Unscripted America

Indigenous Languages and the Origins of a Literary Nation

Cover of 'Unscripted America' by Sarah Rivett

Oxford University Press
Nov. 17, 2017


In 1664, French Jesuit Louis Nicolas arrived in Quebec. Upon first hearing Ojibwe, Nicolas observed that he had encountered the most barbaric language in the world — but after listening to and studying approximately fifteen Algonquian languages over a ten-year period, he wrote that he had “discovered all of the secrets of the most beautiful languages in the universe.”

Unscripted America is a study of how colonists in North America struggled to understand, translate, and interpret Native American languages, and the significance of these languages for theological and cosmological issues such as the origins of Amerindian populations, their relationship to Eurasian and Biblical peoples, and the origins of language itself. Through a close analysis of previously overlooked texts, Unscripted America places American Indian languages within transatlantic intellectual history, while also demonstrating how American letters emerged in the 1810s through 1830s via a complex and hitherto unexplored engagement with the legacies and aesthetic possibilities of Indigenous words.

Unscripted America contends that what scholars have more traditionally understood through the Romantic ideology of the noble savage, a vessel of antiquity among dying populations, was in fact a palimpsest of still-living Indigenous populations whose presence in American literature remains traceable through words. By examining the foundation of the literary nation through language, writing, and literacy, Unscripted America revisits common conceptions regarding “early America” and its origins to demonstrate how the understanding of America developed out of a steadfast connection to American Indians, both past and present.

Oxford Studies in American Literary History

  • Offers wealth of new archival sources of American Indian language texts
  • Provides new account of the impact of Euro-Indigenous language encounters on philosophy, religion, and literature
  • Demonstrates centrality of the occluded figure of the Indian in American literary history
  • Argues that the knowledge exchanged between Europeans and Indigenous populations transformed understandings of language


Unscripted America is a meaningful contribution to a surge in scholarship that has explored the relation between intellectual history, Native studies, and the literary history of colonial America and the early U.S. republic. Its focus on the scientific study of Indigenous languages makes it particularly worth reading ... Rivett offers a scrupulously detailed study of the cultural history of the colonial Americas, a simultaneously wide-ranging and deeply probing account of the linguistic exchanges at the heart of colonial encounter. Making thought-provoking connections between linguistic and theological writings and the literatures of the early republic, Unscripted America is an indispensable text for scholars examining the history of cultural exchange in Native North America.”

— Frank Kelderman, H-Net

Unscripted America is an enthralling work of cultural history that brings together early American literature, theology, and Indigenous studies in original ways ... Rivett’s scholarly achievements in Unscripted America are many and meaningful.”

— Daniel Dewispelare, Notes and Queries

“This book is an account of encounter and (dis)encounter. Coming from the field of literary history [...] the author’s study of the missionary linguistics of colonial North America deserves our attention because, reading beyond the lines, it is not just about the history. The problems of mistranslation, misinterpretation, and appropriation discussed by the author are faced by all field researchers working in Indigenous communities today.”

International Journal of American Linguistics

“Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries.”

— E. J. Vajda, CHOICE

“A rich intellectual and literary history, Rivett’s Unscripted America makes a highly original argument about the role of Indigenous languages in the formation of early American literature. The book places at the center of its story the Native interlocutors who spoke, translated, and explained their languages to Europeans, and it shows how they actively shaped the written record that sought to represent and control them as merely passive conveyers of transparent meaning. Rivett’s ability to move between comparative European philology, a wide variety of early American sources, and recent theoretical contributions in Native studies is dazzling.”

— Anna Brickhouse, University of Virginia

Unscripted America is an important comparative and transcultural study of the deep connections between early American missionary linguistics in colonial New England and New France, American literary history, and Western intellectual history at the intersection of religion and science from the 17th to the 19th century. Rigorously researched and lucidly written, Unscripted America shows how the notion of the sacred power of Indigenous words persists in American literature, despite Euro-American attempts to relegate Indians to an ancient and unrecoverable past.”

— Ralph Bauer, University of Maryland

Unscripted America is a necessary and timely celebration of Native American linguistic contributions to American literature, history, and creative spirit. Sarah Rivett’s insightful analysis is a sensitive and thought-provoking exploration of linguistic encounters between America’s First Nations of the Northeast and colonial/settler societies. Rivett deftly shares with readers the importance of understanding North America’s complicated literary and linguistic past so that we may recognize how deeply Native America continues to contribute to America’s literary and linguistic imaginaries.”

— Bernard Perley, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee