In Search of First Contact

The Vikings of Vinland, the Peoples of the Dawnland, and the Anglo-American Anxiety of Discovery

In Search of First Contact

Book Pages: 448 Illustrations: 10 illustrations Published: May 2012

Author: Annette Kolodny

American Studies, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism, Native and Indigenous Studies

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.

Kolodny considers what the sagas reveal about the Native peoples encountered by the Norse in Vinland around the year A.D. 1000, and she recovers Native American stories of first contacts with Europeans, including one that has never before been shared outside of Native communities. These stories contradict the dominant narrative of "first contact" between Europeans and the New World. Kolodny rethinks the lingering power of a mythic American Viking heritage and the long-standing debate over whether Leif Eiriksson or Christopher Columbus should be credited as the first discoverer. With this paradigm-shattering work, Kolodny shows what literary criticism can bring to historical and social scientific endeavors.


“Kolodny’s overall approach models a language for discussing the early American literature of cultural encounter with students. . . . In Search of First
will no doubt prove an entertaining and thought-provoking reading for research specialists and educators, scholarly and popular audiences alike.” — Patricia Roylance, New England Quarterly

“. . . . a fine book that tells a compelling story about formations of national identity in the US.”

— Judith Jesch, Times Higher Education

“[A] nuanced, compelling, and frankly disturbing case study of how the national origin stories we tell ourselves can inspire and then justify the worst impulses of human nature. . . . The great achievement of In Search of First Contact is not the unveiling of new and surprising revelations about what exactly happened 2,000 years ago, but rather the insightful tracing of how stories about that encounter have flourished in the American imagination for 200 years.” — Amy H. Sturgis, Reason

“[An] extraordinary book…. In Search of First Contact is a groundbreaking work…. Fascinating in and of themselves, these stories challenge the dominant narrative that Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ America.” — Gale Courey Toensing, Indian Country Today

“Annette Kolodny’s magnum opus, In Search of First Contact, is a fascinating and often times brilliant look at the tales and theories , sometimes resembling tall tales themselves, surrounding the Vikings and the Native people they found. . . .” — Lindsey Catherine Cornum, Mixedblood Messages blog

“Reading ‘In Search of First Contact’ (Vikings, Sagas, Native Americans, Literature): Annette Kolodny. Fascinating!” — Margaret Atwood, on Twitter

“Any skeptic of the value of reading the Vinland Sagas in an American literature course now has their work cut out for them. By turns deeply thoughtful and delightfully creative, In Search of First Contact is an impeccably researched response to those skeptics, and shows that Kolodny remains at the height of her storied career.” — Kyhl Lyndgaard, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment

“This book is a ‘must read’ for anyone with even a remote interest in Vinland and the Norse explorations. . . . What makes this book so valuable is its combination of readability with (unlike so many other works on the Vikings in North America) careful assessment of the many claims put forward over the years.” — Bill Haviland, Island Ad-Vantages (Deer Isle, Maine)

“Eloquently written in a clear, jargon-free prose, generously footnoted, and containing an impressive list of works consulted, this outstanding book is bound to become a classic in the study of contact narratives and American studies in general. . . . Original in scope, meticulous in research, and provocative in analysis, In Search of First Contact invigorates the study of American identity and culture.” — Kirsten Møllegaard, Journal of American Culture

In Search of First Contact is a masterful book which should reshape the way we think and talk about contact narratives—as well as about their (particularly racial) legacies in our cultural consciousness.”  — Margaret Reid, American Historical Review

In Search of First Contact is a monumental achievement: a visionary, scholarly meticulous, fun read pitched for a relatively wide audience. It will be of interest to scholars of literature, history, early America, colonial encounters, and Native American and Scandinavian studies, as well as to primary and secondary educators and general-interest readers." — Birgit Brander Rasmussen, MLQ

“It is hard to do justice to Kolodny’s meticulously researched, densely packed, finely grained, and jargon- free historical literary excursion. . . . I highly recommend this thoroughly researched study as an important contribution to American cultural studies." — Harald E. L. Prins, Studies in American Indian Literatures

“Using her vast knowledge of American literature and her capacious intellectual energy, Kolodny forms a coherent nar rative from an exhaustive and detailed analysis of sources as ranging from the Norse Sagas to nineteenth-century alternate Nordic origin stories in the era of Indian removal and beyond. … Kolodny's In Search of First Contact challenges us to look beyond standard literary texts, attending to sources in archaeology, anthropology, and material culture rarely folded into our analysis to carve out a new approach to American literary history.” — Hilary E. Wyss, American Literature

"Hopefully the stories that Kolodny has painstakingly assembled here will be set loose into many American literature and history classrooms, encouraging students to investigate the narratives we tell about the American past—and why we tell them." — Angela Calcaterra, Clio

"Having long argued that English-language texts alone provide an inadequate understanding of frontier history, Annette Kolodny now challenges the Eurocentric assumptions involved in what constitutes a 'literary' source. She makes the case that North American literary history begins not with the European exploration narratives customarily taken as its start, but with 'contact texts' culled from the pictographic materials of tribes in the Algonquian-speaking Wabanaki Confederacy and from the Norse sagas with which she suggests they intersect. Kolodny's sophisticated understanding of the theoretical implications of her findings, her meticulous and fair attention to previous scholarship, and her indefatigable and innovative efforts to mine material that has not previously figured prominently in these conversations result in a book that is exciting, fresh, and more ambitious and synthetic than any previous effort to explore contact narratives." — Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Joseph S. Atha Professor of Humanities and Director of the American Studies Program, Stanford University

"In Search of First Contact contributes a great deal to scholarly knowledge of the Vinland narratives. Annette Kolodny explains what those stories help us to comprehend about the indigenous peoples of the northern Atlantic coast, and she illuminates the process by which people in Anglo-America have come to understand their own history on this continent. Her exposition of the sagas is absolutely superb. This is an outstanding and important work." — Robert Warrior, Director of the American Indian Studies Program, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and author of The People and the Word: Reading Native Nonfiction

"In Search of First Contact is a tour de force. In this masterful exploration of the Anglo-American fascination with Vikings in North America, Annette Kolodny unravels the mythology around Viking contact with the continent and explains how it has inspired Americans' search for their roots, been used politically, and served to set newcomers apart from the inhabitants already here. She brings a penetrating perspective to bear on the notion of first contact and what it might have meant both to Native Americans and to the Norse. This brilliantly written book is bound to become a classic." — Birgitta Linderoth Wallace, archaeologist and author of Westward Vikings: The Saga of L'Anse aux Meadows


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Annette Kolodny is College of Humanities Professor Emerita of American Literature and Culture at the University of Arizona. She is the author of Failing the Future: A Dean Looks at Higher Education in the Twenty-first Century and the editor of The Life and Traditions of the Red Man, by Joseph Nicolar, both also published by Duke University Press. In addition, she is the author of The Land Before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers, 1630–1860, and The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Figures ix

Acknowledgments xi

Note on the Problematics of Word Choice and Usage xv

Prologue. The Autobiography of a Book 1

1. The Politics of American Prehistory: Isolation versus Contact 19

2. Contact and Conflict: What the Vinland Sagas Tell Us 44

3. Anglo-America's Viking Heritage: A Nineteenth-Century romance 103

4. The New England Poets of Viking America and the Emergence of the Plastic Viking 151

5. The Challenge to Columbus and the Romance Undone 213

6. "We could not discerne any token or signe, that ever any Christian had been before": The Phantom of First Contact 257

7. Contact and Conflict Again: What Native Stories Tell Us 280

Epilogue. History Lessons 327

Notes 335

Works Consulted 379

Index 407

Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Winner, 2013 Thomas G. Lyon Book Award, presented by the Western Literature Association

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5286-0 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5282-2
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