Susan Gillman | American Mediterraneans

This is an Archive of a Past Event

Join us for a conversation to celebrate SHC fellow (1993-94) Susan Gillman’s new book, "American Mediterraneans: A Study in Geography, History, and Race," as part of our Inside the Center series, which highlights the writing and research of current and former fellows.

Gillman will be joined in conversation by current SHC fellow David Kazanjian (English, Univ. of Pennsylvania), author of The Brink of Freedom: Improvising Life in the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic World (Duke UP, 2016), and Camilla Hawthorne (Sociology, Univ. of California, Santa Cruz), author of Contesting Race and Citizenship: Youth Politics in the Black Mediterranean (Cornell UP, forthcoming June 2022) and co-editor, with Gabriele Proglio et al, of The Black Mediterranean: Bodies, Borders, and Citizenship (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021).

Alexander von Humboldt, the celebrated Prussian naturalist, coined the term “American Mediterranean” in 1804, the opening point in this study of why in the Americas so many bodies of water and land are so frequently compared to the European Mediterranean, classical and modern. Though not at all a household word in the United States today, this geohistorical concept circulated widely but erratically, in French, Spanish, and English, appearing and disappearing across disciplines and genres, spaces and times, from Humboldt’s moment to the present. Different networks of writers identified different geographical locations as their Mediterranean: nineteenth-century geographers of the 1890s reflect on the Pacific world of the California coast, and literary writers and thinkers of the 1930s and 40s speculate on the political past and future of the Gulf-Caribbean. All grapple in one way or another with the American legacies of European imperialism and slavery, as those histories give shape to different racial struggles, coalitions, and possibilities.

Following the term through its travels, this book reveals a history that deserves to be better known, at once long-lasting and short-lived, raced and color-blind, oceanic and landed, imperial and revolutionary, material and metaphoric. The plural Mediterraneans of the title point to the tradition, from Humboldt to Edmundo O’Gorman, of an America that had to be invented before being discovered.

About the Author

Susan Gillman is Distinguished Professor of Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is the author of two University of Chicago Press books, Dark Twins: Imposture and Identity in Mark

Twain's America (1989) and Blood Talk: American Race Melodrama and the Culture of the Occult (2003). She has worked collaboratively on several essay collections, most recently with co-editor Christopher Castiglia, Neither the Time nor the Place: Today’s Nineteenth Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, April 2022). Her new book, American Mediterraneans: A Study in Geography, History, and Race (University of Chicago Press, May 2022), traces the strange career of the “American Mediterranean,” a scholarly metaphor and folk geographical concept used in multiple disciplines, genres and languages, as a point of departure for a transnational and translational study of the Americas.