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  • Larry J. Reynolds's European Revolutions and the American Literary Renaissance Thirty Years Later
  • Robert S. Levine (bio)

In her 2004 presidential address to the American Studies Association, Shelley Fisher Fishkin celebrated what she called "the transnational turn in American Studies." Though there is a long history of transnational American studies that can be traced back to such writers as Randolph Bourne and Stanley Williams, it wasn't until the 1990s that Americanists began to emphasize that a focus on literary nationalism, which had been the order of the day from the 1940s to the 1980s, failed to attend to larger international contexts. Hermetic nationalist study of American literary history had its limits. Amy Kaplan and Donald Pease, in their seminal Cultures of American Imperialism (1993), suggested that scholars who worked with exceptionalist notions of American literary and cultural history risked reproducing, rather than analyzing, that exceptionalism, and thus remaining blind to how such exceptionalism could undergird imperialism. Paul Gilroy, Eric J. Sundquist, and other scholars writing on race and American literature during the 1990s emphasized the international routes/roots of the slave trade, demonstrating the importance of examining slavery and race in a larger global context. The turn into the twenty-first century saw the publication of books on American literary studies in a hemispheric, transatlantic, and global context that are now foundational to the field: Kirsten Silva Gruesz's Ambassadors of Culture: The Transamerican Origins of Latino Writing (2002), Anna Brickhouse's Transamerican Literary Relations and the Nineteenth-Century Public Sphere (2004), Wai Chee Dimock and Lawrence Buell's Shades of the Planet: American Literature as World Literature (2007), and Paul Giles's The Global Remapping of American Literature (2011).1 To be sure, there had been some important pre-1990s work on American literature in transnational contexts, but that work was generally not part of the critical conversation.2 All of which is to say that when Larry J. Reynolds published European Revolutions and the American Literary Renaissance in 1988,3 he was making a boldly creative revisionary intervention, a revisionism signaled right from the start in his decision to use [End Page 3] "European" as the first word of the title. Well before the "transnational turn" that Fishkin called attention to in 2004, there was Reynolds's European Revolutions. Precisely because the book was an outlier of sorts, it may not have received the critical accolades it deserved. But European Revolutions has had a significant impact on the field, and it is well worth reconsidering at our current critical moment.

Reynolds's large argument in European Revolutions is that American authors of the late 1840s and early 1850s took as one of their major inspirations the revolutions of 1848–49. Among Reynolds's many significant contributions is his close attention to print culture, an aspect of American literary studies that had come to be devalued during the heyday of deconstruction (the 1980s) and now is absolutely central to the field. Anticipating Meredith McGill's American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting (2003) and Trish Loughran's The Republic in Print (2007),4 Reynolds in two dazzling chapters studies the circulation and reprinting in U.S. newspapers and journals of texts about the revolutionary scene in Europe. With the help of the print archive, Reynolds elucidates the range of responses to the revolutions abroad, with some commentators embracing the revolutions as in the spirit of the American Revolution and others, like the politician Daniel Webster, expressing discomfort with what they anxiously regarded as an assault on the social order. Such anxiety intensified following the bloody June Days of 1849, during which over four thousand died in France. In one of his most fascinating discoveries, Reynolds reveals that many of the most critically anxious accounts in U.S. newspapers and journals were republications of highly conservative reports first appearing in British newspapers. Reynolds's point, of course, is that Americans had various ways of being informed about revolutions abroad, that the European revolutions were often front and center in U.S. newspapers, and that Americans of the time had more of an international consciousness than had been allowed by Americanist literary historians prior to 1988, who tended...


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