- Fatal Revolutions: Natural History, West Indian Slavery, and the Routes of American Literature by Christopher P. Iannini
Iannini’s book charts the emergence of the genre of natural history through careful, often innovative analyses of the writings and visual illustrations of Hans Sloane, Mark Catesby, Hector St. John Crèvecoeur, William Bartram, Thomas Jefferson, James Audubon, and Alexander Humboldt (other naturalists emerge in more minor roles, including the fascinating St. Dominguan émigré Pierre du Simitière). Iannini makes three key claims about the genre of natural history. First, by the eighteenth century it had become an especially West Indian literary genre. Second, it is a mixed-media genre that develops through the interplay between the visual image and writing, which requires collating art-historical and literary modes of analysis. Third, because the genre develops in and follows the routes of the Atlantic trade, it indexes and responds to the social and economic forms of plantation slavery and finance capitalism.
Drawing on these three claims, Iannini develops an account of what he calls the “species as emblem.” This concept, most fully developed in Iannini’s extraordinarily rich analysis of Sloane’s seventeenth-century Voyage to … Jamaica, holds that the presentation of the natural historical object depends on the uneasy convergence of empiricist and emblematic methods. While the empirical method, whether in science or novels, emphasizes the description of things that could be credited as real, the emblem-atic method looks not at things but “through material objects for their underlying pattern [End Page 774] or essence” (p. 40). That empirical and emblematic methods are joined in the genre of natural history means that the object of natural historical knowledge, whether a breadfruit or a slave laborer, is both a real thing that circulates in the Atlantic economy and an enigmatic pattern that can give insight into the larger systems in which it circulates. The systemic insight that emblematic method most consistently reveals, according to Iannini, is that the Atlantic trade depended on the brutal violation and expenditure of Afro-American persons.
Iannini’s account of the species as emblem indicates that natural history’s critical pedagogy is different from that associated with the genre of the novel. While recent critics have suggested that the realist novel’s descriptions teach readers to credit fictions as real, thus teaching them the cognitive operation necessary to finance capitalism, Iannini suggests that natural history’s joining of emblematic to empiricist methods produces a pedagogy that not only trades in descriptions that should be credited as real but also turns attention on the larger social and ethical costs of the production of the things of the Atlantic world. If the critical pedagogy associated with the novel trains readers to enjoy the credit economy’s circuit of fictions, the critical pedagogy of natural history trains readers to recognize the costs of this circuit.
To be sure, the fact that the genre of natural history was particularly attentive to the socioethical costs of the Atlantic trade did not mean that its practitioners were moved to take up revolutionary or even reformist actions that might eliminate or lessen the human costs. Indeed, the forms of knowledge they produced required the trade, and so Crèvecoeur, Bartram, Jefferson, and Audubon emerge as rather quietistic figures in Ianinni’s study. One wonders if a more sustained attention to abolitionist writings in this same geographical circuit, particularly those that drew on natural history to criticize the effects of producing and consuming West Indian foodstuffs, might challenge Iannini’s account of the genre of natural history. Moreover, while Iannini’s study is deeply influenced by scholars of the Black Atlantic (Gilroy, Roach, Fischer, V. Brown, Baucom) his form of historical method relies so exclusively (if also skillfully) on print culture that it leads him to concede, perhaps too quickly, that to tell the story of the Atlantic World scholars must “necessarily focu[s] on the published writings of a relatively narrow social elite” (p. 15...