restricted access A Sea of Texts: The Atlantic World, Spatial Mapping, and Equiano’s Narrative
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PART ONE P+++++++p MAPS A Sea of Texts The Atlantic World, Spatial Mapping, and Equiano’s Narrative Elizabeth Maddock Dillon P+++++++p Writing has nothing to do with signifying. It has to do with surveying, mapping, even realms that are yet to come. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 4–5 The “Atlantic World” is a spatial concept. Literally, the “Atlantic” is an ocean, and in recent years, historians and literary scholars have increasingly called upon this ocean to define the field of study in which they work. Scholars who might once have worked in the areas of early American literature or British imperial history have traded a politically and nationally delimited field for a spatially and geographically defined one. There are many good reasons for this development, not least of which is the challenge and excitement of constructing a field imaginary in which the nation-state does not (for those who work in prenational American contexts, for instance) anachronistically organize the canon of meaningful works and the shape of intellectual inquiry. And indeed, the “Atlantic world” is a term that seems to catch at the lived reality of the many people, goods, ideas, biota, and texts that circulated between and among Europe, Africa, and the Americas in the period of European colonization of the Americas , as well as in later periods—periods that may, in turn, be productively viewed in terms of the neoimperial and/or postcolonial national cultures accreted on the bones of this (Atlantic) colonial history. But what are the ramifications of turning to a spatial term to define a field of history and literature? More broadly, we might ask, what is the relation of Atlantic space to the humanities work being performed under the rubric of its title? Atlantic Space This essay offers some exploratory thoughts about the relation between space and the discipline of Atlantic literary and textual studies in particular. The term 26 Elizabeth Maddock Dillon “Atlantic” currently appears to have many meanings: the Atlantic in the “Atlantic world” is an ocean, an economy, a cultural network, an imperial territory, and a map of diasporic dispersal, among other things. David Armitage’s useful threepart taxonomy of Atlantic history points to divergent methodologies that have taken shape within the field: Armitage distinguishes circum-Atlantic history (which is transnational, focusing on cultures and histories created by oceanic travel), trans-Atlantic history (which is international, focusing on comparing discrete nations around the Atlantic), and cis-Atlantic history (which is national or regional, focusing on specific sites as they exist within an Atlantic context).1 Armitage’s schematization indicates that divergent spatializations are encompassed in the field of Atlantic studies, but all of these spatializations presuppose the coherence of a shared geographical map—that is, they presuppose a standard cartographic notion of the Atlantic as a spatially homogenous field. This notion of space—one based on an ontology of “the God’s eye view of space as dead, static, closed, and representationally fixed,” as the geographer Matthew Sparkes puts it—has increasingly come under scrutiny in the field of critical geography.2 Building on critical understandings of space as multivalent and open-ended, this essay attends more closely to the unevenness that inheres within Atlantic space, pursuing, in particular, Doreen Massey’s account of space as “the product of interrelations . . . as the sphere therefore of coexisting heterogeneity”3 within an eighteenth-century Atlantic register. The phrase “coexisting heterogeneity” is an apt descriptor of Olaudah Equiano ’s self-presentation in the title of his well-known autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African . Written by Himself (1789). The contrapuntal staging of his African name (“Olaudah Equiano”), his European name (“Gustavus Vassa,” a name enjoined upon him by a slave master), and the designation “African” within the title points to the coexistence of competing and not easily reconcilable identities: in short, the title indicates, there is not a way to inscribe Equiano’s name that is singular and reducible to one language, one cosmography, one nomenclature. Equiano’s text narrates the author’s extensive travels—both forced and free— within an eighteenth-century Atlantic world geography: born in Africa, sold in the slave yards of Barbados, forced to labor in the fields of Virginia, purchased by a captain in the British Royal Navy, baptized in London, battle-tested under fire in waters off France and Canada, beaten almost to death in the streets of Savannah, Georgia, freed while...


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