Paul Giles

Transatlantic Insurrections: British Culture and the Formation of American Literature, 1730–1860

Paul Giles, Transatlantic Insurrections: British Culture and the Formation of American Literature, 1730–1860. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. Pp. 262. Cloth $55/£38.50.. Paper $19.95/£14.00. ISBN 0-8122-1767-5.

Reviewed by Robert Weisbuch in Symbiosis 7.2 (October, 2003)


Exceptionalism, the gaffe of believing uncritically in the self-serving myth of one’s own culture, may be unavoidable. Mircea Eliade theorized that there is not a village in the world that does not tell a story making itself the center of the universe. Even so, Paul Giles is skillful in pointing out ways in which both American and British literary scholars tend, even when they know better, to make large claims for national particularities. As an antidote, Giles proposes a comparatist method by which each nation’s literature challenges the natural authority invoked by the other; and he especially praises writers on either side of the Atlantic who expose the deceit of naturalizing any national social order as if that order has been created and blessed by a transcendent authority.

Giles argues that the fact of America, “Britain’s own shadow self” (141), implies to the English that there are not merely other ways of living but other ways of living the British life: “One implication of the transatlantic division between Britain and America was to relativize the power structure of each country, to suggest how its system of authority might be construed as an arbitrary and performative rather than an integrated or naturalized phenomenon” (125). This is not a matter of simple oppositions. Indeed, for some British writers like Trollope, a criticism of American barbarities reveals more subtle versions of the same in the homeland, and so America sometimes becomes a “kind of cracked or crazy mirror, wherein the Old World witnessed strangely distorted representations of itself” (149). More largely, “comparativism works as an agent of defamiliarization, cutting through those circles of tautology through which the rhetoric of national exceptionalism typically seeks to reproduce itself” (191-2).

Of course, that last is an unfortunate sentence; and two problems—occasionally turgid writing and loose logic—keep this extremely intelligent study from its potential. “One theme of this book will concern ways in which the sense of an insurrectionary division from within is expressed tropologically in literary texts of this period through various figures of paradox” (3). Here it is fair to ask, what insurrection? From within who or what? It is difficult to track Giles’ tropes sometimes as he seeks to track the tropes of his writers. Again, just a moment later, Giles says he will read the literature of the two cultures against each other to reveal “the constricting parameters of their ideological ‘norm’” (so far so good, though an example would help) “but also to illumine more complicated occasions when they traverse each other and become uneasily aware of their own potential reversibilities” (3). I think this means that at times smart authors can imagine the opposing national characterizations of America and England changing places, but why not be plain and offer an illustration (John Bull as otherworldly, Yankees as cosmopolitan) on the spot?

The logic is uneven too in a book that is sometimes valuable more for individual readings than for a larger argument. There are, for example, a surprising if not ultimately persuasive reading of Jane Austen and a less surprising but very fine reading of Hawthorne. Giles argues that the American revolution created an unsettled sense in Britain that would lead Austen to put into question those shibboleths of the settled order that might otherwise have seemed divinely or naturally ordained. Taking his cue from Linda Colley’s argument that the English aristocracy had its competency called into question by the defeat in America, Giles claims “Austen’s fictions, like those of Sade, structurally require the motivations of laws against which they can transgress” (130). Very brief but expert readings of Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice, and Emma illustrate this internal civil war of “disguise, defeat, and deferral” that disturbs all claims of authority. The causative logic is shaky, however, for any number of events—internal British events, the rise of romanticism, continental disruptions, scientific aspects of the enlightenment—could serve just as plausibly as the emergence of the United States as agents of a recognition of the newly precarious claims of the social order. Giles makes much of Austen’s actually scant references to the United States, but we must take a very long journey with a very little evidence to arrive at his conclusion. And the comparison to Sade has an “anything goes” generality to it.

In fact, the comparative pairings throughout are never entirely compelling. The reading of Hawthorne occurs in a chapter pairing him with Trollope, and the pairing is representative of the study’s strengths and limits. Hawthorne and Trollope are linked because they are both conventionally viewed as representative of their cultures, yet each actually views the going characterizations of their respective nations as contingent and suspicious. Trollope’s very interesting praise of Hawthorne as seeking out the odd in human nature sidesteps the national; and Giles examines The Blithedale Romance to note how Hawthorne is skeptical of utopian nationalism and skeptical of such skepticism, based on the intrusion of material being, at the same time. He shows successfully how there is no settled resting place for reliable truth in this romance. He looks too at The Scarlet Letter and The Marble Faun to show how Hawthorne associates Catholicism with the Old World and with the gaudily material in a very fresh and suggestive set of equations. But the reading of Trollope is so brief as to be insignificant; and the claim that America for Trollope means challenge and disruption to the settled order is infinitely less interesting and not really the same thing at all.

At times, then, the study has an accidental quality to it, as the comparisons seem giddy. The first full chapter, bringing Pope into contact with Mather Byles, an American follower, might well have been omitted. Giles employs Byles to argue against the prominent notion, as established by Benjamin Spencer, that American Augustans and Byles in particular, engaged in a “narrow and modish adulation of current English literary fashions which could have little relevance to the temper of American life.” Giles argues for “the sophisticated manner in which the poet negotiates with imitation and intertextuality, the ways he elevates this style of reflection into a metaphysical principle” (30). No sale: the verse is awful (“But BELCHER, first in Grief as in Command/With early zeal you kiss’d her beauteous hand” and “The muse shall so survive from age to age/And BELCHER’S name protect his Byles’ page”). It is not difficult to understand why Byles’s congregation removed him from his clerical office not simply for his Loyalist views but because he had forfeited the respect of the congregation by indulging “in a natural vein of low wit and ridiculous punning.” Giles renders this as “Byles’s bizarre forms of epistemological dualism” where matter kids spirit, but no amount of heightened paraphrase can rescue this pairing based on the broad idea that both poets ironize their cultures by puns and paradoxes.

But Giles is a fertile thinker and a very good reader; and at its best, the study provides truly new views of the major writers it treats. One may not accept fully a comparison of Franklin with Richardson based on another too-general notion, of “an impulse toward civic and religious orthodoxy crossed with the more inchoate aspects of desire” (91); but it is illuminating to chart Franklin’s contradictory self-portraits through this lens provided by Richardson. (Jefferson’s chameleon-like series of selves is made a link to Sterne’s view of inconsistent human nature in a stronger comparison with less telling results.) But Giles’ emphasis on the unmasking of positivist claims pays off brilliantly in a very fine reading of Washington Irving, whose travels are seen as exiles that defamiliarize the conventional and expose it as not the same as nature. Here all the strength of Giles’s own imagination, at its best more neoclassical than deconstructionist, makes itself known; and when Giles writes that “part of Irving’s skill lies in his picaresque problematizing of every comfortable conception of ‘home,’ his disavowal of any methodological or intellectual center which might reduce other scenarios to a marginal or inferior status” (148), this assignment of surprising profundity to Irving’s work is fully earned.

In all, then, Transatlantic Insurrections achieves major new readings of key writers; and if its method displays the difficulty of making the grounds of comparison not actual influence but the reader’s imagination, Paul Giles’s imagination is well worth entering. Impatience occurs only when Giles strives to show his postmodern credentials, and one can see his own emphasis on an ultimate instability in the order of things as just as unquestioning as the credulities of those who have signed up, one way or another, to support a national mythology. One wishes, at times, that he would entertain the merest possibility that national characterization is based on some realities. And the book’s entire shape, its intention, requires a statement at once more strenuous and earthy. It is not at all to dismiss this very frequently valuable study, then, to see it as an imperfect but engaging work by a scholar whose next book one anticipates with interest.


© Symbiosis, 2003