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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 2. Ethnicity, Race, and Whiteness in Some Ethnic Conceptions of Americanness

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Chapter 2. Ethnicity, Race, and Whiteness in Some Ethnic Conceptions of Americanness

One ethnic group whose writers and cultural critics have looked upon their hyphenated identity with peculiar intensity is that of the Jewish-Americans. There is an ancient preoccupation with Jewishness in Jewish culture. “Who is a Jew?” is a very serious question which finds its answer(s) in the statutory texts of the various Judaic movements. They may differ on the particulars, but for the liberal and the orthodox alike, a Jew is a person whose mother was Jewish or a person who has gone through formal conversion to Judaism. Jewish identity is therefore both religious and ethnic as it also applies to individuals who are not observant Jews, who are atheists or even converts to another religion, provided they have a Jewish mother. A Jew’s Jewishness is a concrete reality, something provable by the simplest appeal to common sense.

This secular/genealogical side of Jewishness must have played an important part in the preservation of Jewish identity through centuries of living amidst gentiles. But what happened when any significant number of this ethnically self-conscious group migrated to America? Jewish immigration actually consisted of three distinct waves: the Sephardic Jews during the colonial period, the German Jews in the nineteenth century, and the Jews from Central and Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1924. The last two groups, the Ashkenazim, were the largest and had the greatest impact on American culture. The German Jews were generally liberal-minded...

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