NORSE AMERICA IN REVIEW
Gordon Campbell. Norse America. Oxford University Press; 2021. $25.95
An earlier book of the same title, was an infuriating collection of prejudices in which the author examined a great number of suppositions and followed them with a jaw-dropping sincerity. Except for the account of L’Anse aux Meadows, which he cheerfully denigrated and called an ignorant group of prejudices. Knowing this, I was a little wary of this volume, especially when I found it was written by a renaissance scholar. This at least indicated he had no pro-Scandinavian prejudices, so I approached it with a wary caution.
When I started reading the book, I quickly realized that Campbell had more of interest in racial matters than anything else. Though he noted Nazi and other racist thoughts, he tried to be the other side of matters, He loved to announce decisions without provided very much documentation. He knew what he believe, and the reader should believe him as well. His use of the word “fantasy” for referring to Washington Irving the Vinland Sagas is a good example of his approach to the subject.
From the very start, Campbell talks about other claimants to being the first European (or African or Asian) man in America. Magog, Brenda, Prince Henry and more, all without any physical evidence. The Norse adventurers are thrown into that group, even though physical evidence has been discovered. He loves to make snide snarks about anything, classifying a saga—admittedly somewhat exaggerated but not to the extent he claims—with the Skaholt map. It is hard to approve of an author who goes to such extremes to sound superior and witty.
He loves to note that persons from the earlier part of the history probably did not exist and that he only believes later instances although he dos not really believe them either. He loves to talk about “fantasy history,” though the term seems to grow largely from his prejudices rather than from any proof.
There is, of course, real fantasy history and cases of fraud, and Campbell hangs a lot of his prejudices on this fact. However, his reluctance to accept any theory but his own and to humiliate anyone who disagrees with him is irritating. The list of people he does believe is long and includes not merely the saga poets but Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine and, of course, Washington Irving. Unlike the earlier Norse America, Campbell does not totally dismiss L’Anse au Meadows, though he does attempt to minimize its importance. It is worth noting that the chapter devoted to L’Anse aux Meadows consists of far less pages that other chapters which he can more easily denigrate and humiliate. Campbell, though he protests that he is not neglecting the importance. Most of what he says has been said many times before, and what he writes is of minimal interest and not worth buying and reading the whole book.
Campbell writes, “This reservation is not intended to suggest that L’Anse aux Meadows is unimportant….The ultimate prize from the perspective of Canadians and Americans of Northern European descents, would be the discovery of the settlement or settlements on the mainland.” Throughout the book, Campbell tries to set up things so that he is the authority, he can quote “facts” that prove how correct he is and can ignore anything he does not want to discus or, more importantly, for readers to ignore. He loves to expound at boring length on matters that have been discredited while never mentioning at all what people now believe.
To a great extent, the book reminds me of William Manchester’s A World Lit Only by Fire, an aggravating and often incorrect view of the renaissance era. Manchester had an agenda and was able to twist the facts to fit his concept, and Campbell seems to have done the same thing. Not recommended at all!