Of Pyrates and Picaros: The Literary Lineage of Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates
Morris, Adam R.
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Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates is a text that exists at the nexus of Atlantic history, Atlantic literary studies, and oceanic studies. Though the study of Johnson’s work has most often been the province of historians, this thesis establishes the need to reconsider it as a literary artifact and explores its literary legacy and lineage through the use of material history and genre theories. The initial chapter examines the evolution of A General History in transnational and transatlantic contexts, with an emphasis on its material history. This approach affords the opportunity to examine how changes to the text serve the rhetorical purposes of girding Johnson’s credibility with his audience and of emphasizing the critical socio-political themes in the text, namely European culpability in the rise and perpetuation of piracy, and how these changes reflect a fluctuation in eighteenth-century concerns with piracy. Chapters two and three maintain a generic focus. Chapter two establishes the work as a piece of literature with divinable characteristics belonging to many genres and specifically acknowledges the picaresque novel’s influence on the text, noting that the work borrowed from the Spanish literary tradition and that some figures in the text, Bartholomew Roberts in particular, function as English picaros. Chapter three focuses on the text’s distinct political commentary and Johnson’s mobilization of the English picaro as a vessel of criticism. The socio-political criticism evident in the English picaro female pirate narratives—those of Mary Read (and Anne Bonny, to a lesser extent)—is the manifestation, illustration, and extension of criticisms introduced in the preface and introduction, both of which mark the text as a critique of English/European imperial practices and inefficiencies. A close reading of Johnson’s text reveals a nuanced view of eighteenth-century piracy. Ultimately, Johnson leverages the picaresque and other fictional elements for the sake of socio-political criticism and satire and argues that the scourge of piracy is a byproduct of the structural and administrative shortcomings of the European state at large, emphasizing the English role in the incubation of piracy.
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