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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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Chapter 1. The History of “Americanness” in American Literary Studies


Chapter 1. The History of “Americanness” in American Literary Studies

Looking up “Americanness” in the dictionaries of the English language one quickly finds that its position in the lexicon is far from privileged. The majority of the comprehensive dictionaries of English published in the twentieth century simply ignore it. The term first appears in the final section of the entry for the headword “American” in the 1989 Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition, where it features at the end of a list of such derivatives as “Americana”, “Americanese”, “Americanitis”, and “Americanly”. “Americanness” is defined as “The quality of being American, of having and revealing American characteristics” (“American”). In 2008, that definition is updated and upgraded to full entry; the word is now defined as “The quality or fact of being American or having American characteristics” (“Americanness”). This source provides five examples, the first being presumed to indicate the earliest occurrence:

1862 N. Amer. Rev. July 87. For the Americanness of his work this Doctor of Law received a wreath made of Connecticut and other domestic laurel.

1885 Sat. Rev. 17 Oct. 517/2 In none of Mr. Howells’ books is his Americanness more conspicuous than in his latest. The Rise of Silas Lapham.

1939 I. H. Herron Small Town in Amer. Lit. x. 334 Stubbornly clinging to the genteel traditions of Tiverton, Deephaven, and Old Chester, their loyal defenders bravely resisted the almost overwhelming Americanness of a vigorous emergent order.

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