Oceanic Turns and American Literary History in Global Context

Publication Year:
2016
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Repository URL:
https://scholarcommons.scu.edu/engl/50
Author(s):
Burnham, Michelle
Publisher(s):
University of Pennsylvania Press
Tags:
English Language and Literature
book description
Narratives of American literature and history like to begin with what was wrong about this older map, and scholars such as Peter Hulme and others have taught us to understand that it was the power of maps like Toscanelli’s that convinced Columbus that Cuba was really Cathay, and that Hispaniola must be Japan.1 Anecdotes about Columbus’s cartographic and continental confusion now usually circulate as humorous early modern warnings about the failure to ask for directions or the humiliating consequences of bad geography. But this perspective only encourages students and scholars alike to ignore what is perhaps most revealing about this story—the incredible intensity of Europe’s desire to reach Asia, not only in 1492 but also for centuries after. It is as if the East Indies literally fall off the map as soon as the West Indies appear on them. As a result, the Eastern hemisphere has essentially been exiled from accounts of American literary and cultural history, as a space too impossibly distant and irrelevant to matter. Narratives of American literature conventionally begin with this simultaneous temporal and spatial reorientation set off by the unexpected landfall of 1492, for the historical clock also gets re-set once this geographical space is re-mapped. Recognizing the Americas, in other words, has long meant forgetting Asia— despite the fact that Europe’s encounter with America continued in many ways to be managed, understood, and recorded through its sustained interest in reaching the products and markets of the East. This chapter asks what it might mean to recover this wider, transhemispheric, global context for American literary studies, and how a turn toward the oceans might help us get there.