American Literature Research Seminar: Edward Bancroft and the Forms of New World Narrative

Connecticut-born physician Edward Bancroft (1744–1821) plays a peculiar if unacknowledged role in the history of American literature. Amateur natural historian, aspiring novelist, frequent speculator, and revolutionary spy, Bancroft’s drive to fame would rival that of any modern aspiring celebrity; for a brief moment, his work brought him to the center of the Anglophone world, where he counted himself among the most influential thinkers of the late eighteenth century—including his friend and mentor Benjamin Franklin.

Following the work of modern scholars who have written on the relation between Natural History and the Novel, this paper takes Bancroft as a case study for the interaction between the two. Reading his Natural History of Guiana (1769) alongside his History of Charles Wentworth(1770), it considers why Bancroft may have chosen these genres as vehicles for narrating strikingly similar parallel stories. How does each History inhabit its form and imagine its audience, and how does Bancroft’s investigation into the relation between morality, commerce, medicine, and colonial rebellion give voice to an aesthetic project at a critical moment when the Atlantic was on the brink of fracturing even as Great Britain was rapidly consolidating its imperial power?