- From Text/Context to "Situatedness" in Atlantic History and Literature
Two anecdotes from the recent Society of Early Americanists/Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture joint conference in Williamsburg frame my response to Eric Slauter's provocative survey of the Atlantic studies disciplinary trade gap. First, my experience as a panel co-organizer for that conference: Christopher Looby and I proposed a session called "Representations, Sexualities, and the Politics of Seduction." We received ten paper proposals, five each from historians and literary scholars. Two proposals in each discipline came from graduate students. In selecting our final panel, we aimed to preserve this symmetry. The final lineup included two historians and two literary critics; two were recent Ph.D.s and two were associate professors. We wanted the panel to aim for the same cross-disciplinary dialogue that the conference hoped to foster, and I think our expectations were borne out. I, for one, found the audience participation following the papers to be stimulating, and my own historical thinking was refined by listening to historians talk about texts (courtroom narratives and diaries) that bore key similarities to texts I had been writing about (poems, newspaper notices, and novels). In turn, though the historians on the panel employed a broader range of methodologies than a typical literary historian (this observation was especially true of the paper on women's self-defensive use of seduction narratives in legal situations), they could also be said to engage in some form of close reading of the texts they examined. The second anecdote involves a former graduate student from New York University's doctoral program in Atlantic history, a brilliant member of the first graduate seminar I taught some six years ago. It had been some time since I had seen her, and she looked genuinely surprised when we passed in the hall. "What are you doing here?" she said, then caught herself and added, "Oh, I forgot this was a joint conference with SEA." [End Page 191]
If the first anecdote stands as an interdisciplinary success story, the second anecdote stings for two reasons. It suggests that some conference participants were apparently able to spend four days in the company of their counterparts from another discipline without realizing we shared the same program. (A casual yet self-conscious survey of audiences throughout the conference confirmed that many sessions were segregated by discipline.) Moreover, though I am employed in a literature department and think of myself as a literary historian or perhaps a cultural historian of writing, my graduate training, in a fairly traditional American Studies program, was interdisciplinary from the ground up, so I have always felt at home among members of history departments, sometimes more so than among literary critics. Indeed, my former student may have been surprised to learn that this was not the first OIEAHC conference I had attended as a presenter.
My gut reaction to Slauter's piece is that he correctly diagnoses the disciplinary divide between historians and literary scholars of early America and the Atlantic world; this gap, I believe, parallels the blindness of some scholars of early modern British literature to the Atlantic world and to Europe's colonial periphery, as if even internationally published writers such as Anne Bradstreet or Benjamin Franklin deserve no place on a syllabus alongside John Milton, Daniel Defoe, and Alexander Pope. The implication of these gaps is that the material studied by early Americanist literary scholars simply is not as important as the material studied by historians of the period and that neither American history nor American literature (not to mention broader literatures of the Atlantic) seems to be as important to our British literature colleagues as the canonical works in their field, which, one assumes, has real bearing on a thorough understanding of the British Atlantic world. Early Americanists in English departments, in order to understand the writing we study, often make ourselves familiar with works in history and British literature, not to mention the new imperative to be conversant with texts from Spanish, French, and Dutch colonial enterprises. If knowing these materials better informs our study of early American writing, surely understanding the cultures of...