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  • Atlantic History: Concept and Contours
  • William E. Doody
Atlantic History: Concept and Contours. By Bernard Bailyn. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005. 160 pp. $18.95 (cloth).

As Bernard Bailyn describes in the opening pages of his most recent book, Atlantic history has rapidly become a popular and significant field within the broader discipline of history. Harvard University's International Seminar on the History of the Atlantic World, of which Bailyn is the founder and director, is one of many conferences, publications, and teaching positions focused on the study of developing and evolving Atlantic networks. Now, from his vantage point as one of the leading figures in this field, Bailyn has written a valedictory examination of its development and major issues. Atlantic History: Concept and Contours will serve current and future historians as both an effective introduction to the field and an advanced exploration of its historiography. All the more appealing for its concise style, Bailyn's book is certain to find a prominent place on bookshelves and required reading lists.

As is the case with Bailyn's many other books, Atlantic History is written in a clear and concise fashion. It will be easily understood by scholars and students alike and provides a comprehensive overview of the field in a manageable format. Divided into two very straightforward sections, the book fulfills a dual purpose. In the first section, Bailyn seeks to provide a historical framework to understand the development of Atlantic history as a field of study. He traces its origins to the period immediately following World War II, when politicians and others in the public arena sought to build on the U.S.-British alliance to form an "Atlantic partnership." By the early 1960s, that partnership had become a reality in NATO, and a variety of groups joined forces to create the Atlantic Council of the United States. The purpose of this body was to "stimulate thought and discussion with respect to the need and problems of developing greater Atlantic unity" (p. 9). Soon, the organization was publishing a journal and calling for greater awareness of the historical and future importance of the Atlantic region. It was in this environment, against the backdrop of transatlantic cooperation in World War II and the growing conflict of the Cold War, that historians began to consider the Atlantic not as a divider between Europe and America, but rather the common bond between the two continents. Quickly, historians on both sides of the Atlantic began to explore possible themes in the development of an "Atlantic civilization." While the move toward an Atlantic history was at times filled [End Page 105] with excitement and an "air of discovery," it was often met with hostility by unconvinced members of the profession (p. 27). In particular, many historians who were hostile to the political ideology of NATO and the governments in power at that time viewed Atlantic history merely as an attempt to provide cover for those geopolitical ideas.

The rapid development of quantitative methodologies in history helped to accelerate interest in Atlantic history. In particular, explorations of demographic history raised new questions about the Atlantic slave trade. Migration studies of both North and South American populations abounded during the 1960s and 1970s. From those studies, social historians began to explore conditions among the various groups. Soon, economic and political histories were being written that considered developments on both sides of the Atlantic and in both hemispheres from a unified perspective. Bailyn quotes historical geographer D. W. Meinig, who described the Atlantic world as "the scene of a vast interaction" of cultures following the "sudden and harsh encounter between two old worlds that transformed both and integrated them into a single New World" (p. 55).

In the second half of Atlantic History, titled "On the Contours of Atlantic History," Bailyn turns his attention to the historiography of the early modern Atlantic. He echoes German historian Horst Pietschmann in describing Atlantic history as "a connecting element between European, North American, Caribbean, Latin American, and West African history" (p. 59). Bailyn argues forcefully that the history of this "New World" is not merely the combination of various national or imperial histories, but rather a new...