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Labor, Collection, Speculation: Edward Bancroft and the Forms of New World Narrative
Cristobal Silva (UCLA)
Southern California Eighteenth-Century Group Talks
The Southern California Eighteenth-Century Group meets quarterly to discuss literary, historical, and cultural matters from 1660 to the early nineteenth century. Drawing on the vibrant eighteenth-century community in Los Angeles, the group invites a scholar who is visiting the Huntington or the Clark Library, or a faculty member from a local institution, to present a pre-circulated paper followed by a lively in-depth exchange.
During his lifetime, Edward Bancroft was best known as a physician-scientist who discovered the electric properties of torporific eels and who built a short-lived monopoly on the market for black oak bark. A century after his death, he gained notoriety as a traitor who spied on his friend Benjamin Franklin and the Paris delegation, and as a man who may have murdered his colleague Silas Deane to prevent being reported to the American Congress. While Bancroft’s name is largely lost to the annals of literary history, he published two books in the decade between the Seven Years’ war and the American Revolution: An Essay on the Natural History of Guiana (1769) and a novel titled The History of Charles Wentworth (1770). Curiously, these books share a number of core elements, including observations on indigenous life in Guiana, botany, slavery, literary production, and the vast colonial economies that defined the Atlantic world. This essay considers what Bancroft’s act of writing in two critical genres reveals to us about the interaction between literature, pleasure, and enslaved labor in the eighteenth-century.
Cristobal Silva is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at UCLA. He writes on the history of epidemics and disease in the Atlantic world and is the author of Miraculous Plagues: An Epidemiology of Early New England Narrative (2011). He is a former editor of The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation and a co-editor of Digital Grainger: An Online Edition of The Sugar-Cane (1764). His current work lies at the intersection of medical history and the slave trade.
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