- What We Need from Transatlantic Studies
The field of transatlantic studies continues to grow, although the “boom times” that Lawrence Buell described in 2003 seem to be over (66). Indeed, the first decade of the century witnessed an explosion of interest in this paradigm, reflected in the flourishing of numerous scholarly journals, imprints at academic presses, and tenure-track job listings. Halfway through the 2010s, the field progresses at a steadier pace, humbled by a tighter, less adventurous job market, and cognizant of ever-proliferating competing frameworks—the hemispheric, the trans-oceanic, the antipodean, the planetary. Such pressures have brought about a phase of transatlantic scholarship deriving not from excitement about a paradigm’s novelty but from sustained enthusiasm about its advantages. All scholarly booms are, by definition, inflationary, and only when the dust has settled can a paradigm’s lasting impact be revealed through the measure of what persists. Recent transatlantic work in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as the prevalence of transatlantic perspectives and methodologies in Americanist scholarship more broadly, attest to the paradigm’s endurance. No longer a trend, the transatlantic is an institution.
This very institutionalization, however, has led to a false impression of the paradigm’s uniformity, as if all scholarly works grouped under the sign “transatlantic” share one methodology or similar critical investments. In fact, as transatlantic scholarship has developed over the last two decades, it has done so through clearing a variety of paths. It is now difficult to speak of transatlantic studies only in the singular; we are faced with multiplicity, and my goal here is to describe briefly the field’s major modes now operating in literary studies, of which the books under review stand as fairly [End Page 791] representative.1 Each mode, as we shall see, offers its own benefits and is hampered by its own limitations. In enumerating them, I hope to provide an account of the specific ground upon which the transatlantic continues to stake its claim to our attention. The field is vulnerable to a vague and purely negative justification (even among its practitioners) as merely another antinational framework for literary study. Such a priority is shared by transnational studies more broadly and cannot sustain the continuing relevance of transatlantic studies in particular, especially because the nation remains a crucial historical and heuristic category within it. I believe, further, that the field’s diversity is most productively understood through its divergent critical investments rather than a classification of the many geographical comparisons and combinations scholars have brought to the study of the Atlantic world.2 Three mutually reinforcing arguments have established the Atlantic world as a paradigm for the study of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century literature and culture. What we need from transatlantic studies is for it to proceed with a clearer sense of the perils and promises of each.
1.1. Atlantic Modernity
The first argument that has established the Atlantic world as a meaningful paradigm holds that in the four centuries since Columbus’s voyage, the movement of people, goods, and ideas back and forth across the ocean ushered in a distinctly new era in human history. According to this view, the defining features of what Ian Baucom has called “our long contemporaneity” can be traced back to the innumerable consequences of such movement, violent and voluntary (55). The histories of capitalism, slavery, empire, nationalism, Enlightenment, and revolution; the consolidation of modern phenomena such as credit, race, gender, individual rights, citizenship, and bourgeois subjectivity; the emergence of modern aesthetic categories; and the contours of utopian resistance to modernity’s hegemony must be understood as meaningfully Atlantic in derivation. The scholarship of Atlantic modernity grows largely out of Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic (1993) and Joseph Roach’s Cities of the Dead (1996), books that established the intellectual seriousness and credibility of...