- Late Atlanticism
The object of the human-centered study of the Atlantic world as it has taken shape in recent decades is as spatially vast and chronologically deep as Western modernity itself. Spatially, it encompasses the connections among peoples dwelling along the northern and southern Atlantic coasts. Temporally, academic Atlanticism extends from the Columbian conquest to the unspooling of European imperialism that began in the Age of Revolutions and continues into the present. Within this oceanic vastness, however, Atlantic studies, especially within the Anglo-American frame, has generally organized itself into a relatively small range of disciplinary, subdisciplinary, methodological, and political positionings, drawn from accepted protocols of evidence-gathering and interpretive invention of literary history and orthodox historiography. Indeed, against the backdrop of our own belated recognition of the courses of oceans themselves as key players in our impending catastrophe, the practice of what we might as well call late Atlanticism is probably most notable for its state of advanced recombination as a consequence of long years of intentional as well as tacit cross-disciplinary adaptation fostered, in Wendy W. Walters’s words, by “reading between literature and history.”1
On the matter of periodization, the years roughly between Columbus and the Haitian Revolution have been the province of orthodox historians and some historicist literary scholars looking to Atlanticism to cancel their own prior habits of nationalist Whig history. Early modern Atlantic history has, in the way of traditional historiography, represented itself in data-driven terms as principally devoted to telling the stories revealed by a less blinkered (or differently blinkered) approach to the archive. The period stretching from the Haitian Revolution to the present has generally been the province of critical humanists (literary scholars, but also sociologists, political theorists, and theoretically inclined historians) likewise invested in [End Page 381] deconstructing nationalist teleologies, but furthermore motivated to uncover other kinds of resonances between past and present in the service of the decolonization of knowledge and the promotion of racial justice. Like early modern Atlantic history, this work calls for a reopening of the archive, while emphasizing repressed and marginalized stories of slavery and anti-imperial resistance. At the same time, the more theoretical and interdisciplinary climate that surrounds that work—influenced principally by Walter Benjamin and developed by scholars such as Paul Gilroy, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Saidiya Hartman, and Ian Baucom—tends in its emphasis on the silenced, the lost, and the spectral to prompt just as much attention to be paid to the Atlantic world as a swallower of secrets as to a conduit for the production and preservation of legible records.
The new books in Atlantic studies examined here range broadly both geographically and chronologically, but all are organized by considerations of the ambivalences of archival agency serving visions of racial justice yet unfulfilled. Tackling the earliest archive of the three books, John Donoghue’s Fire Under the Ashes borrows from the methods of post-1800 Atlanticism to work against the grain of standard accounts of early modern imperialism in order to discover a tradition of revolutionary resistance. This tradition, according to Donoghue, is both discoverable within the archives and conjured by the informed imagination of the historian tuning himself somewhat anachronistically to the Gilroyan frequency. Ronald Angelo Johnson’s Diplomacy in Black and White is a story of the Haitian Revolution, arguably the central event for both sides of the Atlantic studies divide. Johnson’s ethos of scholarly invention, though in many ways informed by the work of Trouillot and Gilroy, is more attuned to the under-read records of the elite participants in the rarified world of interracial diplomatic sociability than to the silenced voice of the subaltern. Wendy W. Walters’s Archives of the Black Atlantic, a study of contemporary black world literature, wears its engagement with the protocols of historiography on its sleeve, accounting for what...