Transnational Similarities and the Slipperiness of (Non)Fiction

Similar to what Carmen wrote in her post, I was really struck by the similarities between Oroonoko and so many of the other texts we read for Early American Literature. Last semester Abby had us read this non-canonized text called “The Female American; or, The Adventures of Unca Eliza Winkfield,” which was written under the likely pseudonym “Unca Eliza Winkfield” and takes place on some island with indigenous people, perhaps in the West Indies, like Oroonoko. We weren’t assigned to read the intro and all of the critical text alongside it, but I ended up reading them and found it so fascinating. One of the basic premises of our “rethinking” course was that from the beginning we were meant to question what constituted “American literature.” Abby emphasized the recent shift towards contextualizing literature as transnational in literary studies and we read texts by people born in “America” that take place in Antarctica, by people who lived for periods of time in “America” but were born elsewhere, texts about “America,” and texts by authors with unclear nationhood (?), etc..

The introduction for The Female American talked about how the book was first published in England in 1767 (and second and thirdly in Massachusetts and Vermont), but that the information about the author is unknown, so it’s uncertain where they were born or where they lived. The protagonist is a biracial woman with a European father and indigenous mother, and scholars generally debate about whether the author was even a woman, let alone a biracial American, even though others might assume the author’s biographical information based on the novel’s protagonist.

Even so, we read the novel for Early American Literature. In the introduction, the editors, Burnham and Freitas, talk about how the author was clearly heavily influenced by English literature, especially Robinson Crusoe and Oroonoko (they include large excerpts in the appendices for comparison), and they even discuss how some people legitimately consider Oroonoko to be the first American novel:

If we follow Spengemann (21-24) in defining American literature not by the identity of the author, but by the contents, concerns, and language of the texts themselves, then certainly The Female American (1767) is an an American novel, though not the first one (that claim would still go, as Spengemann argues, to Aphra Behn’s 1688 Oroonoko, set in the West Indies). (26)

When I read this last semester, I didn’t recognize Behn’s name/ had never heard of Oroonoko, but I went back a few days ago because I was so stuck by the similarities: both texts have female protagonists traveling to “The New World,” interacting with indigenous peoples, who write their own accounts and argue for the truthfulness of those accounts. 

I’m particularly so interested in how easy it is to kind of trace the influence of literature on other literature during this time about this specific topic (America); it seems so wild that so few people went to these places and wrote about them, that all these fictional or semi-fictional accounts kind of stem from these small number of works that have descriptions of the scenery and or the people, which everyone just kind of essentially copied. The introduction also seemed to emphasize the popularity of certain kinds of narratives at the time and that also felt interesting to me—shipwreck narratives, narratives with “natives,” etc.. It makes me think about all the things people were interested in reading and w h y.

I also am always particularly interested in the unique position these kinds of texts had on being able to influence how people perceived native people, or understood their environment, or perceived their relationships with European people—because these stories were so often writing about things that most people would never be able to experience, the authors must have had a ton of truth-wiggle-room (?) to construct these “realities” since not many people could travel there to see these places or these people for themselves (and even then, I wonder if maybe the texts would have already affected people’s perception and created an ideological apparatus for thinking about “The New World” anyway).

Also extremely fascinating to me: like Oroonoko, The Female American engages in attempts to claim non-fiction status—it actually does this quite a bit more than Oroonoko—and from the very beginning not only draws attention to the “extraordinary” circumstances of its narrative (a biracial woman adventuring on her own, surviving in “the wild”), but also tries very hard to persuade the reader that it is a true story despite how unlikely it seems. Hilariously, since The Female American draws so much on literature that was previously published, the author legitimately anticipates people noticing its derivative-ness, as Burnham and Freitas note (regarding this sentence in the text: “I doubt not . . . that some future bold adventurer’s imagination, lighted up by my torch, will form a fictitious story of one of his own sex, the solitary inhabitant of a desolate island. Such imaginary scenes, like those of a play, may have temporary effect, but not permanent, like the real ones of mine” (113).):

In an apparent attempt to deflect anticipated criticism that this novel is an imitation of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, the author has the narrator Unca Eliza Winkfield retroactively accuse Defoe of imitation; Winkfield boldly “predicts” that her story will be adopted, fictionalized, and masculinized by a “later” writer. (114)

This kind of messing with reality fascinates me—to what lengths would texts go in order to “prove” their realness? It’s wild to watch a text try so hard to justify its own existence, especially by going so far to try to vaguely distort reality in order to trick readers, like Oroonoko itself tries to do in its opening paragraph:

. . . [N]or in relating the truth, design to adorn it with an accidents but such as arrived in earnest to him. And it shall come simply into the world, recommended by its own proper merits and natural intrigues, there being enough of reality to support it, and to render it diverting, without the addition of invention. (2171)

Needless to say, I find this time period to be wildly fascinating. I’m also interested in how, using some scholars’ criteria, Oroonoko could actually have been the first work of fiction we could have read for Early American Lit, but we read it for this course instead. It makes me think about how Americanists seem a lot more preoccupied/ bothered with questions of transnational literature. Robin DeRosa, who worked in Interdisciplinary Studies for some time, was also an Early Americanist, and she mentioned that that background is actually what got her started thinking about interdisciplinarity, which I find fascinating as well! The field of Literary Studies seems so strange and complex to me; I’m sure I’ll have tons more to learn in the years to come. 


 

Works Cited

Behn, Aphra. “Oroonoko.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, by M. H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt, Norton, 2000, pp. 2170–2215.

Winkfield, Unca Eliza., et al. The Female American ; or, The Adventures of Unca Eliza Winkfield. Broadview Press, 2014.

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