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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 4. Americanness, Americanism, and U.S. National Identity


Chapter 4. Americanness, Americanism, and U.S. National Identity

One symptom of treating Americanness non-analytically surfaces every now and then even in some of the most persuasive and influential scholarly books and articles. The term is then used as a substitute for the word “Americanism”. To elucidate the meaning of the latter we must go back to the Oxford English Dictionary. It gives three definitions of the term in the following order: 1.a. A word, phrase, or other use of language characteristic of, peculiar to, or originating from the United States. b. A quality, custom, or trait peculiar to, or characteristic of the United States; typically American character or behavior. 2. Attachment or allegiance to, or political sympathy with, the traditions, institutions, and national ideals of the United States. (“Americanism”). To illustrate the last sense, the dictionary entry includes two quotations from Jefferson’s Writings: “The dictates of reason and pure Americanism” (1797) and “I knew your Americanism too well” (1808). The illustration for the second definition (1.b.) includes two interesting quotations: one by Emerson from his 1870 essay “Society and Solitude”, “I hate this shallow Americanism which hopes to get rich by credit”; and the other from D. H. Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent: “Americanism is the worst of the two because Bolshevism only smashes your house or your business or your skull, but Americanism smashes your soul” (1926).

For the most part, the differences between the meanings of the two words in question are obvious. Definition 1.b....

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