I’ve been musing about transatlanticism since last year’s NAVSA conference. At one of the concluding panel discussions Amanda Claybaugh suggested that the Victorians’ orientation towards the United States is hard for us to grasp if we only focus on the literature of the United Kingdom.
As an organizing principle, transatlanticism has shaped historians’ inquiries into the three hundred years preceding the nineteenth century. In The British Atlantic World (2002) David Armitage suggests that transatlanticism brings together the history of the global south and Europe, which, at the time he was writing, historians tended to study separately under the rubric of colonialism on the one hand, and enlightenment on the other. There aren’t many studies that the focus on enlightenment as a period in South America, but transatlanticism lets historians read the cultural formations in the two contents through the same rubric.
Claybaugh isn’t particularly concerned with South America, but rather with the relationship between the England and the United States, or “The White Atlantic.” As a term, White Atlantic is meant to be pejorative, but I think that it also carries methodological implications. Should Victorian anglo-atlantic relations be considered through a post-colonial diasporic perspective? Or, since Europeans generally emigrated to North America of their own volition, would borrowing the diasporic model smack of the “me too-ism” of dominant groups theoretically reframing themselves as similar to the diaspora that were displaced through slavery or war?
The solution might be found in Whiteness Studies, which, if problematic as discipline, at least makes an apologetic effort to avoid “me too-ism.” However, Whiteness Studies is generally an American endeavor concerned with issues of labour and race in the United States. Is a sub-discipline designed by and for the American context useful to Victorianists? And, finally, as Elaine Freedgood reminded us all at the NAVSA panel, expanding our knowledge of nineteenth-century American culture and literature is also a labour issue – how much can budding young academics be expected to know?
Armitage, David, and Michael J. Braddick, eds. The British Atlantic World, 1500 – 1800. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.
Buell, Lawrence. “Rethinking Anglo-American Literary History.” Clio 33.1 (2003): 65-72.
Claybaugh, Amanda. The Novel of Purpose: Literature and Social Reform in the Anglo-American World. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007.
Roediger, David. The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. New York: Verso, 1991.
Stevens, Laura M. “Transatlanticism Now.” American Literary History 16.1 (2004): 93-102.