- London and the Americas, 1492–1812
Riding the train from Kingston to Heathrow after the end of this conference, I listened to a familiar refrain from the loudspeakers, telling me to “mind the gap”—the internationally renowned instruction to watch the open space between train and platform. With gaps and the conference in mind, I recalled Eric Slauter’s introduction to the 2008 forum on Atlantic studies published jointly by Early American Literatureand the William and Mary Quarterly, in which he posited the notion of a “disciplinary trade gap” between historians and literary scholars (175). While Slauter bemoaned a lack of historians’ attention to literary scholarship, Elizabeth Maddock Dillon asked for literary scholars to attend to and perhaps even cultivate disciplinary differences so as “not to erase the different methodologies and aims that generate divergent scholarship in the field of Atlantic studies” (209). Historians, such as Alison Games, wondered whether “literary studies might ultimately be one of the least satisfactory methodologies for approaching the Atlantic” (189). Mind the gap.
The Society of Early Americanists’ 2014 conference attended to and even strove to bridge gaps in a variety of ways. As part of the organization’s initiative toward internationalization, “London and the Americas” was the SEA’s first conference held outside North America. As a “thematic interdisciplinary conference,” the meeting brought together historians, literary scholars, art historians, religious scholars, independent journalists, and archivists under an umbrella of Atlantic scholarship that in fact made disciplinary rivalries insignificant, without sacrificing methodological rigor. In the early modern period, Brycchan Carey (local organizer par excellence) reminded conference attendees, the Atlantic was more of a bridge than a barrier, and thus scholarship on early America today inevitably adopts an [End Page 627]Atlantic perspective. In their opening address, conference organizers and SEA officers Kristina Bross and Laura Stevens called for a “new Atlantic paideia” and a reassessment of the field. In ancient Greece, paideiameant rearing the ideal citizens of the polis who would carefully maintain balance between extremes. What ideal or model emerged from the conference—perhaps a balance of transatlantic scholars, of historians and literary scholars, and also of both an Atlantic and a regional focus?
Kingston at first glance seemed like a stretch to go looking for the Atlantic world. After a long bus ride from Heathrow, I strolled along the serene waters of the Thames, enjoying the warm, almost Mediterranean summer night along the promenade. Yet our dinner cruise on the last conference day made Kingston’s proximity to the Atlantic more visible. At first, the boat headed up river, past Hampton Court, the famed residence of the Tudors. Reversing our course, we made our way through Teddington Lock, which marks the tidal portion of the Thames and thus represents a gateway, of sorts, to London, the Atlantic, and the colonies. Was this one of the places where the Atlantic world began? The lock, however, was not built until 1810, so in the early modern age the line between Atlantic and “backwater” was perhaps even less defined than it is now. The river and its permeable lock, therefore, are perhaps fitting metaphors for the ways in which the conference mapped the relationship between London and the colonies, between the shores of the Atlantic, and between the scholars who work to understand it all.
“London and the Americas” was most intriguing when panelists and papers followed the movement and lives of individuals around the Atlantic world, especially those who eventually became forgotten or insignificant. One of the most intriguing characters I “met”—in Miranda Kaufmann’s paper based on her book project “Black Tudors”—was John Blanke, Henry VIII’s black court trumpeter, who is depicted twice on the tournament roll for the celebration honoring the birth of ill-fated Prince Henry in 1511. Blanke’s life raises important questions about the presence of African people in Tudor England—before the entrance of England into the large-scale slave trade. In a paper by Bruce Greenfield, I learned about David Thompson, an apprentice in the Hudson Bay Company, who...