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Long review: Annette Kolodny, “In Search of First Contact”

On November 13, 1972, the Maine Sunday Telegram ran an article with the headline, “Those Famed Rune Stones, Real – Or Carved By Hippy?” Next to the headline is a photograph of a young white man in starched dress shirt and tie, a watch peeking out from his left sleeve, and a pointer in his hand. He is pointing towards a photo of a rock in the foreground, and the caption informs the reader that this Dr. Bruce Borque, the research associate for archaeology at the Maine Museum. He’s showing readers the famed Spirit Pond rune stones of Maine, which had been “discovered” a year earlier, only to have recently been ruled a fake by one of the world’s foremost rune stone experts. This was after the Maine State Museum had paid $4,500 for the stones to enter their permanent collection.The stones had certainly caused a great “hullaballoo,” with “amateur and not-so-amateur archaeologists” showing great enthusiasm for the discovery when it as made, and some believers still remaining after runic scholars determined they were fake. “An amateur archaeologist,” for example, “says that any Rune Stones have been found on the Maine coast.” The reporter concludes: the “great Rune Stone mystery…[still] leaves a few unanswered questions.”[1]

Annette Kolodny, in her book In Search of First Contact: The Vikings of Vinland, the Peoples of Dawnland, and the Anglo-American Anxiety of Discovery (2012), picks up where this newspaper article leaves off. “Today,” she writes, “the Spirit Pond stones are housed in the Maine State Museum in Augusta and, when exhibited, are clearly labeled as fake. Nonetheless, as late as the 1990s, at least one self-taught runologist…was publishing articles claiming to have deciphered [it]…by identifying its medieval Norwegian origins” (14).

The story of the Spirit Pond stones is Kolodny’s entry point into a broad set of questions about the persistent thrum in American culture of a medieval Nordic foundation myth. She focuses on a series of poems, histories, and antiquarian publications from the 19th century, particularly New England, tracing not only the influences of the myth of the Norse, but also the way this myth conflicted with and resisted the founding myth of Christopher Columbus. Why has the potential of a Viking discovery been so exciting for some Americans? Why has the myth of this discovery endured, and what is the possibility that it might be based in some reality? And what, furthermore, still holds the American imagination about the Vikings today?

To this project she also brings a second agenda: to use the potential of a Viking landing on North America, sometime around 1000CE, to complicate the very notion of “discovery.” A scholar of Early American history, Kolodny challenges the idea of “first contact,” reading two very unorthodox texts as her evidence. The first, the two Icelandic Sagas that chronicled Viking landings on “Vinland,” which was located somewhere in North America. Kolodny argues these Sagas ought to be read not only as Scandinavian literature but also as Early American literature, which subverts the Columbus-and-the-Pilgrims story so prevalent in American history and presents an image of recurring contact and intersection between natives and visitors from the East, long before colonization took place. Such visitors included the Norse, but also Basque fishermen who followed the rich cod grounds west as early as the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The second, Native American stories about “contact” between their ancestors and men from the East, collected from the 19th century – essentially simultaneously to the Viking craze – through the present. These stories also pointed to recurring contact between Natives and Eastern visitors, some of whom may have been Norse.

The connective tissue between these two projects is the question of the location of Vinland. In part, she hopes to read the Norse and Native American texts together in order to corroborate a specific location for the settlement made and returned to by Icelanders between the years of 1000 and 1300, for harvesting wood and other natural resources, and exploring a new coastline. Kolodny begins and ends the book with ethnography to complement her detailed textual readings, visiting the archaeological dig site of L’Anse aux Meadows, in northern Newfoundland, and building trust and rapport with many Native Americans in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Maine, where Indians might, she hoped, lead her to a better understanding of Norse settlement. This, it turns out, is not possible: she can make only inferences and imaginations. And so this is a book about myth.

The dual mandate of this project makes for a reading that feels somewhat unsettled. The two narratives, about the 19th century craze for Vikingalia, and about her own attempts to establish “first contact” through textual interpretation and interviews that might supplement the archaeological record, don’t completely lie flat together. But she does accomplish her stated goal: to complicate the picture of what “contact” means, to read it from stories from either side of the Atlantic, and to understand why we need stories about contact in the first place.

This book contributes to the tradition in American studies of studying myths of origin and the relationship between history and literature that Americans have invoked in order to “invent traditions(Hobsbawm 1983). The American vogue for such endeavors is often seen to follow a European passion in the early 19th century for historical romances such as Sir Walter Scott’s Scottish tales or Robert Burns’s poems, written in dialect, or the Grimm’s collections of traditional German folktales. Such projects are fundamentally nationalist, and in America they took on a unique urgency. Not only did American mythmakers need to fashion a shared identity out of story and legend, they also needed to assert their right to the land where they were building that nation. The way to do this was to find ancient origins for their people in the landscape. Kolodny quotes “politician and orator Rufus Choate,” who told listeners in Salem, Massachusetts in 1833 that American writers ought to give “’to the natural scenery of the New World, and to the celebrated personages and grand incidents of its early annals, the same kind and degree of interest which Scott has given to the Highlands,’” (p. 104).

Kolodny also points to the fact that this was a uniquely New England project – though northern Midwesterners of Scandinavian origin got involved later, as a way to claim their distinctness from other European immigrant groups. She describes enthusiasts combing maps and hunting through landscapes of Massachusetts – which many at that time believed to have been Vinland — to find traces of a noble Viking past that might re-establish the region as a cultural center for the westward growing nation. Recentering national identity on New England would also provide more agency for abolitionist claims to right, as new states were admitted to the union and the Mason-Dixon line strained like a tearing seam. These men lived in a landscape of hidden signs and mystic clues – they read the Sagas like an incantation of nobility and relevance. The antiquarian who began this vogue was “Danish philologist” Carl Christian Rafn, who “seemed to provide exactly what was needed, including the ruins” (105). Publishing English translations of the Vinland sagas and subsequently sparking a whole self-referential literary genre that made romance out of New England sites like Dighton Rock in Fall River, MA, and the stone tower in Newport, RI. Through these stories and newly “discovered” landmarks, the tellers of these pre-Columbian discovery tales were able to construct America as a “Nordic” land, ancient and – perhaps most importantly – white. Articulating a noble national heritage founded by “freedom loving” Vikings also became a way to argue for “”cessation of immigration to save America for Nordic humanity,’” (255).

The myth of origin and the racializing of America’s noble inheritance is an American project. But the only real evidence that exists of Viking landing – the settlement at L’Anse Aux Meadows, which is now thought not to have been Vinland but instead a trading outpost – is in Canada. It makes sense, given the craze for all things Viking in New England and the project of American studies to investigate such myths – and Kolodny’s own position in the field of Early American literature – for this book to focus on the culture south of the St. Lawrence River. But it left me wondering: what might Canadian sources bring to bear on this discussion? The Native American sources span across the Algonquian speaking region; what of white Canadian sources? Canadian nationalism was also a powerful force in the 19th century, including linguistic conflicts between Franco and British Canadian communities and the question of inclusion of the Maritimes into the new nation of Canada. We could imagine that stories of Vikings – sometimes invoked as “proto-Brits” without the nasty French influences – might have been useful for some Anglophone Canadian nationalists. We could imagine that legends of Viking settlement might have been a way to make a case for the inclusion or exclusion of the Maritime region. So, was there such a tradition in Canada in this period? Either a yes or no answer to this question would have been very productive for Kolodny’s thesis.

In fact, this book could have benefited from a more intensively geographic analysis in general. The central preoccupation about the location of Vinland is as much material as it is mythic, hinging on the search for artifacts and also for Kolodny’s environmental reading of the Sagas. Where might Vikings have encountered wild grapes growing in the warming climate of the Dark Ages? she asks. What landscape features correspond to the places described in the Sagas, such as the place called “Hope,” to the south of Vinland where “ ‘a river…flowed down into a lake and from the lake into the sea…[with] extensive sand-bars outside the river mouth…where they sailed into the estuary’”? (85). Our 19th century interlocutors translated such questions about the Sagas into deep convictions about their familiar landscapes’ correspondence to the sites settled by Vikings. John Greenleaf Whittier, for example, “unfolded a reverie in which the poet first hears and then sees an ancient Norse vessel gliding up “the Merrimac River…a landscape he both knew and loved” having grown up on a farm in the river valley (168). Whittier had been inspired by a stone found in the valley, “following the local habit of identifying any odd and seemingly old artifact as Norse” (168). Whittier’s landscape intervention was poetic; Eben Horsford, an amateur archaeologist from Cambridge, had argued for his beloved Charles River’s role in the Viking discovery with a plaque along the River declaring it the site of Vinland, as well as “the construction of a vaguely Norman-looking thirty-foot stone tower, ten feet in diameter” (233). Using the visual and built language of historic preservation, Horsford asserted the legitimacy of his – and Cambridge’s – claim to Nordic patrimony.

Kolodny misses the opportunity to think spatially in the way her 19th century counterparts did. There are no maps in the text, for example, whether early European, Native American, or modern American. Though it’s clear the Sagas are far too vague to offer up clear navigational directions to Vinland – supporting Kolodny’s thesis that Vinland was never seen as colony, nor the Sagas as instructions – had Kolodny presented alternative interpretations of the Icelander’s route, she would have provided a more robust critique of the 19th century mythmaking, using the language of the enthusiasts she studies. In other words, she never explores the extent to which the literary and the cartographic landscapes intersect; when issues of landscape, discovery, and the claiming of territory are at issue, a map can be a powerful tool. Moreover, aside from her initial “autobiography of the book,” she never really puts her reader into the physical landscape that she is exploring and describing. How to reconcile present landscapes with historical ones, and how to study historical landscapes at all, is a question that vexes environmental historians, nudging them towards adjacent scientific fields like ecology and geology. In Changes in the Land (another study of Native-European contact in New England), William Cronon reads the landscape as his archive, incorporating the ecological record with documents like maps and property deeds in order to understand how land itself operated in the social and cultural life of Indians and Puritans in New England’s early years of settlement. Kolodny doesn’t engage with this tradition or set of methodologies. Her Vinland remains an imaginary landscape, and never materializes into something tangible and readable.

This is because Kolodny is interested in stories. In Search of First Contact in fact is not only about the “Anglo-American anxiety of discovery,” but about her own – and, perhaps, her field’s – anxiety about writing. More specifically, this book presents Kolodny’s own anxiety about how to expand the range of stories we can tell about history when the archival record is sparse, and oral sources are the only potential information we have.Both the Sagas and the Native stories she reads later in the book are oral sources, transformed and captured in written text centuries after their first tellings. But Kolodny, as a literary scholar, must read them as “texts,” and she struggles with doing so.   She describes how “in traditional Mi’kmaq fashion, the purpose of every story was not to chronicle each and every specific event – in the way Euro-Americans write history – but rather to distill the connections between and the shared meanings of these events” (292). Similarly, the different Saga texts conflate and confuse and dramatize for the purpose of storytelling, rather than the accurate communication of history. The mistake of the 19th century Viking-philes, Kolodny argues, is misinterpreting these texts as history, when they are stories.

The effort of this book essentially then is to attempt to fashion a narrative from multiple narratives, in the way Native storytellers do, making meaning and distilling significance from a number of interwoven but distinct events. I think Kolodny’s text represents her own – and perhaps a more epistemological – anxiety about doing so. In her efforts at “close reading” for historical meaning, she struggles against her desire for positivist, historically driven interpretation. She reads, for example, the symbols on a rock carved by Native shaman-historians (Dighton Rock, which the 19th century Norse enthusiasts though was incontrovertible evidence of rune carving in Massachusetts, has subsequently been thought to be made by Native hands, perhaps added to later by Portuguese sailors). “The images [on the rock] were thus reservoirs of potency that could be called upon again and again. The ships thereby became the shamans, for rituals and for his own spirit-journeys. And the ships forever also became his peoples’ – as a reminder of any stories associated with them” (269). Isn’t this what the 19th century Americans were attempting to do with their poetry – to claim the imagic potency of those boats from across the Atlantic for their own spirit-journeys? And, how does Kolodny know that that is what the rune stones were meant to do? It is one thing to interpret a literary text in this way, for connotation and hidden meanings, in the tradition of “close reading.” She does this skillfully when she reads poetry. But when confronted with a text from a different compositional tradition, are the tools of the contemporary literary scholarship sufficient? Can we look for “truth” in a text that is so filled with magic, and imagination, written not by one voice but collected from many? And when, moreover, does an artifact do the same thing as fiction – serve as a point of storytelling and imagination, rather than as tangible evidence?

These questions are only implicit in Kolodny’s text, and I would like to have seen her struggle with them a bit more. I wondered by the end if she might see the 19th century characters, both poets and antiquarians, as foils for herself, reading artifacts, texts, and landscapes through their vision of the America they wanted to live in. In her conclusion, “History Lessons,” (perhaps more aptly: literary lessons), she places herself within another tradition, a Native tradition of cultural critique that argues that “’America must absolve herself of the historic guilt towards her [indigenous] predecessors and heal the split in her soul’” (Paula Gunn Alen, a.q. on p. 330). Her method, reading European and Native texts together, is an attempt to heal that split with her work. Bringing Native voices into stories of “first contact,” in fact using them to refute that there was a “first” contact at all, is her gesture towards absolution, of understanding. Of building an American literature (and, by extension an American people) that is based in the landscape of America, and not a particular racial or historical category. The Norse, the Natives, the New Englanders – their literature is American because it is about American soil, whether real or imagined.

It is hard to see much difference between this approach and that of Longfellow or Rafn, who read landscape with literary texts to envision an America more dignified, more whole, and more real than the place where they lived. This is not a criticism of Kolodny. Far from it. That is what myths are for.


[1] Lloyd Ferriss, “Those Famed Rune Stones, Real – Or Carved By Hippy?” Maine Sunday Telegram. November 12, 1972. p. 13A.


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