M.Burnham: Transoceanic America

Transoceanic America. Risk, Writing, and Revolution in the Global Pacific

Burnham, Michelle
Oxford Studies in American Literary History
300 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Steffen Wöll, SFB 1199, Universität Leipzig

A professor at Santa Clara University’s Department of English, Michelle Burnham is a scholar of Native American and early American literature, popular culture, as well as transoceanic studies. Her latest book Transoceanic America is a remarkable and highly insightful foray into the latter field that at once extends and liquifies the scope of American literary studies into the mental and physical expanses of — to use Herman Melville’s term — a “watery world” that similarly separates and connects global networks of knowledge and power.[1] The book’s theme is in line with current trends in the emerging field of Transoceanic American Studies that have materialized in publications like Brian Russell Roberts’ and Michelle Ann Stephens’ Archipelagic American Studies and Lon Kurashige’s Pacific America: Histories of Transoceanic Crossings. In the same vein, conferences like the one organized by the GHI under the same title in May 2018 have aimed to connect Atlantic and Pacific scholarship and “explore the interconnectedness of the Americas to the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and of those oceans to one another”[2]. Arguably, Transoceanic America’s most — but by no means only — important contribution is its successful integration of the (Global) Pacific into the decisively Atlantic orientation of early American history and literature. The age of revolutions during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Burnham asserts, signified a watershed moment that turned North America into a continent between oceans. Revolutions, she argues, not only decentered the colonial perspectives of empires but also gave rise to the novel as a medium of non-linear storytelling that addressed new (hence factually ‘novel’) knowledges and practices of globalized, transoceanic matters such as travel, navigation, capital flows, and political transformation.

The book is divided into two chapters. The first connects the Atlantic and Pacific hemispheres through the general examples of narratives, numbers, and politics, while the second chapter applies the established analytical framework to four early American novels. Reorienting these texts within a transoceanic context, Burnham uses spatiotemporal metaphors that synthesize thematic clusters into the spatial formats of circles (The Travels of Hildebrand Bowman), coils (Charles Brockden Brown’s Ormond), cycles (William Earle’s Obi), and circuits (Leonora Sansay’s Secret History). The results of this spatial reorientation make for an approach that appears as revolutionary as its timeframe, leading to a literary respatialization that “asks us to imagine America as both there and not there, at once central to and yet profoundly decentered from the globe and its connections, part of both Atlantic and Pacific waterworlds that are in turn linked to the Caribbean Sea, the Indian Ocean, and polar seas” (p. 207). Notably and in contrast to other studies, Burnham also does not shy away from including aspects into her analyses of transoceanic subjects that are usually regarded as being outside the scope of literary studies, or too difficult and complex to be discussed in such a context. Ignoring such conventions, Burnham includes the role of economics, financials, and mathematics in a laudable move to rout the field’s deeply ingrained arithmophobia towards “numerical genres” (pp. 47-73). By revealing, for instance, the transoceanic workings of American lottery schemes and calculative mathematical tables, the fascinating subchapter makes clear that literary scholars cannot afford to overlook the powerful impacts of financial and numerical narratives in their own analytical equations.

Burnham submits a timely and analytically rich study that continues to shift the attention of American Studies away from the landlocked master narratives that have long-since characterized canonical approaches to US history and literature. Transoceanic America presents both an invitation and template for further research by making tangible the diversity of transoceanic connections as a perpetually underappreciated framework for the study of the American novel, historical and present-day. In her highly readable academic prose, Burnham detaches literary studies from its self-referential bubble and inherent Atlanticism. Transoceanic discourses, the book demonstrates, were and are continually informed and at times revolutionized as much by novels as by global flows of knowledges, capital and goods (including the slave trade), travelogues, navigational theorems, calculus textbooks taught in schools of different continents, and their intersecting discursive shorelines, mental geographies, and oceanic borderlands. Discussing the continental or ‘mono-oceanic’ literatures of a supposedly New World, the author therefore implies, remains an exercise that should no longer content itself with the myths of East-Coast colonists as the incubators of what would eventually become a distinctly American literature. Turning towards a spatial framework, in turn, showcases both the limits of conventional approaches and the potentialities of approximating a seemingly settled literary landscape through a transoceanic spatial lens.

[1] Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, New York 1851, p. 70.
[2] German Historical Institute, “Transoceanic American Studies,” Washington D.C. 2018. www.ghi-dc.org/events-conferences/event-history/2018/conferences/transoceanic-american-studies.html.

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