Americans (2005), Adrienne Mayor uses oral histories collected as recently as 1992 to argue that Native peoples understood dinosaur fossils in much the same way as modern paleontologists. However, she notes that the stories told by Native peoples changed dramatically after dinosaurs entered the movies. Suddenly, legends that once featured mythological monsters were reconfigured to discuss “dinosaurs” and “mastodons”—and this change is supposed to help “prove” the original myth’s intention! Vine Deloria went so far as to say that an ancient Sioux word for a mythological creature represented as a constellation should be translated as “hairy elephant” (a mastodon, of course) because he assumed that the myth had a basis in fact, and the “translation” would thus prove the assumption. And, pray tell, where did the word for “elephant” come from?
If we can agree that adding the words “dinosaur” and “mastodon” in place of traditional monsters in the 1930s does not imply anything about the actual creatures’ prehistoric origins, then I think it is equally difficult to assume that oral legends related 500 years after contact with Europeans preserve historically accurate information about a single day (!) in 1000 CE.