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Early American Literature 43.1 (2008) 153-186

History, Literature, and the Atlantic World
Eric Slauter
University of Chicago

During the past decade, literary scholars have produced an impressive list of books and articles in the emerging field of Atlantic literary history. Atlantic historians, however, rarely acknowledge this work and have moved away from the issues of identity and expression that made literary scholarship attractive and central to Atlantic historiography ten or twenty years ago. This phenomenon is a local manifestation of a wider problem affecting the market for literary scholarship in the wake of the linguistic and cultural turns within history and the resurgence of historicism within literary studies; call it a "correction" of sorts. While literary studies once served as a major exporter of ideas and methods to the human sciences, especially history, literary scholars now import more from historians than they export to them. To put the point in figurative terms that do not disguise the economic stakes involved, a trade deficit now exists on the side of literary studies. Even as literary scholarship has become markedly more "historical," it has apparently become less marketable to historians.

This essay charts the changing status of literature in recent historiography by focusing on historians as much as on literary scholars. It is designed to be descriptive and prescriptive, to diagnose what I see as a problem for historians and literary historians alike, and to offer some suggestions for better field integration and dialogue. Atlantic studies offers a compelling case study because literary scholars are clearly producing more scholarship in this area while historians seem to be consuming less of it. Yet my evidence base will turn at times to the fields represented by the primary readers of the journals in which this essay appears, early American history and early American literature, and my remarks will occasionally refer to disciplinary shifts within the larger enterprises of history and literary studies. Attending more to practice than theory and focusing on scholarship published in [End Page 153] English about colonial and early national North America, the essay invites readers to reflect on what historians and scholars of literature do when they encounter each other, when they interpret literature, and when they use literature to interpret something else. Though early Americanists seem more divided now than ever before, the real division may not be between history and literary studies so much as it is between competing concepts within history and within literary studies about what texts are and do.

The three sections of this essay address different ways of conceiving of disciplinary relations. The first section briefly examines the growth of Atlantic literary history and the declining citations to literary scholarship by historians. The second section uses a decade of cross-disciplinary book reviews (that is, reviews in which historians evaluate new books by literary scholars and vice versa) to see what historians and literary scholars actually have to say about each other and how individual readers have constructed disciplinary commitments by confronting work in another discipline. The third section examines the use of literature as evidence in recent documentary collections edited by historians who have been interested in the recoverability of the voices, epistemologies, or subjectivities of Native American peoples described in and by European-authored texts. I conclude by suggesting a few ways of overcoming the growing trade gap in Atlantic scholarship, directing my remarks to both historians and literary scholars.

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In the past few years, historians have produced histories of the Atlantic world, histories of histories of the Atlantic world, and arguments about the utility of the concept of an Atlantic world, but they have done so largely without reference to current or past literary scholarship. The rise of the Atlantic world as an object of analysis and a site of scholarly contestation is surely one of the most significant developments in the historiography of the last decade. Though the phrase "Atlantic world" appeared in a handful of books and articles in the 1970s and early 1980s, it began to take hold of the historical profession...

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