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  • Transatlantic Insurrections: British Culture and the Formation of American Literature, 1730-1860
  • Adam Potkay (bio)
Transatlantic Insurrections: British Culture and the Formation of American Literature, 1730–1860 Paul Giles . Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. 262 pp.

"The purpose of this book," Giles begins, "is to read British and American literature comparatively. My argument will be that the development of American literature appears in a different light when read against the grain of British cultural imperatives, just as British literature itself reveals strange and unfamiliar aspects that are brought into play by the reflecting mirrors of American discourse" (1). Thus, Giles reads Pope's Essay on Man in relation to selected poems by Mather Byles (chapter 1), and The Dunciad in relation to works by Timothy Dwight and John Trumbull (chapter 2), arguing that Pope's Erasmian-Catholic taste for paradox and bathos provided an oppositional discourse in Protestant-utopian colonial New England, "albeit one which failed to survive the purifying fires [End Page 557] of the Revolution" (29). (Giles often refers to the American Revolution as an English-American "civil war"—one not culturally resolved until the Victorian era, if then—thus his book's supratitle, "Transatlantic Insurrections.") In chapter 3 Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa (full text versions, as opposed to American abridgments) are set against Franklin's Autobiography in an effort to show the various ways these texts intertwine "morality and duplicity" (85). In chapter 4 Giles approaches Jefferson's ambivalences toward slavery through a subtle reading of the ways in which absolute principles in general and the concept of freedom in particular undergo "refraction" (perspectivism) in the works of Sterne and in Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. Giles thrillingly postulates in chapter 5 a Sadean Jane Austen, in whose novels (chiefly Mansfield Park and Emma) decorum serves to counterpoint erotic transgressions and/or "a darker desire for mastery" (139), and for whom the brutality (and/or vast potentiality) of slave-owning America realizes what is latent in cozy England. In chapter 6, Austen's "sly civility" toward English authority (163) finds its transatlantic mirror image in the New York sketches of Washington Irving, for whom "authority, and the power of judgment that goes with authority . . . become subjectivist and self-gratifying phenomena" (162–63). Finally, the fond imaginings of native country "in terms of an extended family" found in both Hawthorne and Trollope (chiefly The Way We Live Now) are compromised, in Giles's account, by "various aspects of cultural incoherence or transnational disturbance" (164, chapter 7).

Transatlantic Insurrections strikes me as an ideal book upon which to construct a timely and productive graduate seminar. It offers an admirable comparative method, which Giles defines as "a prismatic mode of defamiliarization, predicated upon the paradoxical juxtaposition of apparently disparate objects" (196). Giles's chapter-by-chapter readings are suggestive rather than conclusive, and so provide wonderful springboards from which students might develop their own transnational readings of the primary texts Giles collocates; of course, other supplementary (or substitutive) pairings would be possible at the instructor's discretion: I think immediately of Carlyle and Emerson, or Swedenborg, Blake, and the Book of Mormon. Transatlantic Insurrections should also prove useful as a graduate-level introduction to trends in American literary study; Giles arguably engages more thoroughly with the criticism of the past 20 years than he does with the primary texts he discusses. He offers both a useful [End Page 558] survey of and argument against "American exceptionalism" and the "Whig interpretation of literature" in its various guises from F. O. Matthiessen through Eric Sundquist, as well as a methodological critique of the several transatlantic contexts offered by Robert Weisbuch (too American Romantic), Paul Gilroy (too Enlightenment utopian), and Myra Jehlen/Michael Warner (too focused on "dissensus" to appreciate English-American "division") (1–22, 187–96).

A graduate seminar would also, I think, be a good place to assess and finesse many of Giles's critical and metacritical claims, many of which strike me as provocative but under supported, plausible but not (yet) convincing. In his engagement with recent critical trends, Giles seems to me to fall into certain errors of emphasis, both overplaying the...


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