Kolodny’s In Search of First Contact Rewrites History, and Then Some

Gale Courey Toensing
7/22/12

In her extraordinary book In Search of First Contact: The Vikings of Vinland, the Peoples of the Dawnland, and the Anglo-American Anxiety of Discovery (Duke University Press Books, 2012), internationally renowned literary critic Annette Kolodny takes a fine-tooth comb to two medieval Icelandic sagas. Untangling the myths, politics and conventional history surrounding the “discovery” of Turtle Island, she reveals the narratives of Europeans’ first contact with the Indigenous Peoples of America—500 years before Christopher Columbus set foot there.

In Search of First Contact is a groundbreaking work in that it is the first book to look at the Vinland sagas—those of the Greenlanders and Eirik the Red—as works of American literature. In the process, the volume documents the various Viking groups, including those of Eirik and his sons, who discovered, explored and attempted to colonize North America—an endeavor that lasted for three years—and their first encounters with the Indigenous Peoples of this vast continent. Fascinating in and of themselves, these stories challenge the dominant narrative that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America.

Kolodny, the College of Humanities Professor Emerita of American literature and culture at the University of Arizona, studied the original texts in the Old Norse language as a young scholarship student at the University of Oslo in the summer of 1961. Years later she became a professor at Arizona, teaching frontier studies and the recorded legends of Native peoples who had been encountered at frontier sites. It was in this capacity that she extensively examined how the Norse sagas described the fertile land that the Norse called Vinland the Good, because of the profusion of grapes growing there. She also recorded stories about the Norse’s first encounters with Native peoples, whom they called Skraelings, meaning “wretches” or “wretches who screech.”

“These, I realized, were the earliest known European narratives of contact with North America,” Kolodny says in “The Autobiography of a Book,” the title of her prologue. “With no little excitement, I started to rethink everything I thought I already knew.”

That the Vikings had been in North America has been an accepted historical fact since the discovery in 1960 of an archaeological site on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland, Kolodny says. L’Anse aux Meadows was found to be a Norse landing site and a ship-repair site that was established around the year 1000, the same time that Leif Erikson and other Vikings were probing the continent.

Kolodny’s students, to whom she had introduced the sagas, bombarded her with questions: Why had she assigned the sagas in an American literature course? Where was Vinland and what had really happened there? Were there any Native stories about this early contact? In 1995, Kolodny responded by beginning to search for answers. By 2000 she was working in earnest on a book. In Search of First Contact is the result.

At the core of the narrative is Kolodny’s close reading and interpretive analysis of the Vinland sagas themselves. These began as oral stories that honored the activities of prominent Norse families. Eventually they became written texts after the conversion of the Scandinavians to Christianity, beginning around the year 1000.

The stories recount, among other things, what may be the first meeting with the Native inhabitants, when nine Native men were found under three “humps” that turned out to be three “skin-boats” on the beach. In a later chapter, focusing on the evidence of first contact from the Indigenous Peoples’ point of view, Kolodny includes a story that has never before been told outside of Native communities.

Kolodny does not definitively identify Vinland’s location. But she makes a good case that first contact was made in the land of the Wabanaki, roughly comprising New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, the Maritime Provinces and some of Quebec. In the end, though, it doesn’t much matter.

“Perhaps it is best,” she writes, “to think of Vinland as what it became for Euro-Americans in the 19th century, that is, a geographical site that was transfigured into an imagined landscape for the projection of dreams. The stories told in the sagas only imperfectly coincide with the stories Native peoples tell. But where we have clues in the archaeological record, it is reasonably clear that conflict was at least one outcome of the encounter. Unlike the encounters of later centuries, however, in Vinland the Native peoples prevailed, and it was the Europeans who were driven out.”

Learn more about how Kolodny came to write this book in ICTMN's interview with the author.

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