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  • The Culture and Commerce of the Early American Novel: Reading the Atlantic World-System
  • Michelle Burnham
Stephen Shapiro, The Culture and Commerce of the Early American Novel: Reading the Atlantic World-System (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008). Pp. viii, 376. $55.00.

The Culture and Commerce of the Early American Novel begins with a two-page discussion of a late Charles Brockden Brown historical text and ends with two hefty chapters, each of which focuses on a single Brown novel. While Brown, his writing, and his literary circle do provide both an entry point to and a privileged site of exposition for this book's central concerns, the volume's most significant and far-reaching contributions are actually contained in the space between these bookends, where Shapiro develops a stunning reconceptualization of the 1790s based on America's position in Atlantic history at the end of the eighteenth century and an equally impressive analysis of what this reconceptualization means for our understanding of early American literature and culture. Shapiro asks why the American novel suddenly flourishes in the 1790s only practically to disappear for two subsequent decades: he answers that the early American novel represents "a local response to a global reconfiguration in the Atlantic political economy in the wake of the French Revolution" (4).

Arguing that an economic history of the period needs to accompany the political one that traditionally explains the modern shaping of the United States in this period, Shapiro goes on to provide an exceptionally rich and fascinating account of what early American studies has missed by overlooking this context. The 1793 lifting of the ban on access to French ports in the West Indies suddenly allowed the United States access to Caribbean markets and to the region's sensational products such as sugar, alcohols, and coffee; as Shapiro notes, "No aspect of the early American Republic has gone so underrecognized as the importance of Haitian trade to the United States" (105). Indeed, one of the most significant post-independence developments was the United States's emergence as a "re-export republic" (5) that was accompanied by an extraordinary multiplication of profits from West Indian trade, a growing inequality of wealth, a new consumerist culture, and an emergent bourgeois network of re-export merchant families and contacts who possessed an unprecedented level of comfort with risk and insecurity. The early American novel responded to and circulated within this network.

Shapiro sketches out an intermediary phase between mercantile and industrial capitalism in this decade, which comes into focus by virtue of a rigorous circumatlanticism informed by Wallersteinian world-systems theory, a framework that moves beyond the often limited monolingualism of transatlantic approaches to the period. Shapiro strengthens Wallerstein's undertheorized treatment of the American semiperiphery by positioning it as a "transistor" zone (37) between the core and periphery of the world system and brilliantly characterizes eighteenth-century Atlantic geoculture in terms of the four S's of sensibility, slavery, sensational consumption, and sentiment. Sensibility gets provocatively and convincingly defined not as a "thing" but as a mechanism by which this emergent re-export community established relations of trust in a risky credit economy, and whose discourse provided a language for the effects of consuming the stimulants supplied by the Caribbean. Shapiro coins the term "chronovoric consumption" (79) to describe the ways in which ingestion of products facilitates a modern subject's sense of historical belonging, and characterizes sensibility as providing "the ligature for [End Page 545] a durable price-setting market" (60). The availability and circulation of those sensational products of course also required "superexploited labor, typified by the coerced slave" (83). These three S's fed off of and into each other in a kind of network whose central effect might be imagined as an oddly hyperactive numbness: "the more Europeans learned about the brutality within slavery, the greater their need for a compensatory narcotizing of the self through increased dosages of sensational commodities and tales of their own sympathy that might blot out the painful recognition of their complicity within horror" (91). These three intertwined features congealed into "the main features of the period's geoculture" (91), but they were held...


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