In This Article Literature and Culture

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Key Literary Texts
  • Black Atlantic and Race
  • Native American
  • Gender Studies
  • Economies
  • Encounters
  • Oceanic Culture
  • Print Circulation
  • Genealogies and Cultural Crossings

Atlantic History Literature and Culture
by
Elizabeth Maddock Dillon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 December 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0037

Introduction

Atlantic literary studies is a young field that is in the midst of rapid change and expansion. The field developed later than that of Atlantic history, in part because the study of literature has long been organized in relation to national cultures; as such, Atlantic or “transatlantic” literature, as a field, requires a reconsideration of the basic organization or conceptualframework of literary studies. That reconsideration emerged powerfully in the form of Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic in 1993 (see General Overviews)—a book that described a diasporic African-Atlantic culture linking Africa, Europe, and the Americas by the routes of the slave trade. Joseph Roach’s Cities of the Dead (see General Overviews) subsequently turned to the methodology of performance studies to propose an account of “circum-Atlantic” culture in which locations around the Atlantic littoral were linked by the traveling performances (and residues of these performances) of peoples and cultures that circulated there in the 18th century and beyond. The non-national frameworks for understanding the development of literary and cultural traditions proposed by Gilroy and Roach served as inaugural openings in the field of Atlantic literary studies—openings that moved decisively beyond accounts of the unidirectional westward movement of European culture to the New World that New Historicist critics (writing in the 1980s and 1990s) found in the literatures of imperialism and encounter. The category of the Atlantic remains, nonetheless, subject to interpretive framing: the Atlantic may be considered a geographical entity, an economic configuration, a historical conjunction, or a political formation, and each of these definitions has ramifications for the study of literature and culture. Accordingly, a signal feature of much of the most exciting work in the field of Atlantic literary studies is its engagement with the question of what constitutes a methodology for considering literary work outside a more familiar literary-national framework. Atlantic literary studies joins a host of current literary methodologies that are engaged in postnational considerations of the literary (keyed to our globalizing present), including postcolonial studies, transnationalism, hemispheric studies, world systems theory, and considerations of literature and globalization, world literature, and cosmopolitanism. Current work by critics in transatlantic studies extends well into the 20th century, examining figures from Ralph Waldo Emerson, to Henry James, to Toni Morrison. However, this bibliography focuses on 16th- through 18th-century materials—that is, primarily on materials that deal with the Atlantic world prior to the emergence of the 19th-century nationalisms that have long been central to defining and understanding literary canons. As such, these works engage with issues of colonialism, imperialism, the slave trade, European–New World encounters, indigenous peoples and literacies, performance, anticolonial and republican revolution, early capitalism, colonial–metropolitan exchange and circulation, and competing sovereignties—all as explored within the literary and cultural imaginations of those who inhabited the Atlantic world.

General Overviews

The materials listed in this section include a range of the most influential engagements in the field of literary and cultural Atlantic studies. Gilroy 1993 offers a foundational account of the Atlantic as a cultural field by focusing on African diasporic culture in the Atlantic world. Roach 1996, also an important early voice in this field, describes a “circum-Atlantic” culture of performance in the Atlantic world. Giles 2001 uses the concept of the Atlantic in less radical ways to describe a literary genealogy linking the reciprocal developments of English and American literature. Fischer 2004 builds upon and also moves beyond Gilroy, arguing that a wide range of cultural artifacts can be read to reveal the agency of Africans as cultural actors in the Atlantic world. More recently, Baucom 2005, Doyle 2008, and Elmer 2008 offer examples of the ways in which the Atlantic world, as a cultural framework, offers new possibilities for the analysis of literature. For Doyle, the Atlantic framework serves as the basis for a groundbreaking history of the novel; Baucom’s compelling meditation on the Zong tragedy (Baucom 2005) teases out relations between literature, philosophy, and finance capital; and Elmer 2008 turns to literature as a means of exploring the development of political concepts of sovereignty in relation to race. Finally, Slauter, et al. 2008, together with the round table of responses to Slauter’s article, offers a useful comparative discussion of Atlantic literary studies and Atlantic historical studies.

  • Baucom, Ian. Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005.

    E-mail Citation »

    Focusing on the Zong tragedy of 1781, in which more than one hundred slaves were thrown off a ship for the sake of making an insurance claim, Baucom examines the violence at the center of the economic and legal structures of 18th-century Atlantic trade and capital accumulation. A remarkable philosophical and literary meditation on the discourse of finance capital and counter-discourses of “melancholy realism” and human rights.

  • Doyle, Laura. Freedom’s Empire: Race and the Rise of the Novel in Atlantic Modernity, 1640–1940. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.

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    Argues that the novel is developed from an Anglo-Atlantic discourse of freedom—rooted in Anglo-Saxonism as formed in relation to English colonialism in the Americas—together with an African diasporic discourse of freedom. Impressive in its reach and assigns a central role to the Atlantic world in the development of the novel as a genre.

  • Elmer, Jonathan. On Lingering and Being Last: Race and Sovereignty in the New World. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.

    E-mail Citation »

    Argues that key understandings of modern political sovereignty have developed from the colonial encounters in the Atlantic world between Europeans, enslaved Africans, and Native Americans. Superb readings of the way in which the New World becomes the location for reinventing sovereignty; emphasis on the formal capacity of literature to represent the contradictions and complications of race and political sovereignty.

  • Fischer, Sibylle. Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    A compelling addition and rejoinder, of sorts, to Gilroy’s foundational work in the field of the black Atlantic; argues that New World Africans had a more persistent and legible voice in the Atlantic world than Gilroy acknowledges and reads a variety of unusual texts as a means of accessing the “modernity” of culture as it takes shape in relation to racialized repression.

  • Giles, Paul. Transatlantic Insurrections: British Culture and the Formation of American Literature, 1730–1860. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

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    Argues for the formative role of British literature in American literature and vice versa. Often cited as exemplary of transatlantic literary studies, but in tracing a tradition that is almost exclusively Anglo-American, tends to repeat an older genealogical model of US literature as the offspring of Britain and to discount the significance of the African diaspora and Native American culture in Atlantic literary traditions.

  • Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

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    Groundbreaking account of the Atlantic as a field of literary and cultural study in relation to the African diaspora.

  • Roach, Joseph. Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

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    Uses performance studies to generate new understanding of a “circum-Atlantic” field of culture characterized by performance, memory, erasure and “surrogation” or substitution of actors over time in the Atlantic world. Rich and powerful account of how culture circulates in the Atlantic world.

  • Slauter, Eric, with Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, Allison Games, Eliga Gould, and Bryan Waterman. “The ‘Trade Gap’ in Atlantic Studies: A Forum on Literary and Historical Scholarship.” William and Mary Quarterly 65, no. 1 (January 2008): 135–186.

    E-mail Citation »

    Discusses the relation between recent work in the field of Atlantic history and Atlantic literary studies, with useful accounts of scholarship and methodologies in the two fields. Responses to Slauter by historians (Games and Gould) and literary scholars (Dillon and Waterman) provide an overview of concepts of Atlantic studies.

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