- Virtual Americas: Transnational Fictions and the Transatlantic Imaginary
"National histories," Paul Giles elegantly advises us at the beginning of his new book, "cannot be written simply from the inside" (6). Giles's adoption of a comparative model is not surprising—just last year he helped found the journal Comparative American Studies—and Virtual Americas is an important contribution to recent attempts to read American literary history from outside traditional parameters. Impressive in scope—moving effortlessly from Frederick Douglass to French surrealism, Robert Frost to Gayatri Spivak—Giles's study takes as its subject the ways in which American literature was shaped by "a transatlantic imaginary, by which I mean the interiorization of a literal or metaphorical Atlantic world" (1). One way of reading Virtual Americas would be as a supplement to Paul Gilroy's Black Atlantic, the text that could be said to have initiated recent interest in transatlantic crossings and collaborations. And when Giles expresses his impatience with identity politics, which he claims too often arise out of outdated notions of the nation-state, he echoes Gilroy's attempt to move beyond what The Black Atlantic calls "the unsatisfactory alternatives of Eurocentrism and black nationalism" (186).
That Giles should draw our attention to the debt owed by American texts to European political and aesthetic debates is perhaps surprising when we consider recent critical interest in hemispheric studies, Pacific Rim discourse, and the African diaspora. Yet Giles's approach has much to offer. His opening chapter, for example, makes the case that Fredrick Douglass's autobiographies were "dependent on a transnational, comparative consciousness" (30), a consciousness Douglass developed through immersing himself in the work of the British antislavery movement during a two-year stay in England [End Page 742] in the mid 1840s. Douglass believed the plantation system partly owed its power to the slaveholder's ability to represent his fiefdom as the world, so that the plantation believed itself to be "a little nation of its own" (31). Making common cause with other victims of oppression, such as the victims of the Irish famine, allowed Douglass to expose the isolation and parochialism of the peculiar institution.
If Douglass's representation of the horrors of slavery owed more than has been acknowledged to the British abolitionist movement, Herman Melville's novels of the mid-nineteenth century greatly benefited precisely from their author's ability to "swerv[e] away from the traditions of English literature." Thus, Giles argues, "the subversive qualities of [Melville's] American idiom involve the ways it parodies or intertextually revises those cultural expectations associated with the British heritage" (73). Yet, as he reminds us, quoting Melville biographer Hershel Parker, the initial "revival of Melville's reputation was almost exclusively a British phenomenon" (47). Indeed, Virtual Americas makes the convincing case that Matthew Arnold was as important to Melville's later work as Hawthorne was to his earlier, which accounts, Giles suggests, for why Melville constantly associates aestheticism with America and moralism with Britain. As he points out, The Confidence-Man is deliberately global in its orientation, constantly employing a rhetoric of comparison that stretches far beyond the confines of the Mississippi River.
Giles's most daring argument concerns Henry James's The American Scene, which he reads as a kind of forerunner to the European surrealistic texts of André Breton and Guillaume Apollinaire. In surrealism, he notes, people assume the characteristics of objects and objects assume the characteristics of persons, a form that could certainly be said to characterize James's 1905 account of his return home. Whether this is enough to justify calling James's late style surrealist is open to debate, but what is intriguing about Giles's reading are the links he establishes between the aestheticism of the 1890s and the Dada movement of the 1920s. Giles's determination to forge such unlikely connections aligns him with critics such as Susan Hegeman and Walter Benn Michaels, both of whom have made powerful arguments for modernism's complex relation to American nationalism. And while not all of Giles's comparisons are equally convincing, they...