"Calling the End from the Beginning": Retelling American Typology through the Raven

12 Mar 2021 10.00 AM - 11.30 AM Alumni, Current Students, Industry/Academic Partners, Prospective Students, Public
Organised by:
Christopher Trigg

In Images or Shadows of Divine Things (1728)—edited by Perry Miller in 1948—Jonathan Edwards takes the raven’s disobedience in Genesis 8.7 in a hyperbolic direction declaring the bird of the genus corvus, a “type of devil.” Scholars of American typology have little to say about Edwards’s raven. Not even Perry Miller mentioned it, or imagined a connection to Poe’s famous poem despite having written a book called The Raven and the Whale (1956). In this paper, I foreground the centrality of the raven to American typology and literary historiography. My findings are based on a case study of a Tlinigt box from the 1880s Yakutat, Alaska. Currently housed in the Princeton University Art Museum, the box is displaced and held captive, but it contains stories about the complexity of the raven in Tlingit culture, as told by Kuchéin Frank Italio, the oldest recorded Tlingit storyteller. Born in Yakutat in the 1860s into the same L’uknax.adí tribe that created the box, Kuchéin’s stories and the box itself invite new consideration of the raven in The Book of Genesis as well as in Edwards’s theological writings and subsequent historiography. Both Edwards’s dismissal of the raven as devil and the subsequent lack of scholarly attention paid to the raven as type are symptoms of a fabricated American origins story that stands in contradistinction to what the raven symbolizes: godless authority and a contra-teleological presence. But by “calling the end from the beginning,” as Kuchéin says, the raven repudiates the myth of origins upon which US settler colonialism depends.

Sarah Rivett is Professor of English and American Studies at Princeton University. She is the author of The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England (2011) and Unscripted America: Indigenous Languages and the Origins of a Literary Nation (2017). She is currently writing a book on ravens in American literary history.