Michelle Burnham Uncovers the Pacific’s Global and Literary Connections in the Age of Revolutions
Michelle Burnham answers questions about her new book Transoceanic America (2019), which explores the Pacific Ocean’s influence on American development, literature and culture from 1770-1820.
- What most surprised you in the process of writing the book?
When I first started imagining this book, I planned to write about American novels set in the revolutionary Atlantic. I didn't expect to write about the Pacific, and didn't even expect the Pacific to be especially important to what was going on in the Atlantic at that time. So I was surprised to learn how active the Pacific world was, how connected it was to the Atlantic, and how much that connection matters for our understanding of American literary and cultural history of the period. And the more research and reading I did, the more familiar I became with Pacific history and geography, and the more surprised I became at how Atlantic-focused our view of the world tends to be (even when we live in California!).
- What are some of the main ideas you explore in Transoceanic America?
Transoceanic America uncovers the connections between the Atlantic and Pacific worlds during the age of revolutions (1770-1820). Most of us assume that the Pacific was too distant to matter to the development of American literature and culture during that time, but this is actually far from the case. Once we realize how much Americans and Europeans knew and read about the Pacific--and how global the Pacific was--during this period, it changes our assumptions about American literary and cultural history. My book asks that we take a more aquatic and maritime approach to that history, in order to recognize the ways that water connected people around the world long before land did. Of course, traveling between oceans took enormous amounts of time, so this transoceanic approach also changes our ideas about the role played by expectation--the suspense associated with waiting to see how the future will turn out--in the realms of financial investment, political revolution, and literary narrative.
- How did you decide on the texts and authors you wanted to discuss?
I visited several research libraries for this project and read widely in their holdings. At the Huntington Library in southern California, I read numerous travel accounts about voyages to the Pacific published in the late 1700s, which showed me why people from the Atlantic world traveled there and what they encountered when they reached it. At the American Antiquarian Society in Massachusetts, I read math textbooks from the same period, which helped me understand how merchants, sailors, navigators, and ordinary people used numbers in the contexts of global commerce and navigation. Those texts all ended up in the first part of my book. The second part of my book focuses on four novels published between 1778 and 1808 that center on revolutions in the Pacific and Atlantic (the American revolution, slave revolutions in Jamaica and Haiti, a revolt by the Maori in New Zealand, and one by colonists on a fictional south Pacific island). I analyze these novels using what I learned from my research on connections between the Atlantic and the Pacific, economic calculation and speculation, and political resistance around the world during this age of global empire and commerce.
- What do you hope readers will get from reading the book?
I hope readers gain an appreciation for the complexity of the early Pacific world, and understand that we need to recognize that world if we are to develop a globalized approach to American literature. I hope readers gain some insight into the long history of indigenous political and cultural resistance to European empire and commerce in the Pacific. And I hope readers begin to question the role that numerical calculation and financial speculation play, both in our everyday lives, and in the genre of the novel (a relatively new genre in the revolutionary age that was characterized by suspense and heightened reader expectation).