You are on Érudit's new platform. Enjoy! Switch to classic view

Reviews

Paul Giles. Transatlantic Insurrections: British Culture and the Formation of American Literature, 1730-1860. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. ISBN: 0-8122-3603-3. Price: £38.50 (US$55.00).

  • Lance Newman

…more information

  • Lance Newman
    California State University, San Marcos

Article body

In Transatlantic Insurrections, Paul Giles takes the next, necessary step toward cultural history that, on one hand, speaks to the diversity of literary expression in English along the Atlantic Rim in the 18th and 19th Centuries and, on the other, recognizes just how rigidly concentric that world was, just how solidly London sat at the center of the literary universe as it was then mapped both by the English and their (former) possessions. First, Giles moves beyond what for too long has dominated the study of transatlantic “influence”--namely, critical parables that reduce all relationships to versions of the same simple agon: imitation, anxiety, rejection, and independence. As he points out, Bloomian criticism and postcolonial narratives of cultural resistance share a focus on a family romance with a foregone conclusion, and with dominant and subaltern national literatures playing the parts of father and rebel child. Giles, on the other hand, shows how “the emergence of autonomous and separate political identities during this era can be seen as intertwined with a play of opposites, a series of reciprocal attractions and repulsions between opposing national situations” (1). In place of tales of antagonism and renunciation, he shows how “British and American cultural narratives tended to develop...as heretical alternatives to each other” (2). He is careful, though, when he speaks of the process of cultural differentiation as “an insurrectionary division from within” (3), not to erase the period’s hierarchies of national power:

To restore an American dimension to British literature of this period is to denaturalize it, to suggest the historical contingencies that helped formulate the dynamics of Augustan order and imperial control. Conversely, to restore a British dimension to American literature is to politicize it: to reveal its intertwinement with the discourses of heresy, blasphemy, and insurrection, rather than understanding that writing as an expression of local cultures or natural rights.

10-11

This is the kind of sensitively historicist approach we need to understand the period’s complex and fluid co-evolution of British and American literary cultures and national identities.

The real strength of Transatlantic Insurrections is “heterodox juxtaposition” (16), is a series of ingenious comparative readings of surprising and revealing pairs of texts. He reads sections of Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man, which was widely influential in the colonies, against the punning, satirical political verse of the colonial Tory poet, Mather Byles, as well as against the Connecticut Wit, John Trumbull’s Anarchiad. He pairs Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography with Samuel Richardson’s epistolary romances, then Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia with works by Lawrence Stern and Edmund Burke. He uncovers the persistent spectre of America in the novels of Jane Austen, and describes Washington Irving’s parallel and burlesque engagement with high Englishness. Finally, he shows how Nathaniel Hawthorne and Anthony Trollope, who are usually seen as “embodiments of their native literary traditions” (164), both interrogate and complicate in their fictions the idea of national identity, and enter into ongoing transatlantic aesthetic exchange.

The book’s most serious weakness is that its demonstration of the categorical instability of British and American literature sometimes relies too heavily on the rigidity of other conceptual pairs according to which the period has been explained. For instance, in early chapters, there is a too easy acceptance of a simple scheme of periodization in which the Enlightenment and Romanticism appear as sharply distinct eras, rather than as the interpenetrating and mutually constituting epistemes that they were, as the worldviews of the pre-and post-revolutionary bourgeoisie. Also, there is a tendency, in passages that are not solidly grounded in primary material, to become turgid and vague--a tendency generated by what appears to be the pursuit of stylistic novelty. Nevertheless, Transatlantic Insurrections provides a timely and thorough demonstration of the ambiguity, fluidity, and transatlantic interdependence of national cultural identity, showing that it is “easier to see what American literature embraces and omits by comparing it to British literature, just as American literature from a reverse perspective manifests itself as British literature’s shadow-self, the kind of culture it might have been, but wasn’t” (195).