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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 6. Three Avatars of American Representation: The Philosopher, The Citizen, and the Poet


Chapter 6. Three Avatars of American Representation: The Philosopher, The Citizen, and the Poet

In the introduction to her study Travelling Concepts in the Humanities, Mieke Bal writes: “interdisciplinarity in the humanities, necessary, exciting, serious, must seek its heuristic and methodological basis in concepts rather than methods” (5). Few concepts travel so easily across disciplinary borders as “representation”, for this protean concept is a familiar presence in the discourses of literary theory, history, cultural studies, aesthetics, semiotics, media studies, art history, musicology, religious studies, cognitive science, linguistics, and political science. Its versatility is due to an extensive semantic field made up (according to OED) of no less than ten definitions, many of which featuring several subentries. In addition, some meanings clearly overlap, as it is the case with definitions 1.b. (“The action or fact of expressing or denoting symbolically; […] an instance of this, a symbolic action”), 6.b. (“The action or fact of portraying a person or thing, esp. in an artistic medium; depiction”), and 8.a. (“The action of putting forward an account of something discursively; a spoken or written statement, esp. one which conveys or intends to create a particular view or impression”) (“Representation”).

For the current investigation of the contribution of the concept of representation to the semantic field of Americanness before the Civil War, a brief review of its earlier American history is in order. As already shown in the section on national identity, many antebellum commentators, from James Kirk Paulding and Cooper to...

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