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  • Literature and Empire
  • Daniel Carey (bio)

Can we write the history of eighteenth-century literature without reference to empire? The obvious answer is "no," but perhaps it needs spelling out: we need the concept of empire to write this literary history properly if it involves any scale or intellectual ambition and synthetic purpose. Too much historical, social, and cultural experience in the period depends on interactions between metropolitan centers and colonial possessions (and the whole network of related rivalries) to work without the concept. This is so whether we compose that history by embedding literature in patterns of consumption, economic exchange, war, politics and international relations, slavery and race, or the broader geographical matrices defining literary production and distribution. Empire is the context and connective tissue of these systems. We also need to reverse the direction and ask how empires require literature, as part of their narrativization and normalization.

These entwined approaches depend on one another whether we define literary history narrowly (i.e. within the compass of prose fiction, verse, and drama), or in a more inclusive understanding that brings into play such forms as travel writing, captivity narratives, slave narratives, history, commentary, political controversy, and philosophy. To speak only of an Anglophone tradition, think of describing the longue durée of poetry from Paradise Lost to The Task without any concept of empire; the work of Behn or Defoe or Swift without a colonial context; fiction without the Oriental tale. Or, to widen the frame, how could we discuss history in the period without conjectural history; economic cataclysms without reference to the South Sea and Mississippi Companies and all the writing that flowed from them; travel and exploration without Cook; consumption without sugar (or coffee [End Page 7] or tea); Burke without India; Locke without America; the era as a whole without the struggles to defend and overthrow slavery.1 Think too of the dissemination of texts in colonial territories and educational systems, their use in what we might call the emplotment of empire and expansion.

This is not to say that literary histories without empire have not appeared in the past. The editors of The Cambridge History of English Literature (1907–27), Sir A.W. Ward and A.R. Waller, evidently saw no need to draw attention to literature within an imperial frame or even travel writing, although Ireland's condition as a dependent territory inevitably figured in the discussion of Swift.2 This exclusion is noteworthy since the editors otherwise took a very broad approach, incorporating letters, memoirs, philosophy, history, political and religious writing, the Blue Stockings, and children's books in the ambit of English literature. In fact, the successor volume, The Cambridge History of English Literature, 1660–1780, edited by John Richetti (2005), is organized in similar terms as far as subject matter goes and gives no formal attention to the colonial, although it does contain a chapter on travel literature and a suggestive contribution on "Augustan England and British America."3 Comprehensive surveys have on the whole showed limited inclination to engage with the topic, despite the field-changing monographs of Edward Said, Peter Hulme, Mary Louise Pratt, Srinivas Aravamudan, and Felicity Nussbaum.4

There is an irony, of course, in proposing to accord sequestered "space" to empire in literary history, just as much as there is in neglecting it altogether. One of the difficulties we face, paradoxically, is that empire represents something of a regulative category, in a Kantian sense—necessary for thought but also, as a result, difficult to subject to critique and modification. The risk is that we assume we know and understand it already. To open out our perspective, we might ask (to adapt a phrase from Alasdair MacIntyre): Whose History? Which Empire?5 Events in the Middle East have returned attention to the Ottoman Empire and its demise, while the twenty-first century resurgence of China and India will continue to have a transformative effect on scholarship.6 The familiar European points of focus, exploring the movement of peoples, territorial reach, and impact on indigenous peoples has nonetheless remained relatively underdeveloped in comparative terms.7 Work to expand scholarship on the Atlantic world to include the Spanish, French...


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pp. 7-11
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