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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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You get a sense of the alienation or the strangeness of the notion of America, of a made-up country that essentially has no meaning except a few values, a few lines from the Declaration of Independence, a few principles you can derive from the Constitution. It’s not just Ishmael who’s an imaginary American, or an imagined American. Everybody who confronts this question, whether it’s Chuck Berry who does so explicitly, whether it’s Melville, and he does so explicitly, whether it’s Jefferson, Lincoln – all these people do this explicitly, and many people do it implicitly. They’re all saying, ‘‘what would it mean to be an American?’’ not ‘‘what does it mean?’’ It presumes that America has yet to actually take shape, come into focus, it’s not completely real, it may never be. But you’re going to have to act that out yourself, in whatever way it would be. (Sollors 27)

This judgment was expressed by Greil Marcus, co-editor with Werner Sollors of A New Literary History of America, in an interview from 2010, in which the two renowned scholars explained the ideas behind their eventful book and some of their more controversial editorial decisions. Marcus’s words echo familiar conceptions of “America”: a nation that is exceptionally unique, because, unlike others, it is founded on the civic values and principles inscribed in a few documents of classical liberalism; America as an invention; America as an ongoing process; America as a sign in between imagination and praxis....

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