Literature and Culture

Elizabeth Maddock Dillon

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online May 2010 | | DOI:
Literature and Culture

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  • History of the Americas
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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.

Article.  12983 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; European History ; African History ; History ; Regional and National History

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