The Jamestown Project.
by Karen Ordahl Kupperman
Cambridge, MA and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007
I write this review in my office at Brown University, just across campus from the John Carter Brown Library where, some fifty-five years ago, Perry Miller delivered a talk, "Errand Into the Wilderness," that would set the terms for the study of the origins of American culture for the next few decades. Miller singled out the Massachusetts Bay Colony as the point of "coherence with which [he] could coherently begin" his story of "the movement of European culture into the vacant wilderness of America." His speech concluded with an image of those transplanted Protestants "left alone with America" with "no other place to search but within themselves." They were like so many little castaway Tom Hanks, but with Puritans instead of volleyballs for companionship.
One of the virtues of Karen Ordahl Kupperman's The Jamestown Project is that it indicates how much has changed in the origin stories we tell about the United States since Miller gave his talk. For one thing, far from being left alone on a vacant continent, her founding colonists seem more like social butterflies, involved with any and all groups of people, including the native inhabitants of the land, while displaying none of the interest in the kind of existential questions that defined Miller's first modern Americans. These colonists are practical people bent on making this project work however they can without dillydallying about the philosophical or spiritual implications of their behavior. Kupperman's title points to a second major change, for where Miller explicitly excludes Virginia as the starting point, Kupperman identifies Jamestown itself as the origin of America (2). What is far more important and exciting, though, is that the book spends much of its time arguing--implicitly if not always explicitly--that English commercial and political interests around the globe, but concentrated in the Mediterranean and Asia, not only must be understood in order to see America's founding "within its true context," but also that these global ventures that would have seemed irrelevant to historians just twenty years ago helped shape America's very conception and social structure.
Kupperman's focus on situating Jamestown within a broader context than would historians of a previous generation produces one of the oddities of the book: she doesn't actually get to the details of Jamestown's founding until the seventh chapter, or two-thirds of the way through her discussion. After a brief introduction that lays out her claim that Jamestown should be seen as the place where a model for successful English colonization of America would be invented, she proceeds in her first chapter, "Elizabethan England Engages the World," to explain how England saw and was seen by the world at large in the years immediately preceding Jamestown's founding. Chapter 2, "Adventurers, Opportunities, and Improvisation," focuses our attention on a number of key European and English individuals, some of whom were important in the early history of Jamestown and some of whom merely serve as examples or figures for the kind of broad experience across the known world English people brought to bear in the American colonies. While the title "Indian Experience of the Atlantic" suggests that she will give us the Native American perspective of colonization, the third chapter gives us more, for understandable reasons given the existing archive, of what Europeans said about this encounter than what the Indians themselves thought. We move from a useful discussion of English interest in a variety of things cast as "new" in the period in "English Hunger for the New," chapter 4, to a largely engaging explanation of the way the English in particular and Europeans in general imagined the globe, the American continent, and the continent's environment in chapter 5, "Grasping America's Contours." Kupperman goes on to situate Jamestown in relation to other English interests across the globe in her informative chapter 6, "A Welter of Colonial Projects," before finally giving us a picture of Jamestown in three stages that correspond to her concluding three chapters: "Jamestown's Uncertain Beginnings," "The Project Revised," and "James Cittie in Virginia."
While Kupperman writes in a generally clear prose that situates Jamestown in relation to the goings-on around the globe where I agree it belongs, I cannot recommend the book to scholars who are likely to read this journal. First, the book seems to me to be aimed at a general audience rather than a scholarly one. The book seeks to capitalize on the interest surrounding the 500th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown. I have nothing against scholars writing popular books or taking advantage of the market when they do so. Indeed, I say "bravo" to such efforts. In this case, though, the book offers very little that would be of use, not only to Shakespeare scholars but also to scholars of early modern England and/or Europe more broadly. Indeed, much of the material on world trade and America's place in that trade during the period draws on the work of such scholars. Second, when we translate scholarship for a wider audience, we sometimes rely on concepts that much recent work--often theory, but not exclusively so--has shown to be problematic at best. So, Kupperman tells her story in what has come to be termed the "Ken Burns" style of history. That is, she tells us the history as often as possible through the words of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century actors themselves and/or uses the life and adventures of particular individuals as a focal point of larger historical movements. I found myself consistently unconvinced by much of her discussion because such a method depends on taking what these actors say at face value, rather than interpreting them in relation to underlying systems of meanings of which those actors are blissfully unaware. The colonists in Kupperman's narrative speak, write, and act with an agency ungoverned by forces, discursive or otherwise, outside their control or knowledge.
The book's imagined audience of general rather than scholarly readers may account, too, for the problems I had with what appears to be one of The Jamestown Project's central arguments. For in addition to her contention that American colonization be understood in a world context, she argues that the "true priority" of Jamestown "lies in its inventing the archetype of English colonization" (3). "The key to building English societies abroad," Kupperman concludes, "was discovered in Virginia and all successful colonies henceforth followed its model" (327). I have no clue just what she means here. Does she mean that seventeenth-century Virginians created a model colony whose structures were consciously followed by subsequent English colonies that survived? Given the historical record, this seems on its very face demonstrably false. She must then mean that it "invented" a model that was never used as a model but that nonetheless is important for demonstrating the foresight of its founders. Except that in order to demonstrate her point that Jamestown was such a model, even though it was never used as one, she cites the work of John Smith as the one writer who "drew the true lessons of the Jamestown experience" and, in the process, "explained to his readers ... a fundamental understanding about human psychology" (325 and 327). The problem with such an argument is that Smith was run out of Virginia by Virginia's leaders very soon after it was founded, and though he wrote a good deal after that, every piece of scholarship I can recall agrees that few if any English readers, and certainly no one in charge of Virginia, put much stock in what he said about colonization. So, we are left to wonder about the significance of Jamestown as a model colony if the only person who recognized it as such was routinely ignored by his contemporaries.
If you are interested in a relatively general discussion of the first twenty or so years of Jamestown, The Jamestown Project provides a quick primer. If you need a quick summary of the way in which the American colonies were understood in relation to other English projects around the world, Kupperman's early chapters might be useful. Otherwise, I think the book offers little of value for scholars.