restricted access 1. Joel Barlow’s The Vision of Columbus and The Columbiad: US National Identity and Spain
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PART I The Black Legend, Hispanicism, and the Emergence of National Identity in the Early United States 1 Joel Barlow’s The Vision of Columbus and The Columbiad US National Identity and Spain Joel Barlow’s long Columbian poems The Vision of Columbus and the later, more doctrinaire revision The Columbiad are among the first examples of US literary nationalism. His work’s foundational role suggests meaningful questions despite the poetry’s derivative, tedious neoclassicism. At this early moment, how would Barlow conceive US nationality? What stories would he tell, and what forms would those stories take? How does his work relate to later literary nationalisms? William C. Dowling provides a useful paradigm for under­ stand­ ing the po­ liti­ cal and philosophical dimensions of Barlow’s poetry. Dowling argues that what most marks Barlow’s work is its insistent faith in history’s progress toward a secular millennium defined by universal liberty. Dowling, more­ over, emphasizes Barlow’s relentless, merciless demystification of all religious and philosophical systems that impede this millennium. Dowling explains that Barlow took aim at Christian, classically republican conceptions of cyclical history as impediments to progress (Dowling 1990, 100). Although Barlow was writing during the age of republicanism, he can be viewed as a liberal, a term more frequently applied to later thinking. Many of his contemporaries, such as his fellow Connecticut Wits, exhibited the tradition-­ focused, inward-­ looking tendencies characteristic of republicanism . The anticonventionalist Barlow, though, looked outward. His work may have been aesthetically conservative, but it was po­ liti­ cally radical (Sutton 1980, 75). The liberal, secular millennium that Barlow saw as history’s ultimate outcome was a cosmopolitan moment. It would, upon its achievement, bring humankind together under terms of brotherhood and equal opportunity. Barlow believed that the expansion of commercial enterprise was slowly bringing the ­ peoples of the world into contact with one another, and he thought such interaction would bring about cosmopolitan utopia (Bloch 38 / Chapter 1 1985, 97). Difference would break down as part of a march toward the human perfection that is achieved when liberty becomes ascendant. Existing along with this cosmopolitanism, however, is Barlow’s nationalism . These poems are works of literary flag-­ waving, written to formulate US identity and to give that identity neoclassical cachet. They highlight the United States’ role in Barlow’s world-­ his­ tori­ cal narrative; Barlow fig­ ures the Ameri­ can Revolution as this story’s central moment. This dual commitment to nationalism and cosmopolitanism, particularism and universalism, may seem paradoxical. US identity, for Barlow, is an identity of nonidentity. To Barlow, though, this conception was natural. In Barlow’s narrative, the Ameri­ can Revolution marks the peak of liberal progress, a moment pointing toward the day when men realize that they are all truly created equal and are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—a future in which men have even adopted the same “manners, feelings, and languages” (Barlow 1970b, 343). Thus, Barlow tethers nationalism to cosmopolitanism. This is an Enlightenment as opposed to a romantic view of the nation, one focused on ideas rather than blood and soil. Yet the extent to which Barlow’s under­ stand­ ing of nation relies on difference attests to how it is not a purely Enlightenment conception of a cosmopolitan nation and rather resembles the expansionist nation. To understand Barlow’s cosmopolitan nationalism, we must attend to how his poems represent Spain and Spanish-­ness. Barlow, drawing from the Anglophone Black Legend tradition, represents Spain as a depraved, backward nation. By doing so, he holds up the virtues of the cosmopolitan identity epitomized in the Ameri­ can Revolution’s triumph for liberty. Barlow defines Spanish-­ US difference by the oppositions particular/universal, monarchical/­republican, autarkical/­ liberal, and reactionary/progressive. This last coupling deserves particular notice. Barlow’s under­ stand­ ing of the achievements of the Revolution as the peak of a secular-­ millennial world-­ his­ tori­ cal narrative relies on figuring Spain as a recalcitrant impediment to that narrative’s realization . Spain is an antagonist that the United States must transcend to fulfill its destiny. Spain’s defeat leaves it on the wrong side of history. Barlow’s construction of US identity provided the basis for a narrative by which his nation could understand itself, in that sense answering his literary-­ nationalist motives. This under­ stand­ ing of difference would also provide the material by which he could construct a viable imperial identity. Over the course of the final years of the...


Subject Headings

  • American literature -- 18th century -- History and criticism.
  • American literature -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
  • National characteristics, American, in literature.
  • American literature -- Spanish influences.
  • American literature -- Latin American influences.
  • Latin America -- In literature.
  • Spain -- In literature.
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