The Silence of the Miskito Prince

How Cultural Dialogue Was Colonized

2022
Author:

Matt Cohen

Confronting the rifts created by our common conceptual vocabulary for North American colonial studies

How can we tell colonial histories in ways that invite intercultural conversation within humanistic fields that are themselves products of colonial domination? Focusing on the first two centuries of North American colonization, Matt Cohen explores this question by looking critically at five concepts frequently used to imagine solutions to the challenges of cross-cultural communication: understanding, cosmopolitanism, piety, reciprocity, and patience. 

I remember the bold, proud, and highfalutin terms we used to toss about in early American studies, so proud of our own ‘discoveries’ and ‘understandings.’ Because that’s the model we inherited. Because we did not know any better. But now we do—thanks to Matt Cohen’s rigorous and powerful remodulation of our scholarly language. This book points us in the direction of better scholarship, by which I mean greater care, awe, patience, and accountability. A model work of literary criticism for our chastened and tender times.

Joanna Brooks, author of Why We Left: Untold Stories and Songs of America’s First Immigrants

How can we tell colonial histories in ways that invite intercultural conversation within humanistic fields that are themselves products of colonial domination? Beginning with a famous episode of failed communication from the narrative of the freed slave Olaudah Equiano, The Silence of the Miskito Prince explores this question by looking critically at five concepts frequently used to imagine solutions to the challenges of cross-cultural communication: understanding, cosmopolitanism, piety, reciprocity, and patience.

Focusing on the first two centuries of North American colonization, Matt Cohen traces how these five concepts of cross-cultural relations emerged from, and continue to evolve within, colonial dynamics. Through a series of revealing archival explorations, he argues the need for a new vocabulary for the analysis of past interactions drawn from the intellectual and spiritual domains of the colonized and for a historiographical practice oriented less toward the illusion of complete understanding and scholarly authority and more toward the beliefs and experiences of descendant communities.

The Silence of the Miskito Prince argues for new ways of framing scholarly conversations that use past interactions as a site for thinking about intercultural relations today. By investigating the colonial histories of these terms that were assumed to promote inclusion, Cohen offers both a reflection on how we got here and a model of scholarly humility that holds us to our better or worse pasts.

Retail e-book files for this title are screen-reader friendly with images accompanied by short alt text and/or extended descriptions.

Cover alt text: Staid author name and underlined main title on antique paper; bold subtitle on a bright background revealed in scissored cutout.

Matt Cohen is professor of English as well as affiliate faculty in Native American studies at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, where he also codirects the Walt Whitman Archive. He has written or edited six books, including the award-winning The Networked Wilderness: Communicating in Early New England (Minnesota, 2009).

I remember the bold, proud, and highfalutin terms we used to toss about in early American studies, so proud of our own ‘discoveries’ and ‘understandings.’ Because that’s the model we inherited. Because we did not know any better. But now we do—thanks to Matt Cohen’s rigorous and powerful remodulation of our scholarly language. This book points us in the direction of better scholarship, by which I mean greater care, awe, patience, and accountability. A model work of literary criticism for our chastened and tender times.

Joanna Brooks, author of Why We Left: Untold Stories and Songs of America’s First Immigrants

The Silence of the Miskito Prince is almost alchemical in its ability to draw new insights from familiar texts. Matt Cohen’s work will be a model for literary scholars, and maybe even some historians, of the power of scholarship that considers the work that words can and cannot do.

Jonathan Beecher Field, Clemson University

Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction

1. Cosmopuritanism

2. Believing in Piety

3. Waiting for the Beginning

4. Rethinking Reciprocity

5. Beyond Understanding

Notes

Index