Constituting «Americanness»

A History of the Concept and Its Representations in Antebellum American Literature

by Iulian Cananau (Author)
Monographs IX, 280 Pages
Series: American Culture, Volume 11


This work in cultural history and literary criticism suggests a fresh and fruitful approach to the old notion of Americanness. Following Reinhart Koselleck’s Begriffsgeschichte, the author proposes that Americanness is not an ordinary word, but a concept with a historically specific semantic field. In the three decades before the Civil War, Americanness was constituted at the intersection of several concepts, in different stages of their respective histories; among these, nation, representation, individualism, sympathy, race, and womanhood. By tracing the representations of these concepts in literary texts of the antebellum era and investigating their overlapping with the rhetoric of national identification, this study uncovers some of the meaning of Americanness in that period.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. The History of “Americanness” in American Literary Studies
  • 1.1 “Americanness” in the English Corpus
  • 1.2 From Nationalist Beginnings to Cold War Consensus
  • 1.3 The Critique of Americanness
  • Chapter 2. Ethnicity, Race, and Whiteness in Some Ethnic Conceptions of Americanness
  • 2.1 Jewish American Perspectives: From Jewishness to Americanness and Back
  • 2.2 African American Perspectives: Blackness at the Heart of Americanness
  • 2.3 Asian American Perspectives: The Inevitability of Descent
  • Chapter 3. Methodological Considerations toward a Theory of Americanness and Its Contribution to American Literary History
  • 3.1 Sacvan Bercovitch’s Theory of the American Ideology
  • 3.2 Advantages and Limitations of Bercovitch’s Approach for Theorizing the Americanness of Nineteenth Century American Literature
  • 3.3 Reinhart Koselleck’s Begriffsgeschichte and the Conceptualization of Americanness
  • Chapter 4. Americanness, Americanism, and U.S. National Identity
  • 4.1 Americanism or Americanness? The Concepts and Their Histories
  • 4.2 Americanness and National Identity at the Time of the American Renaissance. Case Study: Cooper’s The American Democrat
  • Chapter 5. National Identity
  • 5.1 Constituting Americanness: the Self/Nation Relation in Emerson’s Essays
  • 5.2 Walden and Thoreau’s Reinvention of America
  • 5.3 Figures of National Identity in Moby-Dick
  • Chapter 6. Three Avatars of American Representation: The Philosopher, The Citizen, and the Poet
  • 6.1 Emerson’s Representative Man and the National Foundations of Wonder
  • 6.2 Douglass’s Civic Ideal of the Representative American
  • 6.3 Whitman’s Representative Poetic Persona
  • Chapter 7. Individualism
  • 7.1 Individualism or Self-Reliance?
  • 7.2 Thoreau’s Self-Reliant Individual and the Ethics of Citizenship
  • Chapter 8. Sympathy
  • 8.1 The American Context. The Two Sides of Sympathy in Emerson’s Essays
  • 8.2 The Scarlet Letter and the Redemptive Sympathy of the Public
  • 8.3 The Function of Sympathy and Sentimentalism in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin
  • Chapter 9. Slavery, Race, and Racism
  • 9.1 Emerson’s Contribution to Anti-Slavery Writing
  • 9.2 Race in Moby Dick and “Benito Cereno”
  • 9.3 Douglass and “the Wicked Prejudice”
  • Chapter 10. Womanhood
  • 10.1 Conceptualizing Antebellum Womanhood
  • 10.2 The Feminine Ideal as Patriotic Muse and Minerva in Margaret Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century
  • 10.3 Harriet Jacobs’s Construction of Womanhood
  • Chapter 11. The New Order of Free Enterprise Capitalism
  • 11.1 Poe and the Modern Man’s Displacement and Alienation
  • 11.2 Thoreau’s Walden and the Market Revolution
  • 11.3 Melville’s “Bartleby” and the Midcentury Business Ethos
  • Afterword
  • Works Cited
  • Index


My greatest scholarly debt is to Rodica Mihaila (University of Bucharest) and Joseph G. Kronick (Louisiana State University). As my Ph.D. supervisor, Professor Mihaila has played a major role in my doctoral training and no words can accurately express my gratitude for her constant support of this project. Professor Kronick was my supervisor for the duration of my Fulbright scholarship at LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I am especially grateful to him for having proofread the dissertation on which this book is based, for the many hours we spent discussing my project, for his scholarly guidance, and for the work conditions he generously provided.

I am indebted to John W. Lowe (UGA) and J. Gerald Kennedy (LSU) for the interest they took in my project. Special thanks go to William Boelhower (LSU) and writer Andrei Codrescu, whose advice played a decisive role in my search for a suitable approach to “Americanness”. I also wish to thank my former colleagues from the University of Bucharest, Mihaela Precup, Dana Mihailescu, and Ruxandra Radulescu for their support and scholarly advice. I am also grateful to Maria Holmgren Troy (Karlstad University) and Magnus Ullén (Karlstad University) for their comments and suggestions on my unrevised dissertation.

I wish to thank the Romanian-American Fulbright Commission (a special thank you to its former director, Barbara Nelson) for the opportunity to carry out my research at Louisiana State University, between August 2007 and June 2008. I am also grateful to the Library of the John F. Kennedy Institute in Berlin for the research grant in 2014.

I am deeply grateful to Carmen, Matei, and Thea for their patience and understanding; whether at home or miles away from them, I have always felt their unconditional love, without which there is nothing I could have accomplished. ← ix | x →

← x | 1 →


You get a sense of the alienation or the strangeness of the notion of America, of a made-up country that essentially has no meaning except a few values, a few lines from the Declaration of Independence, a few principles you can derive from the Constitution. It’s not just Ishmael who’s an imaginary American, or an imagined American. Everybody who confronts this question, whether it’s Chuck Berry who does so explicitly, whether it’s Melville, and he does so explicitly, whether it’s Jefferson, Lincoln – all these people do this explicitly, and many people do it implicitly. They’re all saying, ‘‘what would it mean to be an American?’’ not ‘‘what does it mean?’’ It presumes that America has yet to actually take shape, come into focus, it’s not completely real, it may never be. But you’re going to have to act that out yourself, in whatever way it would be. (Sollors 27)

This judgment was expressed by Greil Marcus, co-editor with Werner Sollors of A New Literary History of America, in an interview from 2010, in which the two renowned scholars explained the ideas behind their eventful book and some of their more controversial editorial decisions. Marcus’s words echo familiar conceptions of “America”: a nation that is exceptionally unique, because, unlike others, it is founded on the civic values and principles inscribed in a few documents of classical liberalism; America as an invention; America as an ongoing process; America as a sign in between imagination and praxis. Above all, these words testify to the endurance of the question of American identity. Undoubtedly, there are many who have long grown impatient of the topic, but, to me, these words ring like a chant, because they partake of an old ritual of national self-identification.

A special performance of this ritual was occasioned by the 150th anniversary of The Atlantic Monthly. In November 2007, the editors invited “an eclectic group of thinkers” to reflect on the future of “the American idea” and the greatest challenges to it (“Future” 14). The catchy phrase was originally used by James Russell Lowell, the magazine’s first editor: in politics, he wrote, The Atlantic would “honestly endeavor to be the exponent of what its conductors believe to be the American idea” (13). At that time, Lowell did not explain what this idea meant; perhaps he did not have to. A century and a half later, the editors can no longer take “the American idea” for granted. But this does not mean that they and their national audience have stopped worshipping it. Only this time, they need to build a different shrine to “the American idea”, in the form of “a wise, amused, pained, and impassioned cacophony”, as the editors describe the ensuing discussion (14). ← 1 | 2 →

The “American idea” must and will remain enshrouded in indeterminacy. However, the editors of The Atlantic give us a clue as to where, in their opinion, this idea should be looked for: “What American faction, what American, doesn’t embrace both the revolutionary message of the Declaration of Independence and the restraining message of the Constitution? Our endless quarrels are over what these messages mean, over how the ideal should be made real” (13). That the “American idea” is linked with the nation’s political culture and its foundational documents should hardly come as a surprise. What I find particularly interesting is the assuredness, the naturalness, with which the editors turn it into an absolute criterion of national identification. Behind their rhetorical question lies the assumption that being a “true” American is ultimately a matter of belief in the nation’s sacred texts.

But not all contributors are ready to share in the editors’ celebratory mood: African American scholars John Hope Franklin and Cornel West express serious doubts about the praiseworthiness of an American idea that “covers up an everyday practice of betraying the claims of equality, justice, and democracy” (Franklin, “The Cover-Up”), while Joyce Carol Oates and political scientist Anne-Marie Slaughter denounce the exceptionalist gesture of claiming a set of universal ideals dating back to the Enlightenment as uniquely American values: “What is most questionable – indeed, most dangerous – about the American idea is its very formulation: that there is a distinctly American idea, standing in contrast to Canadian, British, French, Chinese, Icelandic, Estonian, or mere human ideas” (Oates).

To be sure, all the communities that have a claim to nationhood face the fundamental problem of distinctiveness. In order for a national “we” to exist, there must be something, or rather some things, within that community’s experience, that set them apart from all the others. On the other hand, we live in a world in which national demarcations (cultural, linguistic, economic, and political) are fading away. In the global age, the concept of “nation” has become problematic, and this spells trouble for the study of individual national cultures. Partially in response to this challenge, in American Studies, for example, a shift toward transnationalism was effected over several decades and completed in the wake of 9/11 (Pease, “Introduction” 12). Almost concomitantly, a transnational turn took place in the study of American literature (Boggs 2). Although much of the scholarship produced in these academic fields has become even more critical of national constructs, transnationalism should not necessarily be at odds with the nation. As Donald E. Pease observes, “[t]he transnational names an undecidable economic, political, or social formation that is neither in nor out of the ← 2 | 3 → nation-state. Inherently relational, the transnational involves a double move: to the inside, to core constituents of a given nation, and to an outside, whatever forces introduce a new configuration” (“Introduction” 5–6). More specifically, if transnational Americanist scholarship aims to uncover cultural connections that go beyond national boundaries, in a kind of neo-humanist approach based on the so-called rhizomatic thinking, it cannot abandon such concepts as “nation”, “America”, and “national identity”. To do so, Heinz Ickstadt warns, would “eliminate a middle-ground on which the United States could be studied as a distinctive collective entity within a network of global or trans-national interrelatedness” (emphasis added) (10).

We have returned to the issue of national distinctiveness. While it is possible to arrive at fresh conclusions about one’s own national and cultural identity by uncovering historical transnational connections, I would argue that the study of national culture has yet a lot to teach us, especially now, in the age of globalization; all the more so if the object of study is the United States. National distinctiveness is a potentially fruitful research topic if we can resist the temptation to make undue generalizations and stay clear of axiomatic or uncritical thinking.

The notion of “Americanness” in contemporary literary scholarship is a perfect example of insufficient conceptualization. An essay entitled “Americanness Becomes Modernism in James’s The Ambassadors” furnishes one of those now very rare occasions in which the critic argues her thesis by recourse to both historical-cultural context and aesthetic considerations. Author Sarah Wilson reads James’s “non-narrative moments” (as she calls the gaps in the narrative when the reflector character experiences a flurry of sensations only approximated by the condensed scene) as something more than modernist techniques to “check the progress of conventional narrative” (514); they participate in James’s re-consideration of his earlier understanding of Americanness (an idea that Wilson traces in Hawthorne and in the writer’s personal correspondence from the 1870s), as well as in his rejection of conventional turn-of-the-century explanations of American identity: “James repudiates facile ideas of Americanness in order to propose the United States as a unique site of modernist possibility, a site of possibility made so by the very historical conditions of cultural impoverishment with which James had been engaging for years” (528). Sarah Wilson concludes: “My reading of The Ambassadors gives evidence of [James’s] attempts to underline the critical role that Americanness can play in the various expressions of [modernist] era” (529). While efforts at investigating the cultural dialectic between modernism and its historical context are always welcome, I believe the Achilles’ hill of this essay is the insufficient conceptualization of “Americanness”. ← 3 | 4 → Nowhere in the text is Americanness defined; it seems to be a loose category, floating somewhere between American nationality and a vague “sense of opportunity”, “newness”, and “difference” that Wilson associates with the modernist paradigm. Americanness is seen as an umbrella term for any discourse of American identity, and this becomes a source of conceptual confusion: the “facile ideas of Americanness” entertained by James’s American contemporaries are, in fact, manifestations of Americanism, a related but, ultimately, different concept.

Another example of insufficient conceptualization of Americanness is provided by Catherine Rottenberg’s study, Performing Americanness: Race, Class, and Gender in Modern African-American and Jewish-American Literature. While the concept of “performativity” is given due critical attention, “Americanness” remains virtually unexplained throughout the book. As one reviewer has observed, “the author frequently fails to address what is specifically ‘American’ about the subject performances she covers: her theoretical contributions are not historically or geographically grounded” (Colson 417). Treated as if its meaning were self-evident, the notion of “Americanness” is largely used as a synonym for “American identity”, and, at times, it is substituted by “whiteness”. “Americanness” appears most frequently in the phrase “norms of Americanness”, as Rottenberg’s study is focused on “exploring the very complex modes through which dominant norms have helped to produce and sustain social stratification in the United States” (3). It seems as if Rottenberg employs “Americanness” for lack of a better term under which to strike common ground for African American and Jewish American modernist writing.

Against the tendency to use the concept of Americanness uncritically, I set out to find a methodology that would allow me to define it and to explore its potential for literary history writing. Because of the current suspicion of generalizing concepts and essentialist categories in American literary studies and because I am a foreigner and a non-native speaker of English, I considered it necessary to turn the first two chapters of this study into a mirror of my research of the word “Americanness” and its meanings in literary criticism and American studies. In the first chapter I write a genealogy of the word, tracing its one-hundred-year-old history from its early use by William James to the advent of ethnic studies in the late 1980s. Under the influence of ethnic and African American studies, “Americanness” becomes an important category of cultural criticism, which is why in my second chapter I look at its uses in Jewish American, African American, and Asian American studies. One important conclusion that I draw from the scores of texts I have considered is that “Americanness”, albeit more than a simple word, should be approached in its linguistic and rhetorical dimension. ← 4 | 5 →

A methodological direction takes shape in the third chapter. After discussing the advantages and limitations of Sacvan Bercovitch’s theory of the American ideology as a possible solution for the study of Americanness, I introduce the model of cultural analysis proposed by German historian Reinhart Koselleck, one of the founding fathers of conceptual history (Begriffsgeschichte). I also show that the idea of Americanness displays all the characteristics of an analytical concept, that is, unresolved ambiguity, condensation of the entirety of meaning and experience within a sociopolitical context, and structural potential, that is, the potential for representing events and conditions, for rendering noncontemporary relations, states, and processes contemporary. With respect to literary history writing, Begriffsgeschichte has a double potential: first, to explain the source of confusion between historically different semantic loads of the same concept; and second, to check the critic’s tendency to relativize concepts and therefore make the past a little too familiar. Synchronically, the concept of “Americanness” can be analyzed by focusing on its semantic field as constituted, at the historical period in question (antebellum America), at the confluence of several cultural-historical concepts that defined American experience at that time. I identify the following concepts: national identity, representation, individualism, race, sympathy, and womanhood. These concepts were in various stages of their histories during the period in question. Sympathy, for example, was at the peak of its career, while individualism was only emerging.

Biographical notes

Iulian Cananau (Author)

Iulian Cananau is a senior lecturer in American Literature at the University of Gävle (Sweden). Previously, he worked as an assistant professor in American Studies at the English Department of the University of Bucharest. He was the recipient of a Fulbright research grant at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge (USA).


Title: Constituting «Americanness»