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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 9. Slavery, Race, and Racism


Chapter 9. Slavery, Race, and Racism

Of these three words, only “race” is a proper social and historical concept in the sense of Koselleck’s understanding of Begriffsgeschichte. Its origin can even be traced to the “saddle period” (Sattelzeit) between 1750 and 1850, when, according to Koselleck’s theory of European history, the view of historical time as static, finite, and implacably natural began to be replaced by one that opened the horizon of the future, a view of time as tractable, dynamic, marked by movement and anticipation (Practice 5). The concept has a plurality of meanings, as its twenty-three definitions testify (“Race”), but, in its diachronic dimension (which also accounts for the conceptual cluster or network within which an individual concept is located), unresolved ambiguities arise from its problematic association with such staple notions of modernity as “progress” and “civilization”, which embody the new experience of time. In Keywords, Raymond Williams identifies two important stages in the history of the term in English: the first occurs in 1787, when, “through serious physical anthropology”, J. F. Blumenbach established five human races, Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, American, and Malayan, without any sort of qualitative ranking (249). At this point, race is a general concept of the kind Koselleck calls “transferrable”, that is, concrete, general concepts of human classification based on reciprocity, such as “nation”, “party”, “society”, “state” etc. (Futures 156). According to Williams, in the second stage, the meaning of the word becomes “radically confused … with other ideas derived from social and...

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