- Atlantic History and Interdisciplinary Approaches
Eric Slauter has taken an inventive approach to two difficult and important questions: how do historians and literary scholars make sense of each other's work, and how can we spark more satisfactory conversations among ourselves? I am grateful to him for the thoughtful analysis he has supplied and for encouraging me to consider what interdisciplinary work may contribute to the study of the Atlantic world.
Carrying on a long tradition of early American scholarship, Slauter has constructed a declension thesis, one in which a field formally reliant on literary approaches has fallen off. He asserts, for example, that "Atlantic history as a whole is apparently moving away from a focus on text-centered evidence." Yet was the field ever so text centered as he suggests? Slauter identifies Nicholas Canny and Anthony Pagden's Colonial Identity in the Atlantic World as a crucial, "agenda-setting" text for comparative studies and points to this collection's literary and cultural approach. I am a big fan of these essays, but we should acknowledge that the volume's strengths lie with examining colonial elites in the western Atlantic. It does not have much to say about Africa or early modern Europe (apart from Ireland), nor does it take us deep into the structure of colonial societies. And though it is certainly true that in the 1980s many historians, inspired largely by the scholarship of cultural anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz, turned to cultural approaches, it was also still an era of social history, as Atlantic studies that preceded Canny and Pagden's collection indicate. Atlantic history's origins reflect the period's multiple strands of inquiry. When I consider the field's beginnings, I think of works such as Philip D. Curtin's heroic effort to calculate the scope of the Atlantic slave trade in The Atlantic Slave Trade or his powerful synthesis The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex. Another crucial text came from the field of historical geography: D. W. Meinig's The Shaping of America.1 These books mapped out—in [End Page 187] different ways, from different perspectives, and with different methodologies—what a panoptic or integrated history of the people and the places of the Atlantic world might look like.
Atlantic history requires, first and foremost, a geographic reorientation by practitioners. I had trouble connecting this Atlantic with the evidence Slauter presented in his essay. As their readers know, the two journals Slauter has analyzed specialize in the history or literature of early North America, with occasional forays into places further removed from this geographic home base. Scholars who work on North American history may produce work that is Atlantic in scope, but it is just as likely that they will not. The William and Mary Quarterly no more reflects trends in Atlantic history than any other journal that looks at one region on a continent around the Atlantic, whether French Historical Studies or the Journal of Southern African Studies or the Colonial Latin American Historical Review.
Just as important as the different questions that historians or literary scholars might pose of the primary sources Slauter sampled are questions about what these primary sources might look like if examined in an Atlantic context. Take, for example, the Jesuit Relations. They are wonderful sources but, if we are thinking about the Atlantic world, why not look at Jesuit writings more broadly and consider missionary accounts from Africa and the Americas, as well as the abundant activities of Jesuits in Europe, in tandem? There are ample opportunities for such comparisons, especially since so many missionaries (Jesuit, Dutch Reformed, Quaker, Moravian, and Anglican) moved around the Atlantic and wrote about their experiences in different locations among different indigenous populations. Likewise, why not put Mary Rowlandson's canonical narrative (if we cannot finally dispense with it altogether in favor of less familiar texts) alongside other captivity narratives, including accounts of redemption written by European captives in the Mediterranean, tales of Africans carried into captivity in all directions, or any number of others, that would take Rowlandson's text out of its place within early American history and set it instead in a different...