When you work on evolutionary theory in America during the 1890s, you can't help but notice how many of the folks you're reading aren't American: Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (nope), Charles Lyell (nope), Charles Darwin (nope), Alfred Russel Wallace (nope), Herbert Spencer (nope), August Weismann (nope), Thomas Huxley (nope), Louis Agassiz (nope), &c. When writing about the influence of evolutionary theory on American literature, you sign a bloody compact with the discipline:
I, _________, swear to write only about American literature and American literary history. If I, _________, choose to write about any thought originating beyond these blessed shores, I promise to relate it to American liteature and American literary history. Under no circumstances will I, _________, write about the influence of foreign literatures upon American, unless it be the pernicious influence of French naturalism, in which case I will coyly hide my hatred on this heart emblazoned on my sleeve.
I could prattle on about "American Exceptionalism" and its legacy in American literary studies, but I'd rather accentuate the positive here. By "the positive," I mean Amanda Claybaugh's brilliant new article, "Towards a New Transatlanticism: Dickens in the United States" (Victorian Studies 48.3). In it, she discusses the importance of treating Anglo- and American literatures in English as belonging to—though by no means being equal partners in—a literary culture which cared little for national boundaries.
As I mentioned earlier, I'm by necessity a proponent of this idea; after all, it is difficult to talk about the influence of evolutionary thought on American culture without recognizing that the majority of contributions to both come from England, France and Germany. We have our homegrown thought—our Emersons and Thoreaus, our Hawthornes and Melvilles, not to mention our most uniquely American minds, the Douglasses and Stowes—but for the most part American writers aspired to write homegrown thought transplanted, roots and all, from foreign soil.
Treating American literature as a tradition unto itself severs its from those roots and that soil in ways this historicist thinks unnatural. So when I read Claybaugh's essay, I couldn't help but admire how skillfully she articulated my unspoken reservations:
[T]he nineteenth-century literary world took for granted the existence of what I will call "literature in English." This category is never fully articulated or defended, but it underwrites most contemporary reviews. From time to time, reviewers would remark on national differences, but their more usual practice was to discuss at least some American works interchangeably with British ones. This is true, for instance, of George Eliot's reviews during the 1850s. In one, she notes in passing that American literature is characterized by "certain defects of taste" and "a sort of vague spiritualism and grandiloquence" (200), but in many other reviews she reads British and American authors alongside one another without alluding to national difference at all, pairing Henry Wadsworth Longfellow with Robert Browning and Walt Whitman with Alfred Lord Tennyson. Thirty years later, critics continued to do much the same thing. Indeed, their reliance on the category of literature in English is the one way which critics as different as Walter Besant and Henry James agree. In their famous debate over the "art of fiction," Besant does not address nationality at all, referring as a matter of course to Oliver Wendell Holmes as well as Charles Reade, to Nathaniel Hawthorne as well as Eliot (35). And James, for his part, alludes to the category in a magisterial parenthesis that seeks neither to justify nor to defend: "In the English novel (by which of course I mean the American novel as well)" (204).
In the twentieth century, however, discussions of literature in English largely gave way to the study of literature nationally defined. American self-assertion would ultimately lead to the establishment of American literature as a separate field and American studies as a separate discipline, a change that reinforced the British indifference to all but the most distinguished American writers. To be sure, a few critics continued to read across national borders. For F. R. Leavis, the "great tradition" of what he calls the "English novel" includes Henry James and Joseph Conrad, as well as George Eliot and Jane Austen (1). And F. O. Matthiessen, in his field-defining study of the American Renaissance, emphasizes the connections between Herman Melville and William Shakespeare, Nathaniel Hawthorne and John Milton, Walt Whitman and Gerald Manley Hopkins. But such approaches became increasingly rare. For a host of reasons, institutional as well as intellectual, the study of British literature and the study of American literature proceeded along separate tracks for much of the twentieth century.
Only in the past two decades have literary scholars returned to the nineteenth-century practice of reading American and British works alongside one another. They do so at a moment when historians have themselves been rediscovering the significance of transatlantic ties. Indeed, in both fields the transatlantic has become a dominant paradigm. The historian David Armitage begins his already seminal essay, "Three Concepts of Atlantic History" (2002), by announcing that "we are all Atlanticists now" (11). And Lawrence Buell, one of the founders of transatlantic literary studies, surveys the present state of the field in a 2003 review essay and determines that "these days . . . look like boom times for trans-Atlantic studies" ("Rethinking" 66). And so, the critical scene is newly hospitable to those scholars who follow Matthiessen and Leavis—as well as Eliot, James, and Besant—in taking the English language as their boundary. Focusing on a transatlantic array of texts, these scholars are not primarily interested in accounting for or speculating about the transatlantic relation. On the contrary, the crossing of national boundaries is largely incidental to their arguments, whether about literary movements (Richard Gravil and Leon Chai), literary genre (George P. Landow), philosophical traditions (Susan Manning), or the interrelations of literary and social phenomena (Jonathan Arac).
Other scholars have taken the transatlantic relation itself as their object of study. Some focus on the whole Anglo-American world, which includes those Caribbean islands under British control and ports in Africa and Latin America as well as Great Britain, Ireland, Canada, and the United States. Others focus on the relations between two nations within that world, most commonly the United States and Great Britain. This difference in focus has tended to entail a difference in method. Those scholars who focus on the Anglo-American world have tended to excavate the material networks that constituted it, such as the slave trade (Paul Gilroy and Joseph Roach) and black newspapers in the United States, Europe, and Africa (Brent Edwards). Those scholars who focus on the relations between Great Britain and the United States have tended, by contrast, to focus on relations that are imagined, not material. For Robert Weisbuch, the relevant paradigm is Freudian, by way of Harold Bloom. He finds in nineteenth-century American literature a tendency to imitate and revise British writings that bears witness, he argues, to the literature's felt belatedness. For Buell, the relevant paradigms come from post-colonial theory. He finds in the condescension of British reviewers and the rebelliousness of American writers the first iteration of what would become a familiar relation between former colonizer and former colony ("American" 417–23). More recently, Paul Giles has taken a different approach, proposing that what he calls "the trans-Atlantic imaginary" is not structured in any stable way (1), but is rather a space of projection and free play into which any author, British or American, can enter at will.
The imagined relations between Great Britain and the United States were importantly shaped by the material networks that connected them; this, in my view, is what studies of relations between the United States and Britain can gain from studies of the Atlantic world. In what follows, I will be focusing on two of these networks, print culture and social reform, in order to throw into relief the many sub-national connections between persons and groups on both sides of the Atlantic—and the complexities of the power relations between the two nations. Critics who speculate about the transatlantic imaginary without attending to these material networks often emphasize British cultural authority (Weisbuch; Buell) or downplay the importance of cultural authority altogether (Giles). Between these two poles, however, there exists a range of other possibilities that acknowledge authority, but see it as dispersed, with influence flowing in many directions at once. In a literary marketplace created by unregulated reprinting, British authors were more celebrated and British reviewers more influential, but American readers were more numerous and American publishing houses increasingly powerful. Something similar is true of reform. At times, one nation served as an example for reformers in the other nation to follow; at other times, reformers in both nations worked in tandem.
I apologize for the length of that quotation, but it deserved a full airing. I'll expound on its particulars tomorrow, as I haven't the time to do so tonight. I'd meant to write a parody of a certain book lately in the news, but ran across Claybaugh's article during my researches. I could've combined the two in a madcap romp—e.g. "Claybaugh's article proves that while all ARGUMENT IS WAR some IS NUCLEAR"—but two relatively obscure works pasted together in a parody don't the masses entertain, I hear tell.
1 Does the phrase "prattle on" enact its own prattling? Since you have to "prattle on about" something, the phrase itself prevents you from directly addressing your point by insisting on the insertion of two prepositions.