- "Trans-Atlantic Crossings in the Eighteenth Century":Eighteenth Annual DeBartolo Conference on Eighteenth-Century Studies
The DeBartolo Conference on Eighteenth-Century Studies may not be a regular stop on most early Americanists' rounds, but perhaps it should be. As many EAL readers seek to answer comparativist, interdisciplinary, and trans-Atlantic challenges to the ways in which we have studied and taught the field of "early American literature," this well-established annual conference, now in its eighteenth year, could prove a productive site of intellectual exchange. Such potential was particularly apparent because of this year's topic: Thirty-one presenters, roughly two-thirds from the fields of English and Comparative Literature and one-third historians, considered the passages, literal and figurative, involuntary and voluntary, between Europe, Africa, and the Americas during the "long" eighteenth century. While there was little direct engagement with the critical terms and texts of current trans-Atlantic studies, the single-session, discussion-oriented format of the conference allowed for questions about methods and materials to percolate from session to session over three days.
The topic's currency, as well as the conference's commendable openness, was evident in the extent of graduate-student participation; fully one-third of the presenters were advanced graduate students, representing a wide range of fields (from colonial Latin American art history to postcolonial Anglo-Caribbean literature) and providing the conference's most sustained comparativist view of the Atlantic World. The graduate students' disciplinary variety was exceptional; as is traditional with this conference, which has been hosted since 1986 by the University of South Florida Department [End Page 217] of English, over one-third of the participants were scholars of British literature of the "long" "new" eighteenth century. In their readings of this literature's representations of trans-Atlantic crossings, or, more frequently, of the Americas and their native and settler inhabitants, "America" occasionally figured as a site for moral and/or economic renewal-from which refreshed perspective a critique of the colonial enterprise or the moral and social conditions in the home country could be ventured-but more often the crossing hazarded moral decline, reversion to savagery, corrosion of authority, and/or epistemological uncertainty, against which British "civility" could be better measured.
The archive on which these papers variously drew included well-known novels (Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave, 1682; Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, 1719, and Moll Flanders, 1722; and Tobias Smollett's The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, 1771) and lesser-known ones (Defoe's Colonel Jack, 1722; Robert Bage's Hermsprong, or Man As He Is Not, 1796; and Amelie Opie's Adeline Mowbray, 1804), as well as works in other modes (Ned Ward's mock promotional tract A Trip to Jamaica, 1698; Richard Steele's account of the Inkle and Yarico story in Spectator #11, 1711; Alexander Pope's poem "Windsor Forest," 1713; Edward Kimber's biography History of the Life and Adventures of Mr. Anderson, 1754; and Peter Williamson's autobiography, French and Indian Cruelty, 1758).
Early Americanists who have reimagined their field of inquiry as the "English literatures of America," following the lead of Myra Jehlen and Michael Warner's 1997 Routledge anthology, would have recognized many of the listed works as familiar territory, but scholars of eighteenth-century American literature were under-represented on the final conference program. Consequently, there was less opportunity for the kind of "comparativist defamiliarization" productively practiced by Paul Giles in his Transatlantic Insurrections. In the second plenary session, one of only two representatives of the field, Philip Gura (UNC-Chapel Hill) traced the history of Jonathan Edwards's literary reputation, emphasizing his contribution to eighteenth-century sentimentalist discourse; in the context of the field's current trans-Atlantic mandate, such emphasis ironically reclaims Edwards for American literature. More such reception history and book history, charting the "trans-Atlantic crossings" of the books themselves, would have been welcome.
Americanists were better represented among the historians, who, as a [End Page 218] group, were both more various (their fields ranging from British economic and intellectual history, to French colonial history, American religious history, and the history of the African diaspora) and more committed to the circum-Atlantic...