Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
This dissertation adopts the historiographic method of W.E.B Du Bois as a heuristic for analyzing the emergence of the color line, the racial and economic relation of white people to the black, brown, and yellow people of the world, in early modern English literature through an examination of the English reception and transformation of Greco-Roman antiquity. I examine differences between ancient Greco-Roman relations to Africans and Asiatics, and the changing relation of Europeans to these peoples and their civilizations in the early modern period, by studying key perceptual and ideological shifts in English adaptations of the classical utopia, the georgic, and the romance. I connect these shifts to the consolidation of the slave trade and capitalism, and decisive political events, including the English Civil War, Asiento, the Atlantic Revolutions, the Greek War of Independence, and the Anglo-French invasions of India and Egypt. I thus understand the color line as a sociological and epistemic problem. Greco-Roman literature emerged at the confluence of Asia, Africa, and southern Europe in antiquity and was revived during the Renaissance, which traveled up to England from Italy and the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman Empire. Between the Renaissance and the early nineteenth century, we see an ongoing recognition amongst English writers of the relation of English and Greco-Roman literary forms to Africa and Asia. However, as English investments in slavery and colonial expansion deepen, the scientific temptation to project the color line onto antiquity becomes as great as the commercial temptation to degrade labor, creating a phenomenological schism in the nation’s literary imagination of antiquity. By the break of the twentieth century, Western literary critics forgot the connection of English literature and language to Africa and Asia, to which Mediterranean civilizations like Greece and Rome, were linked by trade, religion, and knowledge. Under what Martin Bernal has termed the “Aryan model” of historiography, Greece and Rome became the fountainhead of Western civilization, deemed “white” along with the ancient Aryans of India, who, like the Greeks and Romans, were likely a range of colors and not organized on the basis of skin color, unlike modern English society.
Nair, Divya, "Classical Reception And The Problem Of The Color Line In Early Modern English Literature, 1519-1804" (2021). Publicly Accessible Penn Dissertations. 4193.