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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 7. Individualism


Chapter 7. Individualism

In Chapter 3 I outlined a history of the concept of individualism, paying special attention to the American antebellum context, but this investigation of its representations in texts by Emerson and Thoreau will also take into account the concept of self or ego in its social rather than metaphysical dimension, that is, in the words of a historian of the Koselleckian denomination, the self “defined as the set of attitudes adopted with regard to the other and that others adopt with regard to us, a generalized other as it were” (Guilhaumou 348). The modern idea of “self”1, liberated from the oppressive model of subjectivity of the Middle Ages, endowed with an all-powerful consciousness (as in Locke and Descartes’ theories of individuality, which firmly placed consciousness at the center of the world), capable of detachment and objective evaluations of facts and experience, and not yet problematized by socio-economic, biological, historical, psychological, and linguistic determinisms, confidently straddles the private and public spheres in antebellum America. Likewise, the semantic field of “individualism” necessarily covers both realms of individual experience. In this section, however, I shall focus exclusively on individualism and individuality in the national public sphere, leaving aside the intimate dimension of the self with its associate concept of “privacy”, to which I shall refer in the last chapter.

According to Emerson, the lives and works of representative men teach us humility and cure us of egotism. But the term he uses first is actually...

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