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Constituting «Americanness»

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


Iulian Cananau

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.
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The concepts whose literary representations I have discussed in order to account for the semantic field of “Americanness” make up only a partial list; such concepts as “utopia”, “awakening”, “(manifest) destiny”, and “civilization” could have been approached because each of them is, in a certain degree, relevant for the constitution of “Americanness” in the period in question. Much of the semantic field of the concept of “democracy” in antebellum America overlaps with “representation” and “national identity”, as well as with “race” and “womanhood”. Other political concepts, such as “equality” and “citizenship” are also discussed in some detail in the chapters on “race”, “womanhood”, and “representation”. I do not exclude a different selection and arrangement of concepts as long as the literary historian remains aware of the difference between the semantic fields of the same concept at the moment of the work’s production and its present-day reception.

This project must therefore remain open with respect to both its selection of concepts that constitute the semantic field of “Americanness” and, more importantly, the array of literary works in which their representations can be analyzed. The texts I have chosen are part of what is now the American literary canon, a list of works that are most frequently anthologized, published, taught in colleges (included in literature survey syllabi), investigated as part of Ph.D. projects or any other kind of research, and generally eliciting a significant interest within literary scholarship. Although the list of antebellum “classics” has been revised and...

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