- Atlantic Practices:Minding the Gap between Literature and History
To the ear of the literary scholar, a plaintive note rings with particular clarity throughout Eric Slauter's analysis of the trade gap between literary and historical scholarship on the Atlantic world. Literary scholarship, Slauter demonstrates, exhibits an unrequited interest in the work of historians of the Atlantic. Poetically put, as authors literary scholars seem to occupy the melancholic signifying position described by Emily Dickinson: "This is my letter to the world, / That never wrote to me." Slauter's diagnostic apparatus—in the form of numbers, notes, charts, and bullets—is impressive and wholly persuasive on the lack of reciprocity between scholarship in literature and history, but the enterprise of the essay as a whole and the affective subtext that threads through it raise for me questions about value and desire that seem to underpin the issues of evidence (the force of literary evidence and analysis with respect to historical trends or truths) that receive primary attention in Slauter's probing essay.
Slauter begins by holding up a mirror of abjection to literary scholars. Like wallflowers at a dance, literary scholars hover in the margins of the field of Atlantic studies, watching the polished moves of historians, harboring hopes that someday they too will be asked to step into the spotlight. Compounding the misery is literary scholars' late arrival to the dance: whereas historians turned their attention to Atlantic studies with full force beginning in the late 1980s, most literary scholars are only beginning to recognize the significance of the field. This picture suggests that the primary difference between work in Atlantic history and in Atlantic literary studies is that literary scholars were slow to arrive in the field and have not made much of an impression since their ill-timed entrance. A look at the differing disciplinary trajectories that led historians and literary scholars of early America to the field of Atlantic studies, however, indicates that distinct and separate concerns animated the move toward an Atlantic paradigm. [End Page 205] These different concerns have generated and continue to generate divergent scholarly values and aims that, despite a common Atlanticist framework of study, are worth careful delineation and consideration.
In his account of the development of Atlantic studies, Bernard Bailyn traces the origins of historical engagement in the field to political strategies of Atlantic alliance among Western nations following World War II, evident in such multinational organizations as NATO or in what journalist Walter Lippman called the "profound web of interest which joins together the western world." This approach was bolstered and cemented, in Bailyn's account, by economic studies of early America that increasingly focused on the network of financial relations that structured the eighteenth-century Atlantic world. Yet post–World War II politics had a different effect on the field of American literary studies; the study of American literature, instead of broadening its focus to include connections with European nations, arguably found its raison d'être as a discipline in the cultural nationalism attendant on the United States' emergence as a world power. Rather than joining the logic of an Atlantic alliance as a result of the war, American literary studies stepped out from the shadow of the study of European literatures to become a field of its own for the first time. The nationalistic impetus intensified and accelerated the role of exceptionalism in the study of American literature and culture, a thesis that emphasized the particularity of U.S. culture over its embeddedness within the larger historical frame of the Atlantic world or world systems in general. Amy Kaplan's memorable critique of exceptionalism in American literary studies takes as emblematic Perry Miller's autobiographical account of his revelation, while laboring in Africa in the 1920s, that America and America alone was the chosen object of his scholarly calling.1 Standing in a location that was part of a key economic (and cultural) vector of Atlantic trade, Miller discovered an interest in America alone instead of in an Atlantic geography that linked early America to Africa.
Lest Miller be construed as exceptionally exceptional, it is worth noting that literary studies as a discipline had historically...