- Race, Liberty, and the Transatlantic Imaginative
Both George Boulukos's and Laura Doyle's recent books are excellent examples of the ways in which a transatlantic approach to the eighteenth century deepens our understanding of liberty, exposing it as undeniably racialized and paradoxical. In tracing a genealogy of the Atlantic literary imagination, Boulukos and Doyle move nimbly between discussions of authors and readers, England and its colonies, and cultural and literary studies. While Boulukos offers a new reading of the relationship between sentimentalism, the novel, and antislavery, Doyle charts sweeping trends that constitute what she terms the "liberty plot" in a wide range of novels. They both contribute to our understanding of the complicated, intertwined discourses that constituted categories of race and citizenship in the eighteenth century and beyond.
Both books begin with a backward glance into the seventeenth century, what Boulukos calls a "prehistory of the grateful slave" (33) in travel writing and reportage, and what Doyle terms the "Seventeenth-Century Racial Revolution," in which she focuses more on England's domestic concerns with "ravished liberty" (28). In their first chapters, both writers set the stage for their reading of works typically classified as either "British" or "American" as "Atlantic," a category that Doyle defines: "the Anglo-Saxon race's entry into a 'state' of liberty is from the beginning associated with an Atlantic crossing and trauma of exile. . . . The phoenix fall and rise entails, that is, a deracinating but ultimately racialized and [End Page 120] triumphant Atlantic crossing" (4). Boulukos's understanding of Atlanticism concurs with Doyle's, though his focus is much less on the "trauma" that she identifies and considers in many of her readings, in which a character's fall is often sexual or coded as feminine. Doyle's embrace of a broader understanding of Atlanticism opens her up to the charge that so many primary texts fit her definition of the liberty plot that the category itself loses significance; nonetheless, she does more to consider the gendered implications of the Atlantic experience.
Doyle bases her project on Jean-Jacques Rousseau's analogy between the individual's psyche and the nation's history. What recurs in the three hundred years of literary history she examines is a fall and then a rise that is ultimately a "vehicle for the cultural reorganization of space, time, and subjectivity" (4). Doyle traces a sort of ideology in the liberty plot: "The liberty plot so infiltrates our selves and stories that literary criticism has often reiterated it, especially in relation to the novel. It is crucial to develop some self-consciousness about our literary-critical absorption of the liberty plot and its racial subtexts" (15–16). In this way, Doyle, like many other recent critiques, reacts against Ian Watt's version of the rise of the novel in the eighteenth century. Unlike other critics, however, Doyle does so on more theoretical and less purely literary-historical grounds. Doyle develops her theory of the liberty plot through some recurring tropes, like incest, but for the most part, the perimeters of her study are broad and far-reaching. Her chapters range in topic from examinations of rape, to the sublime, to revolution, to Saxonism, to queer studies.
Boulukos's readings also work to undo common perceptions of the literature of the period, but he focuses on previous critics' misunderstandings of the role of sympathy in the early novel in English. Though he does not dismiss the conventional reading of the use of sympathy—that gratitude demonstrated slaves' emotional faculties and therefore presented them as humans worthy of the readers' sympathy—his study of depictions of slavery throughout the eighteenth century focuses on how the pro-slavery movement also deployed sympathy to further its cause. Boulukos explains "his" guiding trope of the grateful slave: "The idea that Africans could be...