- Barbaric Traffic: Commerce and Antislavery in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World
Philip Gould's Barbaric Traffic is a sweeping, rigorous, and engaging study of the decidedly understudied and vastly influential literature [End Page 199] of antislavery in the late eighteenth century, a literature which Gould demonstrates has everything to do with vital discussions about the relationship between commerce and the health and survival of the republican body. The period of Gould's focus here captures a time when this ambiguous notion of commerce—as a force simultaneously integral to notions of citizenship and potentially contaminating to the body of the nation—is in many ways unique. As he suggests in his conclusion, as early as the antebellum period, commerce would no longer be imagined by abolitionists as a potential site through which manners might be improved or reinvested in order to redeem society from its own baser instincts. But the discourses that emerge from this founding period of antislavery will shape the strategies, the ideals, and the fears and fantasies of Anglo-American antislavery over the course of the decades leading to emancipation—and it molds as well the discourses of race and nation that will charge political and literary discourse for many decades beyond. The proper mapping and analysis of the gossamer networks of these emerging discourses in the late eighteenth century, as Gould so expertly demonstrates, is necessary to begin to understand fully all that follows.
Gould demonstrates that antislavery writing has everything to do with concerns about the nature of international trade and its effects on culture and manners. But he subtly refuses to make this point the whole story, backing off the temptation to overplay the rhetorical effect of this claim. It is this subtly of tone that defines in many ways the strength and authority of this book. It is also potentially its Achilles heel, as some of the significance of this work might well be lost on a reading audience increasingly attuned (by mainstream media and the academic publishing market alike) to the Big Claim. In patiently teasing out—from a variety of directions, through a range of archives, and via a complex array of reading strategies—themutually constitutive relationship between these complex and changing fields, Gould offers arguably the most nuanced and authoritative account of the "prehistories" of liberal capitalism, abolitionism, racial identity, and transatlantic cultural exchange. What I find myself ultimately missing in this book was in part what I simultaneously admire the book for forgoing: the Madison Avenue selling points that would ensure that his claims would be understood to be as big as they truly are.
Among the many things to admire and emulate in this book is the model it provides of the kind of transatlantic literary history that critics have been [End Page 200] calling for for many years; few, if any, have provided such a rigorous and rewarding example of why this work is so important. I suspect it would not be absurd to hope that this book might mark a turning point for a new generation of Americanists who will follow in its footsteps—both in terms of extending, as Gould suggests, the genealogy of antislavery forward into the nineteenth century and, more broadly, in terms of extending the networks of texts and contexts to more accurately reflect the Atlantic worlds from which they emerged and which they helped define. Gould expends essentially no time up front in his work defending or defining his transatlantic methodology. Instead, building on the ground laid by earlier Atlantic World historians and literary scholars, Gould takes for granted the necessity for reading these works in a complex dialogue with each other, a dialogue in which issues of national identity play ultimately less important roles than do issues of capitalist ideology. While I admire his refusal to play to the methodological polemic here, I cannot help but worry that the truly groundbreaking nature of what he is doing might be easily missed by those new to the field.
The structure of the book is itself fascinating...