I also attended the fascinating NAVSA session that Connie writes about: a conversation on “New Directions in Victoran Studies” between Amanda Claybaugh, Elaine Freedgood, Caroline Levine, John Plotz, and Andrew Stauffer.  I wanted to respond to Connie’s post here because, like Connie, I have also been considering Amanda Claybaugh’s claim that adhering to national boundaries in our study of literature is, at best, arbitrary, and, at worst, misleading.  In a post she contributed to The Valve, Claybaugh argues that transatlanticism as a field, or a practice,

“calls the national into question by asking why the national should always be the default. This, then, is the more radical claim that trans-Atlanticism makes: that the old syllabuses and old curricula do not need to be expanded, but rather re-configured.

Once we recognize that the actual reading and writing of literary works is only sometimes confined within national boundaries, then we must reverse subfield and field. British literature, US literature—these would be properly understood as rich and rewarding subfields of a field that we might call “literature in English.” As scholars, we could still choose to focus on the literature of one nation, as we might now choose to focus on African-American literature or queer literature or the literature of the US South. But as teachers, we would no longer be justified in taking for granted the priority of the nation.”

As Connie noted, during the session Elaine Freedgood offered the important point that this expansion of the field of Victorian Studies to Literature in English (bounded by the nineteenth-century?) does become a labour and expertise issue. For instance, what would the new “canon,” or, say, special fields exam reading list, look like? Claybaugh notes herself, there are other pragmatic difficulties to the re-configuration of our discipline — “‘That would be really interesting,’ people say to the aspiring young trans-Atlanticist, ‘but how will you get a job? and who will publish your work?’” – though she believes that these objections will have less weight as transatlanticism gains disciplinary traction.

Another important issue – that might be overlooked from the American institutional perspective – is the place of nineteenth-century Canadian literature in this new transatlantic field. Would the reversal of field and sub-field be a boon for nineteenth-century Canlit or would this Canadian content get lost amidst a British and American-focused transatlanticism? As a country with a former Imperial relationship with Britain, and a contemporary fear of being annexed culturally by the United States, Canada has institutionalized the study of its national literature in particular ways (Canlit courses, special series like the New Canadian library, academic presses etc.) in order to, in part, protect national cultural production.

Despite these types of questions, I agree with Claybaugh about the limitations of adhering to national boundaries in nineteenth-century studies, at least as they pertain to my own research. For instance, as I noted in my post about deaf periodicals, nineteenth-century deaf communities created important transatlantic networks that must be considered in any study of Victorian deaf history.  From the perspective of nineteenth-century disability history, a transatlantic lens permits an analysis of the various networks, institutions, and literary cultures that contributed to the formation of particular transatlantic ideas of disability.

Is the same true of your research? How transatlantic is your focus? What potential benefits and drawbacks do you see to “the…radical claim that transatlanticism makes”?

4 thoughts on “Transatlanticism’s “radical claims”

  1. Any critical trend that ends up making me responsible for Moby Dick as well as Middlemarch will not get my vote. 🙂

    More seriously, I think we are all aware that the lines we draw (whether national, period, or genre) to do our work are always, to some extent, arbitrary. But they are never wholly arbitrary (countries do have borders, books do take one form rather than another, etc.), and they are always necessary, or else we would all have to account for, well, everything, all the time. I can see ‘transatlantic studies’ becoming a rich subfield of (for instance) Victorian studies, as (for instance) postcolonialism has. I can imagine courses looking at literature transatlantically (OK, what will be the term?)–an Americanist colleague and I have often discussed offering such a course ourselves, and this critical trend may give us the necessary momentum and apparatus. But I’ll be surprised if things work the other way around and British or American literature become the subfields. I’ve never been someone at the forefront of critical inquiry, though, so I’m as likely to be wrong as not.

    1. Thank you for your comment Rohan. I really like the idea of the Transatlantic course you mention — one that uses the expertise of both a Victorianist and an Americanist. I could see really productive discussions arising from transatlantic literary/cultural issues ranging from copyright and piracy to abolitionist works to travel writing.

      Have you thought about how this kind of course would be structured? Would you pair particular British and American texts? Would the course be structured chronologically, or thematically, or in some other way?

      1. We only ever chatted informally, so we didn’t parse out these things. Links just occur to us a lot when we chat (along the lines of “You teach Scott, right? It would be interesting to consider ways Scott’s chivalric ideas get refracted in some of Twain’s work,” or “Dickens and Stowe make for interesting comparisons because both wrote to effect social change.”). The professional issues ‘on the ground’ extend from territory (negotiable) to workload (team-teaching is actually a bit complicated when calculating teaching assignments). Still, maybe one day.

  2. I missed this panel at last year’s NAVSA, but there was one small bit about how Canadian publishers contributed to international copyright laws in Claybaugh’s book–I think by poaching from US books. I’ll be interested to see how “North Atlantic Studies” develop in the next few years.

    All things are leading back to Dinah Mulock Craik for me these days–she is a good example of someone who negotiated the transatlantic literary world very well. After the publication of _John Halifax_ she was sending proofs to the US to make sure they were published simultaneously with the UK. And to make sure she got paid twice well before the establishment of international copyright! I have a small bit about how important her American reputation was to her in my paper at NAVSA-BAVS next week. I think that many writers were quite conscious of how they were perceived overseas and tried to manage it to their advantage in an uncertain market.

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