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American Niceness: A Cultural History. By Carrie Tirado Bramen (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2017) 384 pp. $45.00

Thomas Hartshorne once declared it “a commonplace that Americans are more concerned with their national identity and spend more time trying to explain themselves to themselves” than do most other people.1 In American Niceness, Bramen joins company with Potter, Boorstin, Slotkin, and myriad others to explain us to us.2 For Bramen, “niceness” serves as a significant framing lens for detecting American identity. She contends that in the 1770s, even as Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie (Paris, 1751–1772) was noting proverbial descriptions of nationalities—“carefree as a Frenchman, jealous as an Italian, serious as a Spaniard, wicked as an Englishman, proud as a Scotsman, drunk as a German, lazy as an Irishman, duplicitous as a Greek”—Americans adopted niceness as a defining characteristic. 3 The Declaration of Independence provides a first and important example, one in which the Founding Fathers decided that conditions had [End Page 153] deteriorated so badly that, almost regretfully, it had “become necessary and proper” to separate from Great Britain. Throughout the nineteenth century, Americans cultivated and complicated a smiling, affable pleasantness not only blandly to accommodate an increasingly diverse population but also to smooth and enable the manifold violence associated with expansion across the continent.

Bramen’s approach bears some resemblance to that of Michael Kammen, whose People of Paradox: An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization (Ithaca, 1990) offers the curiously useful term syzygy to explain ways in which a national characteristic can hold in tension the opposing qualities necessary to create a whole. American Niceness directs our attention to the seemingly benign use of niceness but expressly draws from Voloshinov’s idea of multi-accentuality, a theory positing that different groups assign different accents to the same linguistic signs, thereby allowing multiple meanings for a word.4 By examining an impressive collection of novels, sermons, memoirs, plays, and other written remnants of nineteenth-century life, Bramen parses the signs of American niceness, showing its own doubled edges, wherein an agreeable surface masks as well as endorses “not niceness.”

Bramen develops her thesis systematically. She begins with “manifest cheerfulness”—according to Bramen, a hospitality modeled on Native American behavior but mirrored in a fragmented, selective way, ultimately to be deployed against indigenous claims and lives. She then explores southern hospitality and the enigmatic smile of the enslaved (29). For example, Captain Delano in Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno (1855) “sees in the black smile confirmation of his own [white] amiability,” which enables him to remain blind to the two-facedness embodied in Babo’s loyalty (141). Chapters about Christology and feminine niceness lead more deeply into an analysis of the mixed signs of domination and resistance, further complicating our understanding of American geniality. Jesus’ transformation into a loving friend allowed for a humanized deity destined “to love us, to teach us, to save us,” as Stowe wrote (152).5 It was a move that facilitated the democratization of religion as it demoted the authority of the Calvinists’ mighty God. Yet, as Wells discovered, asserting equality in a democracy proved difficult for African Americans and women.6 Despite her first-class ticket and ladylike demeanor, in a violently revealing episode, a railroad employee refused Wells a seat because of her color (242–248).

In the final chapter, “The Likeable Empire,” Bramen argues more generally that the nation’s exceptionalist mythos of democratic innocence continues to obfuscate the all-too-demonstrably violent strains [End Page 154] of American life. Although it reaches conclusions that are not in themselves shockingly novel, American Niceness offers a coherent, nuanced, and richly textured reading of the power of words to discipline the traumas and misuses of power in nineteenth-century America. In doing so, Bramen considers more carefully the asynchronous accents in works as varied as those of Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin), Melville, the Beechers, Frederick Douglass, and Horace Bushnell—to name a few of many. Bramen has thus repositioned niceness, a term of banal virtue, as an important key to explicating the elusive meaning(s) of American identity. As we...

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