Students often come into a course on early American literature expecting to learn something about the origin of the Unites States. And as people who were born here, or moved here, or live here for the moment, they expect to learn something about themselves too. I try to impress upon them that for most of the colonial period people in the Americas had no idea that something called the 'United States' would ever exist, or that they were 'progressing' toward it. They inhabited a different world that needs to be understood on its own terms. When the class goes well, they do learn something about origins, but not in the way they expected.
~Christopher P. Ianinni
Chris Iannini joined our department last fall as an assistant professor of American literature. Professor Iannini came to Rutgers following a year as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvanias McNeil Center for Early American Studies. Before that he was at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, where he earned his doctorate in 2004 for a dissertation entitled Fatal Revolutions: U.S. Natural Histories of the Greater Caribbean, 17071856.
Some of the most interesting literary analyses of recent years have been of texts that are not strictly speaking literary, but in which the writing matters as such, being an instrument not only of communication but of interpretation. How such texts are written is as important as how a novel or a poem is written. In this larger field of writing, some of the most fascinating works have been scientificnatural histories probably foremost among these. The factual orientation of such descriptive writings seems to provide the stuff of exceptionally rich and resonant belles lettres. In Ianninis analysis of one such work, William Bartrams Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, and East and West Florida, it becomes clear how Coleridge could have been inspired by Bartrams work and used it in his poetry.
Professor Ianninis own work with such texts, while it begins by taking them as literature and, indeed, treats them throughout as literature, extends into history and politics. The following passage from The Vertigo of Circum-Caribbean Empire, a wonderfully titled 2003 article in the Mississippi Quarterly, defines the precise but enormous stake of his work:
The culture of the early republic begins to read very differently when placed on a Caribbean-centric map of the New World in the long eighteenth century. The influence of Thomas Jeffersons Notes on the State of Virginia testifies to the importance of natural history to early American culture. Yet its very prominence has obscured a strong sub-current within the discourse. American natural historians as important as John Bartram, St. John de Crèvecoeur, William Bartram, and John Audubon presented the greater Caribbean as source of an ardently desired yet disruptive abundance. In exotic narratives and images of the region, they both extolled the benefits of the West India trade and circum-Caribbean expansion and warned of its potentially corrosive effects on national borders and beliefs.
Virtually all the issues of colonial and early American history are engaged in this passage, and by the materials it treats. In some previous scholarship, the rhetoric of colonization and national expansion has tended to be taken at its wordwith the historian or critic not always pointing out where this rhetoric failed to match reality, as is often the case, for instance, with Jeffersons nationalistic rhetoric. In this passage, Iannini looks at the reality of the situation of colonization, as well as at its rhetoric, and the result is both a completely different sense of the facts and a completely different reading of the texts.
The traditional view of the coastal colonies that became the founding coastal states, and of how these founding states constituted and defined the first and forever identifying avatar of the nation, is revised literally when we see that the national coastline descending south is not a single coast facing an open sea. Rather, it is part of a complicated geography that includes a collection of coasts across the Caribbean. The issue, thus, is not of lone self-making, but of relations. If scholarship has one foremost value, it is brilliantly demonstrated in this article and in Professor Ianninis work generally, which provides the terms and the materials for rethinking, and therefore for thinking.