This book is based on my PhD dissertation, entitled Representations of the Concept of “Americanness” in the Canon of Antebellum American Literature. It is a work in cultural history and literary theory that suggests a fresh and potentially fruitful approach to the old notion of Americanness, an idea that lay at the foundation of American studies in mid-twentieth century, only to be exposed as “ideological fiction” by the New Americanists. Surprisingly, neither its advocates nor its critics have made the scholarly effort necessary to theorize or conceptualize Americanness.
The subtitle indicates what is distinctive about this project: this is a study of the concept of Americanness. Thus, following Reinhart Koselleck’s history of concepts (Begriffsgeschichte), I propose that “Americanness” is not an ordinary word, but a concept with a broad, albeit historically specific, semantic field. Thus, in the three decades before the Civil War, the semantic field of “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, paying attention to their overlapping with the rhetoric of national identification, I uncover some of the meaning of “Americanness” in that period.
As far as literary history writing is concerned, Begriffsgeschichte has a double potential: first, to explain the source of confusion between historically different semantic loads of the same concept and, second, to check the critic’s tendency to relativize concepts and therefore make the past a little too familiar. The concept-focused close reading of literary works of the past involves a reformulation of the text/context binary so as to account for contingencies without diminishing the importance of exegesis (a crippling tendency in contemporary literary studies); ultimately, this work aims to reconsider the relationship between history and literature.
To lay out the meaning of “Americanness” I analyze a wide range of antebellum texts by Emerson, Melville, Thoreau, Douglass, Whitman, Stowe, Jacobs, Hawthorne, Poe, and Fuller, against the background of critical reception and recent scholarship. Thus, to college students and faculty, this book offers a period study of major American writers of the antebellum era.
Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang Publishing Group, 2015. , 280 p.