Since the emergence of the United States, American identity has been correlated with an experience of the right books, the books best suited to prepare young persons for life as Americans. Current debates in and outside the academy over curriculae, canons, and multiculturalism reiterate the nation’s enduring faith in fiction’s power to bring persons to the places or positions that it represents. Sharp disagreements exist over the definitions of persons, places, and positions, but all sides of these debates invoke and promote literary nationalism as they advocate the forms of literature that they think best promulgate their conceptions of American values. 1
In late eighteenth-century America, formation of an appropriate American literature was a key component of the nationalist agenda of establishing an American state and culture. Cultural nationalists such as Noah Webster saw the transatlantic literary culture conveyed through novels as an unsuitable because distorted representation of values for American youth. What made many novels “pernicious,” Webster maintained, was their creation of false expectations, particularly monetary ones (“Education of Youth” 29). “The heads of young people of both sexes are often turned by reading descriptions of splendid living, of coaches, of plays, and other amusements. Such descriptions excite a desire to enjoy the same pleasures” (“Education of Youth” 30). American youth instead should read about American geography and history [End Page 115] in essays “attentive to the political interest of America” (American Selection 3). Another partisan of American literary nationalism, Benjamin Rush, likewise characterized novelistic influence as un-American, since “the subjects of novels are by no means accommodated to our present manners. They hold up life, it is true, but it is not yet life in America. . . . As yet the intrigues of a British novel are as foreign to our manners as the refinements of Asiatic vice” (48). 2
This requirement for reproductions of life in America, of its economy and manners, suggests that the reality of American culture cannot be achieved and appreciated until it is rendered in literature, until what is most familiar about American life appears in books. The objects, physical and ideational, of American culture will gain credit when they become literary objects, recognized, desired, and imitated by readers. America will be realized in its simulacra. Early American cultural critics thus employed a long-standing social theory of mimesis, or what can be termed simply the social influence of mimesis.
According to this conception, most memorably formulated by Plato, persons both identify with and emulate representational forms of persons. The power of representation thus derives from the degree of either recognition or desire that a given representation arouses. Like Plato, Webster and Rush worry about the ways in which representations may incite desires and, to govern this phenomenon, stress the familiar aspect of mimesis: the resemblance between reality and representations. Preference for the reflective and reproductive capacity of representation over its suggestive power, however, never denies or banishes the influentiality of representations. Indeed, the match between reality and representations, between persons and literary figures of them, absolutely requires that persons desire to be like the persons they read about. Theoretical as well as practical designers of society persistently have envisioned directing this desire by designating the objects of literature or controlling access to what literary objects that children, presumably the most impressionable members of the populace, encounter. 3
When Webster and Rush plan the education of Americans, then, they see the task of forming Americans as a matter of presenting youth with literature filled with what they deem American objects, aspects of American experience, economics, language, geography, and manners. [End Page 116] In reproductions of American society, young persons will find models to desire and copy. Mimesis thus exhibits and generates the self’s location in culture, the social relations in which identity develops. While the cultural-nationalist use of mimesis as a mode of defining and inculcating identity highlights the local features of identity, the actual evolution of American culture from colonies to confederation to nation over the course of the eighteenth century proceeded from a sense of the changeability of the self’s local affiliations. Rather than from schooling in American objects, the sense of a...