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Reviews in American History 35.3 (2007) 325-334

Richard Hakluyt, Chicken Little, and the Ends of Atlantic History
Reviewed by
Patrick Griffin
Peter C. Mancall. Hakluyt's Promise: An Elizabethan's Obsession for an English America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. xii + 378 pp. Maps, notes, and index. $38.00.

Historians are nothing if not a bit like Chicken Little and Henny Penny. When one pronounces an approach is "falling," the frenzied chorus soon begins. Nowadays the sky has a bluish-green cast to it. Lately, we've read how Atlantic history, the long-hoped-for framework that would deliver us from the confusion wrought by the "new" social history, has not lived up to its promise. It's too tidy or too unwieldy. It segments things too much or integrates what it should not. Depending on our perspective, as a context it either appears too broad or too narrow. For some, it claims too much; for others, it explains too little. Finally, if misused, the Atlantic approach runs the risk of being too easy. If applied the way it ideally should, it can prove too daunting. Some of the sharper critiques should give its devotees pause.1 Some criticisms frankly are silly.

This is all understandable. Like Cocky Locky, historians can be a fickle lot, afraid that what had been trendy yesterday is now becoming too broadly applied. Think of what happened to the career of republicanism as a concept. In fact, as soon as David Armitage intoned "we are all Atlanticists now," you could almost predict the collective fretting of graduate students as they scrambled to find cover under new interpretive frameworks.23 Perhaps Atlantic history has reached its interpretive limits. Perhaps not. But the recent discussion about the utility of the approach is forcing us to ask what more can we expect to learn from the Atlantic, or put another way, what are its ends. If we do not ask such questions, Chicken Little may turn out to be right. Indeed, if ends are not discussed soon, we may be looking at the end.

For trend-conscious historians, another sign of the impending fall of a discipline is when it goes popular and makes its way to the general reading public. But as Peter Mancall's excellent biography of the Elizabethan geographer Richard Hakluyt illustrates, this criticism of Atlantic history must be filed under the silly category. In Hakluyt's Promise, Mancall has produced an [End Page 325] accessible, far-reaching, and rigorous study of one man's contribution to the birth of the English Atlantic. But the book is much more than this. Mancall has produced a gripping story of a changing Elizabethan England, the age of discovery, and the early colonization of America. He does so by allowing us to peer over the shoulder of a fascinating man who had a hand in each of these developments. Because Mancall has a knack for weaving the interesting together with the significant, Hakluyt's Promise will appeal to Atlanticists and a broader reading public. This book covers fascinating topics; it also addresses critical questions.

The subtitle says it all. Richard Hakluyt had an obsession "for"—not only "with"—America. The choice of preposition is no mistake. "By the end of that decade [the 1580s]," Mancall argues, "he had achieved international acclaim as one of Europe's greatest authorities on overseas exploration." More to the point, "by century's end Hakluyt had solidified his position as the most important promoter of the English settlement of North America. His efforts helped to keep the idea of colonization alive in the face of repeated English disappointments during the sixteenth century" (pp. 4–5). Ultimately, Mancall suggests, America as we know it had its origins in the Atlantic "fixation" of great men like Richard Hakluyt. And more than any other, Hakluyt "tried to turn his obsession with America . . . into a passion that would consume his nation" (p. 40). In this, he succeeded.

The framework of the book follows the surprisingly limited...


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