- Alexander Oliver Exquemelin’sThe Buccaneers of America and the Disenchantment of Imperial History
The Atlantic turn in historical and literary studies has created a wave of interest among scholars in both fields whose research agendas do not fit easily within nationalist and territorial paradigms.1 The sheer expansiveness of the field of Atlantic history has generated an exciting array of studies on the impact of the Atlantic on the development of economic, political, and cultural systems on the four continents that form its basin.2 And yet, for all the attention that has been paid to the myriad exchanges that took place throughout the Atlantic world, there is still a pressing need for more extensive study of maritime society itself. In their assessment of the present state and future prospects of the field, Jack P. Greene and Philip D. Morgan argue that Atlantic historians need to pay more attention to the multiple and varied maritime cultures of the Atlantic, and that Atlantic history must explore more fully the “exchange of values and the circulation of ideas” that accompanied the movements of people and goods across the ocean (12, 14).
Literary historians have recently come to a similar conclusion. Traditional approaches to early American literary history have framed the discipline in protonationalist terms, making little room for oceanic subjects whose modes of belonging and patterns of movement do not fit neatly within nationalist paradigms. Hester Blum has shown that the critical bias toward the nation has obscured the value of a vast archive of texts written by maritime workers. Her recent call for an oceanic focus within literary studies urges scholars to attend simultaneously to the “material conditions and praxis of the maritime world” and the “epistemological structures provided by the lives and writings of those for whom the sea was simultaneously workplace, home, passage, penitentiary, and promise” (“Prospect” 670–71). Blum’s approach offers literary historians a way of thinking about [End Page 337] labor and literary production as co-constitutive processes in a way that resonates with Atlantic historians’ search for methodologies capable of rendering an intellectual history of the Atlantic.
It appears on the face of it that historians and literary historians of the Atlantic world have come to one of those moments when the kind of interdisciplinary exchange that defines scholarship in the humanities at its best is not just a good idea but a necessity. It is hard to imagine how Atlantic historians could tell the cultural history of the Atlantic world without a detailed consideration of the literary forms produced by maritime workers and an understanding of the impact their writings had on the history of those forms. It would be equally hard to imagine a literary history of the maritime world that did not include an extensive grasp of the material, economic, and political history of mariners.
The reality, however, is that the fields of Atlantic history and Atlantic literary history have been steadily moving in opposite directions during the past decade. The sharp turn in literary studies toward historicism in recent years has coincided with an equally sharp turn away from literary studies on the part of historians (Slauter 155–56). Scholars working in both fields have acknowledged that the growing disparity between the disciplines is rooted in methodological conflict. Historian Eliga H. Gould has expressed a deep concern that literary historians’ tendency to value the printed word over manuscripts and other archival documents can result in what we might call a thin view of history, and it can lead literary historians to privilege the histories of “literate centers” over those of the “inarticulate peripheries” of empire (199). Literary historian Elizabeth Maddock Dillon has likewise expressed the concern that Atlantic historians’ tendency to privilege the study of “demographic centers of gravity” over the study of culture more broadly defined can result in an equally thin view of history, insofar as the material study of the circulation of people and goods obscures the study of the “signifying practices in the Atlantic world” that constitute Atlantic history’s cultural dimension (209).
It is certainly important to acknowledge such concerns about the limitations of historical and literary studies for Atlantic scholarship...