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Heartless Immensity

Literature, Culture, and Geography in Antebellum America

Anne Baker

Publication Year: 2006

As the size of the United States more than doubled during the first half of the nineteenth century, a powerful current of anxiety ran alongside the well-documented optimism about national expansion. Heartless Immensity tells the story of how Americans made sense of their country’s constantly fluctuating borders and its annexation of vast new territories. Anne Baker looks at a variety of sources, including letters, speeches, newspaper editorials, schoolbooks, as well as visual and literary works of art. These cultural artifacts suggest that the country’s anxiety was fueled primarily by two concerns: fears about the size of the nation as a threat to democracy, and about the incorporation of nonwhite, non-Protestant regions. These fears had a consistent and influential presence until after the Civil War, functioning as vital catalysts for the explosion of literary creativity known as the “American Renaissance,” including the work of Melville, Thoreau, and Fuller, among others. Building on extensive archival research as well as insights from cultural geographers and theorists of nationhood, Heartless Immensity demonstrates that national expansion had a far more complicated, multifaceted impact on antebellum American culture than has previously been recognized. Baker shows that Americans developed a variety of linguistic strategies for imagining the form of the United States and its position in relation to other geopolitical entities. Comparisons to European empires, biblical allusions, body politic metaphors, and metaphors derived from science all reflected—and often attempted to assuage—fears that the nation was becoming either monstrously large or else misshapen in ways that threatened cherished beliefs and national self-images. Heartless Immensity argues that, in order to understand the nation’s shift from republic to empire and to understand American culture in a global context, it is first necessary to pay close attention to the processes by which the physical entity known as the United States came into being. This impressively thorough study will make a valuable contribution to the fields of American studies and literary studies. Anne Baker is Assistant Professor of English at North Carolina State University.

Published by: University of Michigan Press


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p. ix

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Introduction: An Empire in Denial

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pp. 1-15

During the first half of the nineteenth century, the United States more than doubled in size. As dreams of a nation spanning all of the North American continent reached their peak at midcentury, some Americans wanted to annex territory even beyond continental limits, including islands like Cuba and Hawaii. This massive ...

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1. Imagining National Form

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pp. 16-29

Early in Edward Everett Hale's 1863 short story "The Man Without a Country," set in the early republic, the main character, Phillip Nolan, is condemned never again "to hear of his country or to see any information regarding it." 1 And for fifty-six years, he doesn't. At the end of the story, Nolan - now "a dear, sainted old man" ...

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2. Mapping and Measuring with Ahab and Wilkes

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pp. 30-43

The marked differences between Ishmael and Ahab create a contrapuntal effect in the narrative of Moby-Dick. Whereas Ahab's intense desire to take revenge on the white whale drives the plot of the novel toward its violent conclusion, Ishmael's reveries and reflections on the nature of the whale slow it down, forcing the reader to pause, ...

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3. From Salt Lake to Walden Pond

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pp. 44-63

In his essay "Walking," Thoreau describes an apocalyptic vision of measurement gone mad, of the urge to establish boundaries taken to a blackcomical extreme.1 In this vision, a "worldly miser with a surveyor looking after his bounds" does not see that "heaven had taken place around him" and continues to look for "an old post-hole ...

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4. Word, Image, and National Geography

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pp. 64-80

Invented at the end of the eighteenth century, panoramas - large illusionistic paintings designed to make the viewer feel transported to the place portrayed - were extraordinarily popular for much of the nineteenth century. Circular panoramas, in which viewers would look at 360-degree paintings from a viewing platform, ...

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5. Views from the Edge of Empire

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pp. 81-101

Few, if any, passages in the American Renaissance canon have been quoted as often as this one from Ralph Waldo Emerson's Nature (1836). Emerson's transformation into a transparent eyeball has been called "the representative anecdote of his experience of inspiration."1 In fact, however, dramatic visual moments carry a heavy rhetorical ...

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6. Body Size and the Body Politic

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pp. 102-117

In chapter 1 of James Fenimore Cooper's The Prairie (1827), a historical romance centered on social and political problems arising from the Louisiana Purchase, the Bush clan - a family of westward-moving squatters portrayed so as to evoke the nomadic families of the Old Testament patriarchs - comes face to face with ...

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7. Geography, Pedagogy, and Race

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pp. 118-135

Despite - or perhaps because of - the multiplicity of racial and ethnic groups who coexisted uneasily within the nation's constantly fluctuating borders, the ideal of a racially homogeneous nation-state - of a geopolitical unit in which a single racial identity is coincident with national identity - was a powerful presence in antebellum ...

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pp. 136-138

In this book I have tried to shed new light on the "American Renaissance" by showing how writers like Melville, Thoreau, and Fuller addressed the problem of their nation's size and shape. Some of their most important insights and formal innovations emerged, as we saw, from their engagement with various cultural mechanisms ...


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pp. 139-160


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pp. 161-170


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pp. 171-173

E-ISBN-13: 9780472025763
E-ISBN-10: 0472025767
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472115709
Print-ISBN-10: 0472115707

Page Count: 184
Illustrations: 9 illustrations
Publication Year: 2006

OCLC Number: 615635624
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Heartless Immensity

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Literature and history -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Literature, Modern ‡x History and criticism.
  • Boundaries in literature.
  • Geography in literature.
  • Imperialism -- Social aspects -- United States -- History.
  • United States -- Territorial expansion -- History -- 19th century.
  • Culture conflict in literature.
  • National characteristics, American, in literature.
  • American literature -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
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