Early American Literature: First Contact

"Columbus did not enter a silent world"


"Admiral of the Ocean Sea," by N. Scott Momaday


for the




We are studying "New World" cultural contact between Europeans and Native Americans in the two or three centuries after Columbus.  For our core project we will focus squarely on what Wilcomb Washburn calls "the literature of justification."  How did Christian nations justify taking lands from, enslaving, making war on Native Americans?

We want to ask such questions as: What were the philosophical and legal justifications of imperial and colonial expansion?  What were the arguments advanced to defend the subjection of Native Americans and to establish European hegemony?  Were any voices raised in opposition, and, if so, what was the basis for such opposition?  Were the actions of the colonizers lawful from the perspective of contemporary law?  What was the method of claiming title in the New World?  Did Native groups assert their sovereignty, and, if so, on what legal or philosophic or moral basis?

Our project is to ask and answer such questions through a web edition of relevant material in the Special Collections of the Lehigh Library.

Specifically, our goals are:

1) to provide a context for understanding the multicultural tensions of our own time by
    examining the founding moments in our culture, and in doing so

2) to gain experience working collaboratively with faculty, Information Resource
    specialists, and other students

3) on an "authentic" scholarly project

4) that marries "old" books with "new" technology

5) and calls upon a variety of skills (research, textual analysis, web design, etc.)

6) to make a valuable product for an audience beyond this course to use.

We will devote a substantial part of at least half a semester on this project.  A specific timetable will evolve later, but, in general, the process shapes up like this:

1) At least one week's work investigating the Lehigh Rare Book collection and choosing a
    text (or part of a text) that is relevant, interesting, workable, and practical: something
    that has "possibilities."

2) Group discussion of what elements are necessary to make an edition of the chosen
    text.  What makes an edition whole, complete?

3) Division of labor on content (content first!): who does what and when?

4) When content is pretty much nailed down, we start to interact with the Information
    Resources people to learn the web technology we need.

5) When we get to the design stage, we'll encourage experimentation, variety, and
    diversity from section to section so that subsequent classes that use our site as a model
    will see options to consider and choices to weigh (Ha! such as is the color of this page ok!)

(Instructor's postscript:  This was a small, four-student class of senior English majors, only one of whom had any experience beyond word processing.  I yielded lots of my responsibility for the guts of the project to the students, and I worked with them as much as possible as an "equal" member of the group.  We chose Washington Irving's History of New York for such reasons as the library had a first edition, that edition contained a hitherto unremarked letter by Irving, several revisions of the book offered the possibility of tracing the author's change of thinking over time [that turned out not to be relevant to our chapter], and Book I/Chapter V is short, serious and funny, and offered footnote possibilities to other relevant primary works on justification. Click to go to finished project.)