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Book Reviews Review Essay constructing american identity/identities James Jasinski American Declarations: Rebellion and Repentance in American History. By Harold K. Bush Jr. Urbana, 111.: University of Illinois Press, 1999; pp. xi + 224. $49.95 cloth; $19.95 paper. Constructing American Lives: Biography and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America. By Scott E. Casper. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1999; pp. ix + 439. $49.95 cloth; $19.95 paper. Playing Indian. By Philip J. Deloria. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998; pp. 1 + 249. $25.00 cloth. What, then, is the American, this new man? Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur Letters from An American Farmer (1782) Henry Nash Smith began his prize-winning 1950 work Virgin Landhy invoking de Crèvecoeur's question. Smith wrote: "What is an American? asked St. John de Crèvecoeur before the Revolution, and the question has been repeated by every generation from his time to ours. Poets and novelists, historians and statesmen have undertaken to answer it, but the varying national self-consciousnesses they have tried to capture always escapes final statement."1 Americans, Smith suggested in 1950, have been engaged in a continual quest of self-discovery. As a nation, we have been preoccupied with our collective identity. More recent scholarship reaffirms Smith's suspicion. Historian Thomas Hartshorne comments: "It is a commonplace that Americans are more concerned with their national identity and spend more time trying to explain themselves to themselves than people of other nations."2 Rupert Wilkinson concurs, referring to the proliferation of twentieth-century scholarship on the subject as "the social-character industry."3 James Jasinski is Assistant Professor of Communication and Theatre Arts at the University ofPuget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. © Rhetoric & Public Affairs Vol. 3, No. 1, 2000, pp. 71-129 ISSN 1094-8392 72 Rhetoric & Public Affairs Explicit reflection on American identity or our national character begins during the second third of the nineteenth century. In Democracy in America, de Crèvecoeur's countryman Alexis de Tocqueville employed national character as a central explanatory concept while identifying some of the central paradoxes (e.g. the conflicting traditions of self-reliance and civic association) which contemporary scholars continue to explore today. George Bancroft published the first volume of his History of the United States in 1834 and, as Harold Bush suggests, Bancroft was one of the first professional historians to emphasize the Puritan's contribution to an emerging national identity.4 As historical study became institutionalized, it served as a forum for further reflection on the nature and evolution of American identity. Near the turn of the century, for example, Frederick Jackson Turner's paper "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" outlined a way of understanding American character "traits" as a response to our material experience of wilderness. Turner's paper would exert an enormous influence on historical studies and efforts to conceptualize national character in the first half of the twentieth century. Historians were not the only scholars to grapple with de Crèvecoeur's question. If, as Smith suggested, poets and novelists helped articulate the terms of American character or identity in the nineteenth century, many literary scholars in the twentieth have sought to shape our understanding of that process. In Playing Indian, Philip Deloria identifies D. H. Lawrence's 1924 work, Studies in Classic American Literature, as one of the first critical efforts to focus on the textual construction of identity. This interest would persist in other seminal critical studies of nineteenthcentury American literature: Van Wyck Brooks's The Flowering of New England, 1815-1865 (1936), F. O. Matthiessen's American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941), Smith's Virgin Land, and R. W. B. Lewis's The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (1955). Scholarly interest in discourse, textuality, and identity has increased dramatically over the last decade thanks, in large part, to ongoing theoretical ferment concerning the nature of selfhood and subjectivity.5 Historians, interdisciplinary Americanists, and anthropologists as well as psychologists have also maintained an active interest in American character and identity throughout the twentieth century. Classic works include Margaret Mead's World War...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-5238
Print ISSN
1094-8392
Pages
pp. 71-86
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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