Atlantic History: Concept And Contours, by Bernard Bailyn
In reading a book like this, I am struck by the way in which Bernard Bailyn is not only an immensely skilled historian of Atlantic History , but he is also a thoughtful and skilled writer about Atlantic History as a field of study, in which he modestly does not focus on his own considerable contributions to the field but rather on the broad scope of research areas within the field as well as its origins at a particular time in history where the connections between the United States (and Latin America and Africa) and the European world became both highly important and also somewhat politicized. The fact that Atlantic History came to prominence in the aftermath of World War II when the United States was being urged to continue its involvement with Europe in the aftermath of Hitler’s defeat and in a period of growing independence within Africa suggests that while Atlantic History involves a lot of people who are not necessarily politically motivated, that the political context of the times has a lot to do with what historical questions are asked and researched.
This book is a short one at just over 100 pages and is divided into two sections. The first section of the book deals with the idea of Atlantic History, and in this section the author talks about the history of Atlantic History as a field of study. The author examines the influence of Braudel and demonstrates that Atlantic Historians have tended to aggregate regions through connections rather than disaggregate them as Braudel did. Bailyn comments that Atlantic History is far more than imperial history, but that it connects matters of social and economic and intellectual history together, demonstrating the way that linkages penetrated deep into the areas connected through trade and population movements, sometimes in deeply unexpected ways, like Basque local gentry benefiting from imperial service to demonstrate their distinctive culture. The second part of the book looks at the contours of Atlantic History. It is here where Bailyn shows his mastery of the relevant historiography, providing a great deal of examples that show how paying attention to Atlantic History gives one insights that one would not have if one was looking at isolated regions alone, such as the advanced nature of the spread of intellectual ideas (some good, some bad) through imperial channels in both English North America (which got less Rousseau, which is for the best) as well as Latin America.
In reading this book, one is aware that Bailyn himself clearly has some larger political concerns even if his history does not appear to be determined by them. His expertise in New England history notwithstanding, he also shows himself to be deeply interested in the savagery of the marchlands of the 17th century European settler colonies on the littoral of North America and the ways that any analogies or reminders of home were treasured by all parties involved in that brutal and barbarous environment. Likewise, the author is clearly someone who is opposed to the frequent American tendency to be involved in isolationist thinking and behavior. The author clearly supports an interventionist approach between North America and Europe and also appears to have a high degree of interest in having North America continue to receive continental thinking, something I am far more dubious about myself than the author appears to be. Thankfully, Bailyn is a sufficiently witty writer and a sufficiently light touch with his material that his evident desires for increased integration between Europe and North America, to say nothing of Latin America and Africa, are not argued in a way that is offensive to a reader with a different and less pro-European worldview.
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