restricted access Being American in Europe: 1750-1860 by Daniel Kilbride (review)
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Reviewed by
Daniel Kilbride. Being American in Europe: 1750-1860. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2013. 230p.

Historians have documented the unparalleled growth of America in the nineteenth century, but the focus has been primarily westward in orientation. The United States was intensely self-absorbed in nation-building through territorial expansion and conquest, and exploration and settlement of those new lands. In addition, there was the intractable problem of slavery. The focus of antebellum America was decidedly inward, though policies such as the Monroe Doctrine delineated a broader, hemispheric foreign policy. Daniel Kilbride, in his insightful and thought-provoking study, Being American in Europe: 1750-1860, provides another perspective on this critical period in American history. Instead of looking to the West, he follows the journeys of Americans to the East, to Europe, examining how the “Old World” forced Americans to confront questions about their own identity. It was one thing to declare political independence from Europe’s greatest colonial power, but quite another altogether to declare cultural independence from Western Europe, and most traveling Americans were reluctant to do so despite waves of Anglophobia and Europhobia at home. With its alluring beauty and fascinating depth, Europe made America seem shallow in comparison. This was problematic for American patriotism and nation-building, and Kilbride’s stated purpose is to address “how Americans defined themselves within and against [End Page 94] Europe in the formative period of national identity”(7). In the postrevolutionary era especially, there was great anxiety over America’s relationship to the world’s most powerful continent. American tourists were remarkably sensitive about how they were viewed in Europe, and resented being perceived as provincials, rustics, or parvenus. They also felt affronted by apparent English and European indifference towards American affairs. From the evidence Kilbride presents, it is clear that most traveling Americans were proud of their new republic and had a strong moral obligation to take the light of democracy back to Europe, seeking out signs of egalitarian progress in England and, especially, on the Continent.

Kilbride begins the book with the period around 1750 when the American colonies were joining forces to counter the French and their Indian allies, and concludes his study with the time just before the Civil War. In his reconstruction of Americans’ struggle with Americanness, however, Kilbride does not turn to the usual suspects. He deliberately sets aside the views of well-known travel writers, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and instead “examines the views of the obscure, and largely forgotten, women and men who visited Europe between 1750 and 1860” (7). These views are derived from unpublished life-writings (manuscripts), especially diaries, journals, and letters, along with lesser-known print sources. Kilbride’s foregrounding of primary source materials is one of the book’s greatest strengths. With this wealth of texts (and there is a useful summary of these sources at the end of the book), Kilbride presents a complicated picture of Americanness that is deeply ambivalent, even paradoxical, at times. There are ample, yet aptly, quoted passages from these texts, many of them providing a rich flavor of the personality and language of the individual writers. One striking section, for instance, is on postrevolutionary Americans’ preference for Scotland, particularly American admiration of the modernity of Edinburgh’s New Town and American appreciation of Scottish hospitality (51-53).

The main points of the study emerge inductively, yet clearly, despite some repetition. Kilbride draws attention to key issues that Americans faced as they encountered Europe. These include: (1) morality (the fear that European society, especially the upper-classes, could corrupt naive Americans); (2) the tension between Anglophilia and Anglophobia (especially after the Revolutionary War, which softened, according to Kilbride, after 1820); (3) the difference between views of the British Isles (more favorable) and the Continent (less favorable); (4) Protestantism vs. Catholicism (with a running strain of anti-Catholicism, accentuated by anxiety over the influx of Irish immigrants); (5) “Catholic envy” (regarding the cultural wealth of the Roman church, with its art and spectacular cathedrals and churches); (6) the inconsistency between extreme wealth (the [End Page 95] aristocracy) and poverty in Europe; and, (7) an unflagging (and...