- Transatlantic Traffic and (Mis)Translations ed. by Robin Peel and Daniel Maudlin
It would be unfair to evaluate the essays collected in Transatlantic Traffic and (Mis)Translations in terms of the book’s organizing term, transatlantic, which here (as so often) seems to obscure what is most significant or engaging in a particular text or historical problematic. There is little intrinsic substance to the question of the transatlantic—that is, in the terms of Transatlantic Traffic, the relationship between the United States (or its colonial instantiation) and Britain; any inquiry that begins with the observation that economic, political, and cultural circuits have joined the two zones into a complex unity must soon enough move on to consider those circuits themselves—at which point the question of the transatlantic as such loses most of its interest. Therefore, the value of the term lies primarily in its ability to assemble an archive. Once we are in that archive, we have little use for the term that got us there. Transatlantic Traffic assembles an extraordinary archive.
Contrary to the first term in its title, then, the great strength of the volume lies in its essays’ historical and critical detail work: both in flashes of insight and those slow, deliberate extractions of significance that come from staying close to the fundamental ground (and the fundamental determining conditions) of texts, sources, and artifacts. Scholars with an interest in the specific subjects of each of the nine central contributions will be at times truly excited by the volume, which is organized thematically into three parts: “Monstrosities and Curiosities,” “Translations, Conversions, and Rewritings,” and “Transatlantic Traffic and Performances.”
The first part of the book traffics in genuine curiosities. Kathryn Napier Gray’s essay on the correspondence of John Winthrop, Jr., with the Royal Society, focused on his submission of a starfish to its collections, argues for a transatlantic community of learning concerned more with the circulation of prestige than with knowledge as such. In Napier Gray’s account, Winthrop used the curious object, his “stellar fish,” to establish his connection with the Royal Society; the society, in turn, imbued the starfish with cultural meaning within the learned circles of New England itself. Winthrop, according to this argument, had as little interest in providing [End Page 803] a complete representation of the New England colonies as the Royal Society had in receiving one. Scientific authority was therefore substantially shared between metropole and periphery in ways that resonate with Susan Scott Parrish’s account of such horizontal exchanges in American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World (U of North Carolina P, 2006). In the second essay, on the American performer John Gough, who in 1860 transformed his celebrated orations from temperance speeches to imitations of various London social types, Tom F. Wright delivers an evocative phrase in his description of Gough’s “liminal transatlantic larynx” (47). Wright argues that Gough’s impersonations comforted audiences by providing “transatlantic unity” at a moment when the Civil War promised transatlantic conflict, but the interest of the essay lies less in that rather stuffy argument than in its delight in Gough’s anatomical form of cultural production, in which the gestures of speech are isolated, exaggerated, and weighted with social significance. It’s not entirely clear what a “liminal larynx” is, but we might take the phrase’s hint at the dense determinations of embodied performance as an opening toward further research and theorization, rather than a completed argument. Similarly, Louisa Jayne Foster’s study of Elizabeth Gaskell’s retelling of the Salem crisis in Lois the Witch (1859) provides a rich picture of the many nineteenth-century uses of early American witchcraft to thematize contemporary conflicts between sources of authority, in which the basic attention to the various texts (and Foster’s readings themselves) exceeds the limits of the essay’s narrow argument about some writers’ eagerness to secure a position within the literary marketplace.
The book’s central part opens with Alison Stanley’s essay on the rhetoric of Indian...