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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 5. National Identity


Chapter 5. National Identity

The phrase that best approximates our present-day idea of national identity in antebellum America is “national character”. In European written culture, the systematic assignation of distinctive characteristics to specific ethnic groups in European written culture only appears during the early Enlightenment, when the concepts of “character” and “nation” also suffered significant transformations (Leerssen 272). According to Joep Leerssen, in addition to its earlier designation as a social type or the appearance of an individual, “character” acquired the sense of “essential nature”, while “‘nation’ became more and more the category of human aggregation that linked culture and polity” (272–3). These two dimensions of the semantic field of “nation” were largely informed by the contributions of Herder’s cultural philosophy and Rousseau’s theory of popular sovereignty. With the advent of Romanticism and philosophical idealism at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the concept of “character” soared to the more rarefied semantic regions of Platonic Ideas, where it took on the meaning of “pure spirit” or Geist. In combination with the equally abstract notion of “the people” as a unitary, homogeneous, and organic national community, it brought forth the idea of the particular Volksgeist or genius that every nation-state was supposed to embody. Hence, in Leerssen’s words, “literature became less and less the cosmopolitan pursuit of written culture in a transnational Republic of Letters, and more and more the manifestation of the nation’s character by means of verbal art” (274).

In this intellectual context, the...

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