TRANSATLANTIC LITERARY STUDIES, 1660-1830 by EVE TAVOR BANNET and Susan Manning, eds., Reviewed by
 

TRANSATLANTIC LITERARY STUDIES, 1660-1830
Eds. EVE TAVOR BANNET and Susan Manning
(Cambridge, 2011) xii + 281 pp.
Reviewed by on 2014-01-23.

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The idea of American exceptionalism has long held American literary studies in its tenacious grasp. It has obscured the fact that until the end of the nineteenth century, American literature was seen, by both Americans and Britons, as part of a transatlantic literary system in which exchange in both directions was the rule. "In examining the history of theatre and drama during this period," writes Jeffrey Richards, "a scholar would find it nearly impossible to avoid transatlanticism" (91). As the editors of this useful essay collection argue, this claim can be extended to other literary genres. Contributors seek to provide a comprehensive appraisal of the constitutive role that transatlanticism played from the seventeenth to the early nineteenth century, and thus to demonstrate that a transatlantic perspective is not only useful but indispensable.

The need for a transnational reorientation is by now so widely accepted in literary studies that the editors, quite sensibly, give little space to programmatical statements in their introduction. They have asked their contributors simply to show how a transatlantic perspective can be productively applied. In sixteen essays on key genres and topics, leading scholars in their respective areas of research have systematically mapped out transatlantic literary relations. The volume includes chapters on providence tales, captivity narratives, travel literature, life writings, drama, gothic literature, transatlantic journalism, historical fiction, and romanticism, all reconsidered in a transatlantic context. Other chapters focus on book and print culture, transatlantic American Indians, writings of the black Atlantic, and a number of individual authors whose works are reinterpreted from a transatlantic perspective, ranging from Benjamin Franklin, Joel Barlow, and Charles Brockden Brown to Phillis Wheatley and S.T. Coleridge. Nevertheless, though discussions include Coleridge and William Godwin as well as a chapter on British "literature of the ocean," the volume's focus clearly lies on American literature. And while Alan Rice tries to move beyond British America in his essay on the Black Atlantic, the editors leave no doubt that "transatlantic literary studies" here should be understood as Anglophone literary studies "with a transatlantic inflection or focus" (1). In that respect, the title of the volume could be more precise.

Since all contributors basically agree about the need for, and the special promise of, a transatlantic perspective, it is interesting to see that such an approach can be very differently applied. The volume is most helpful where it surveys genres, writers, or topics that have been forgotten or unduly neglected because they did not fit the exceptionalist agenda of American literary studies. In some cases, as for example the captivity narrative, long considered a specifically American genre, the volume significantly changes our understanding of a familiar phenomenon.

Although all contributions meet high professional standards, standouts include Richard Sher's essay on "Transatlantic books and literary culture," Jim Egan's "Tales of wonder, spiritual autobiographies, and providence tales," and Jeffery Richards' essay on "Theatre, drama, performance." However, the price to be paid for panoramic overviews can sometimes be a lack of analytical depth. In their eagerness to show and celebrate the use of certain genres in both Britain and America as a result of an ongoing exchange, some contributors forget to tell us why they were used, what they stood for, and what their cultural and aesthetic significance was. Contributors tend to slight questions of relevance. If a text can be shown to have participated in a transatlantic exchange, it is considered sufficiently important.

Given the length of the period it considers, the volume prompts questions about the history of transatlanticism. Quoting Charles Brockden Brown in his excellent essay on "Transatlantic utopianism and the writing of America," Wil Verhoeven asks if a transatlantic perspective makes special sense for the period when "the American states were no more than a province of the British empire" (43). Does this mean that such a perspective makes less sense after that? We might draw such an inference from essays dealing with texts produced after the American revolution, focusing on genres like the gothic novel and the historical novel, and on romanticism. For obvious reasons, these essays are no longer panoramic but shift their attention to a smaller number of authors and texts in order to illustrate the potential of a transatlantic perspective.

The results are not always convincing. We do not necessarily expect highly original interpretations in essays chiefly designed to retrieve forgotten or marginalized texts. But those who read familiar texts in the light of transatlanticism must be able to show that this perspective makes a major difference. Attempts to do so sometimes reflect the strain of a search for newness and originality, especially in essays on genres or literary periods. For instance, in stringing together a series of theoretical claims about the need for a radically new approach to romanticism, the essay on transatlantic romanticisms never gets to an interpretation of the object itself, so that it stops short of clearly defining a transatlantic reconsideration of romanticism. Likewise, in its forced attempt to put Washington Irving at the center of a transatlantic approach, the essay on transatlantic historical fiction has to ignore other and better examples, including, ironically, strong transatlantic dimensions in the works of James Fenimore Cooper.

Why do we need a transatlantic perspective in literary studies? According to the editors, it fosters better scholarship, which in this case means a more adequate understanding of the literary system of a period. Since the literary texts and genres discussed in this volume circulated in a transatlantic sphere, the editors claim, they "make better sense in their initial transatlantic and transnational contexts" (8). One may be tempted, however, to put pressure on this claim. For once we acknowledge the transatlantic dimension, what exactly do we understand better? Take for instance two of the literary texts most often cited here: Susanna Rowson's novel Reuben and Rachel (1798) and Gilbert Imlay's The Emigrants (1793). To know that such texts developed in a transatlantic context may be an important starting point for interpretation, but it is not yet an interpretation of the texts themselves or a full explanation of their significance.

A second rationale for the transatlantic approach to literary texts is that, in the words of the editors, it "helps us see how much we have forgotten, and how much has yet to be retrieved" (9). Compared with a narrow national focus, a transatlantic approach can better absorb a plurality of voices. And indeed, it is always desirable to gain "a much richer picture" (87), to recover "a myriad of voices" (71), or to gain a fuller understanding of something. Yet because not everything can be fully represented at any one point, selections must be made. By ignoring any other criteria of selection, the volume leaves the impression that the literary value and relevance of a text depends wholly on its usefulness for illustrating transatlanticism: in transcending national borders, it promises dialogue, exchange, and cosmopolitan attitudes. But isn't the transatlantic literary system also part of a system of dependence, of colonial asymmetries in power relations, and of struggles with imperial power? That other side of transatlantic relations seems to be lost in translation here.

Scattered references sketch a third argument for the transatlantic perspective, but it is based on two questionable and largely unexamined assumptions about value. One is that intertextual exchange -- citing, appropriating, recombining -- is an inherently dialogic activity and hence a positive value in itself. The second is that such intertextual exchanges are politically progressive because they prevent relations from becoming a one-way street and thus provide the colonial subject with agency. Moreover, they create spaces "in-between" that can produce more flexible, hybrid, cosmopolitan identities.

American exceptionalism has been criticized by New Americanists and others because it produces an illusionary national identity. If transatlantic literary studies are to avoid this ideological trap, its practitioners must construct from their readings a different identity. But how will they do so? While transatlantic travels may create flexible, perhaps even hybrid identities, what about reading travel narratives? Do they have the same effect? Though travel writings have created many pernicious myths, their ideological impact has not constrained their intertextual dimension or impeded their transatlantic circulation. In other words, transatlanticism hardly guarantees progressive politics.

This collection signally helps to reconfigure American literary studies. Most importantly, it exhibits new research on a transatlantic dimension that American exceptionalism has continually downplayed or ignored. On the other hand, it leaves open important questions on criteria of selection and relevance, on the conceptualization of transatlantic relations, and on the literary theory of effect underlying the promise of a counter- or post-exceptionalist identity. As long as transatlantic criticism overlooks these questions, I believe that it can provide a valuable additional perspective, but not a new post-exceptionalist disciplinary paradigm.

Winfried Fluck is Professor and Chair of American Studies at the John F. Kennedy-Institute for North American Studies, Freie Universität, Berlin.


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