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  • Literature to 1800
  • Theresa Strouth Gaul

The year in American literary scholarship saw the dominance of transnational approaches to the period before 1800. Indeed, few articles or books did not engage in one way or another with the African Atlantic, the Atlantic world, Anglo-American transatlanticism, or hemispheric studies. Attention to the ideologies and effects of colonialism and the centrality of exchange, circulation, and networks were major emphases in most of this work. Examinations of print culture, demonstrating the influence of the field of book history on literary studies, also prevailed, broadening the definition of what texts and topics related to cultural production are valid for literary study. A substantial number of studies brought interdisciplinary areas of inquiry, especially religion and science, into conversation with literature. Encounters between Native peoples and European explorers, colonists, and settlers garnered scholars’ attention in every category of scholarship set out below, suggesting the impact of Native and indigenous studies in reorienting the field in a substantive way. Considerations delimited by the geographic boundaries of (what became) the United States and conventional topics related to literary study, such as influence, genre, or period, were less predominant. These trends confirm that early Americanists look increasingly outward—rejecting insularity, narrow or traditional categories of the “literary,” or previously persuasive explanatory theories anchored primarily in Puritanism or nationalism—to situate writings from the period within globalized frameworks. [End Page 193]

The year’s scholarship also displayed the lacunae that may emerge within transnationally focused scholarship. Although a few notable exceptions are discussed below, there was a relative paucity of scholarship on locations and activities not explicitly linked to transnational currents or individuals confined to sites on land or prohibited from ocean travel by law or social custom; interestingly, even scholarship exploring the disembodied exchange of ideas or knowledge tended to focus on the individuals who have the most mobility in society or access to conduits of circulation and exchange because of privileges linked to gender and class. A comparison to scholarship focused on the public sphere in past decades is perhaps instructive. This work, enormously generative as it was, brought with it critical introspection as to the mechanisms of exclusion built into the public sphere and, by extension, the scholarship examining it. Based on the scholarship from 2013 reviewed below, it is clear that while transnational approaches push forward into critical view some previously un- and underexamined sites, identities, and contacts, others fall away. What is at stake in what is lost to view? And what does it mean for the field when the newly excluded aspects of early American literature look a lot like the traditionally excluded ones of the field’s past—including women, sexuality, and domestic spaces?

i Transnational and Global Approaches

a. The African Atlantic

The conception of the African Atlantic generates several essays, as scholars work to position African writers, especially Olaudah Equiano, in relation to Atlantic Enlightenment discourses. In “Irony and Modernity in the Early Slave Narrative: Bonds of Duty, Contracts of Meaning” (EAL 48: 29–60) Ian Finseth examines the manipulation of the language of social contract employed by early slave narrators Equiano, Boyrereau Brinch, Abraham Johnstone, Venture Smith, James Gronniosaw, Ottobah Cugoano, and John Marrant. Addressing the question of whether early African Atlantic writers’ employment of contractual language in their narratives empowers them as agents in an economic and ideological system or implicitly aligns them with the Enlightenment systems of thought undergirding slavery, Finseth shows that their use of ambiguity and ironic language surrounding contractualism situates the writers within modernity and prefigures later African American writers. In “Equiano’s Nativity: Negative Birthright, Indigenous Ethic, and Universal Human Rights” (EAL 48: 399–423) [End Page 194] Yael Ben-Zvi frames his examination of Equiano’s critique of slavery and colonialism through indigenous studies, a lens not yet applied to Equiano’s narrative. Profoundly invested in human rights, Ben-Zvi argues, Equiano employs an indigenous perspective to reject hierarchical ordering in favor of “recast[ing] the world’s population as a community united by horizontal, nonhierarchic relations,” an “indigenous vision for global reform” critical of Enlightenment thought. In “The Poetics of Belonging in the Age of Enlightenment: Spiritual Metaphors of Being in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2125
Print ISSN
0065-9142
Pages
pp. 193-213
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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