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Constituting «Americanness»

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

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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 11. The New Order of Free Enterprise Capitalism

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Chapter 11. The New Order of Free Enterprise Capitalism

I have so far investigated the semantic field of Americanness in cross-section, by analyzing its constitutive concepts (national identity, slavery, race, gender, individualism, sympathy, and representation) as represented in the works of mid-nineteenth century writers who are now part of the literary canon. It is now time to discuss their response to one historical circumstance that had a significant impact on the concept of Americanness. It is not an event, but a structure, to use Koselleck’s distinction, as explained in Chapter 3. This structure is what I have called “the new order of free enterprise capitalism”.

The American Renaissance coincided with a period of huge transformations brought forth by the transition from an agrarian society to a market economy. Industrialization, urbanization, and the development of communications were some of the phenomena associated with this evolution. Mass production changed the layout of American labor further widening the gap between the rich and the poor and increasing social stratification. Jackson’s laissez-faire policies stimulated the business sector, but they would eventually lead to the concentration of economic power in the hands of the few. Ironically, “the age of the common man”, as Jacksonian Democracy had been dubbed, left a legacy of inequality that would haunt American society for decades (Tindall and Shi 333).

In spite of a low level of social mobility, the myth of “rags to riches” was as strong as ever and, as the effects of...

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