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Relatively few Americans traveled to Europe before the Civil War, [End Page 513] but those who did tended to be wealthy, influential, and, most importantly, articulate about their experiences abroad. Historians have long mined the accounts of individual travelers abroad, whether southern scions, diplomats and politicians, or radical abolitionists. But, in Being American in Europe, Daniel Kilbride has added to our understanding of American culture, identity, and nationalism between the middle of the eighteenth century and the middle of the nineteenth century by considering these travelers collectively and distilling the common threads of their experiences.
This approach pays important analytical dividends by revealing how Americans thought about themselves and their nation in the context of the Atlantic world, or as Kilbride puts it, the “meaning of Europe for the fledgling United States” (p. 5). His central insight is that “travelers led Americans to define an identity vis-à-vis Europe that staked out a distinctive nationalism while situating the Republic within the Atlantic community” (p. 44). In other words, travel to Europe led Americans to reflect not only on what made them unique, but also on the nature of their connection to their European heritage. Kilbride identifies a kind of productive ambivalence that forced Americans to turn to politics, religion, and increasingly race to articulate a national identity that both acknowledged and superseded Europe. Although Kilbride wisely steers away from the term “American exceptionalism,” he correctly identifies a strongly millennial tone to Americans’ growing confidence that their nation represented the economic, political, and cultural future of the Atlantic world. Of course, this ambivalence was considerably more fraught for travelers to Britain rather than to the continent, a distinction that Kilbride emphasizes. But regardless of destination, European travel forced a few lucky Americans to articulate some of the most sophisticated understandings of national identity in the period.
Kilbride’s sources consist almost entirely of written narratives, both manuscript and published. This source base shapes the kinds of questions he can ask, and tends to focus his conclusions on issues of identity. Kilbride’s treatment of the identities of his subjects is [End Page 514] subtle and sophisticated, especially on the questions of wealth and republican politics, refinement and social status, and the relationship of slavery to national identity. But this sharp focus on the experiences of travelers as recorded in their own words creates some blind spots. For example, because Kilbride is so interested in the perceptions of individual travelers, much of the book ends up focusing on outliers whose understanding of America’s relationship with Europe did not fit within the broad consensus he demonstrates.
More importantly, Kilbride’s analysis does not consistently engage with the larger effects that travel to Europe had on American culture. The book contains some tantalizing suggestions, like its thoroughgoing analysis of travelers’ sociability, which Kilbride suggests “establish[ed] the foundations of a national community” (p. 78). He chronicles myriad encounters abroad between Americans from diverse regional, political, and racial backgrounds, and argues convincingly that they worked collectively to make real an imagined American national character. In moments like this, Kilbride offers valuable insight into some of the central questions of early national American history, but they are scattered in a text that is mostly focused on the subjective experiences of a small group of elite travelers.
Ultimately, Being American in Europe is a valuable contribution to the literature because it pulls a diverse array of travelers (many of whom are already well-known to historians in other contexts) into one analysis in order to reveal the fundamental questions of national identity that travel to Europe posed. Like the insights gained by the travelers he studies, Kilbride’s book helps us better understand the United States as an emerging nation in the Atlantic world. [End Page 515]
WILL B. MACKINTOSH is an assistant professor of history at the University of Mary Washington. He is currently working on a cultural history of American tourism in the nineteenth century.