American Literary History 17.1 (2005) 1-35
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"A Mania for Composition":
Poe's Annus Mirabilis and the Violence of Nation-building
J. Gerald Kennedy
As cultural theorists privilege global, transnational, and postnational subjectivities, the bloody spectacle of nation-building in Iraq reminds us that the age of nations appears far from its predicted denouement. The official rationale for invading and occupying that antique land—that we Americans have a "Manifest Destiny," adivine duty, to liberate people from tyranny and thereby extend our own brand of freedom, capitalism, and materialism—marks a further aggrandizement of nineteenth-century national fantasies of power and virtue. Rooted in obstinate conceptions of English and Anglo-Saxon superiority, America's "millennial role" as a "redeemer nation"—to recall Ernest Lee Tuveson's Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America's Millennial Role (1968)—became a cultural axiom in the 1840s as the tangled project of US nation-building coalesced for the first time into a popular dream of empire. The decision to "civilize" the continent, to annex Texas and wrest control of the Southwest from Mexico, fundamentally redefined national aspirations. Understanding the inherent contradictions of American nationhood that have subtly impelled our mutation from a much-admired republic wary of foreign entanglements into a dominant superpower scornful of world opinion forms one objective of this study.
Despite current emphasis in the profession on thinking beyond the nation—envisioning literature as a deterritorialized field of activity, a space of cosmopolitan hybridity—the resurgence of jingoism thus compels renewed attention to the phantasm of American exceptionalism that still haunts us like an ominous bird of yore. More than a decade ago Annette Kolodny implored Americanists to relinquish their "grand obsessions" with an essential national literature and a concomitant "myth of origins"—to focus on "frontiers" as points of intercultural contact, rejecting the notion of an "overarching" [End Page 1] exceptionalist story ("Letting Go" 13). Subsequent transnational studies by Paul Gilroy, Paul Giles, and Kirsten Silva Gruesz have indeed redefined "American" literary studies by problematizing itsboundaries. But we neglect national myths and foundational narratives at the risk of exempting nationalism itself from certain forms of interrogation. As John Hutchinson and Anthony D. Smith insisted a decade ago: "It is difficult to foresee any transcendence of the nation or nationalism" (288). Ordinary experience confirms the ineluctable persistence of the nation as a determinant of geopolitics, a locus of imagined community, a source of personal identity, and a preoccupation of popular culture. John Carlos Rowe concedes: "The national form is indeed compelling, perhaps even compulsive, not because it is inherent or natural to human beings— it is of recent invention—but because its history is so much a part of us" ("Nineteenth-Century" 88). That aspect of its history at issue here is the formation of national culture and consciousness, a conflicted enterprise that set the agenda for American writing in the antebellum era.
Edgar Allan Poe seems an unlikely arbiter of US nationalism, given his alleged indifference to the "main currents in American thought" charted by Vernon L. Parrington or his implied irrelevance to F. O. Matthiessen's "American Renaissance." Conjuring weird images of a fantastic Old World, Poe initially appears the most extraneous and un-American of our early authors. In quite familiar terms, however, recent theorists have ostracized him as a racist, an apologist for American imperialism, and an unregenerate misogynist. Rowe's latest revisionary account of American literary history associates Poe, for example, with an essential Southern proslavery bigotry ("Antebellum" 42–62). Yet, as Terence Whalen has suggested in his discussion of Poe's "average racism" (111–46), a fully historicized understanding of Poe's work reveals the insufficiency of contemporary political labels and the difficulty of pinning down his beliefs about race—to say nothing of his shifting opinions about class, gender, economics, region, or nation. As Joan Dayan, Teresa Goddu, and others have suggested, the implications of Poe's supposed Southern viewpoint demand more careful scrutiny. So too does Poe's complex engagement with an emerging national culture. Far...