- Blood, Republicanism, and the Return of George Washington:A Response to Shirley Samuels
The publication of Shirley Samuels's Romances of the Republic: Women, the Family, and Violence in the Literature of the Early American Nation in 1996 provided an exemplary model for literary historians who were attempting to explain how early American literature and iconography were more than mere reflections of historical reality but performed the essential political work of nation building. Samuels refused to cede to historians the territory of republican ideology and early national history. Taking up the cultural metaphor of the family, Samuels conducted a stunning analysis of the role it played in the formation of republican ideology and national identity. For example, the period's literature and iconography often created an analogy between the family and the nation, but in the depictions of the family as national allegory, Samuels found a hidden, and frequently violent, history of heterosexual and patriarchal family relations. In many popular novels, the home was a violent place where women were coerced, dismembered, and killed. Far from being irrelevant to the period's political discourse, popular novels produced a historiographic crisis; the familial violence that fractured individual and collective identities helped to articulate the period's expansionist ideologies and practices.
As I see it, Samuels's study of the national home has deeply influenced the work of Americanists who are remapping US literary and cultural studies in a global context. In the work of Amy Kaplan, David Kazanjian, John Carlos Rowe, and Priscilla Wald, [End Page 76] among others, familial representations of national identity get implicated in the ideologies and practices of US empire building.1 Geographers like Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey, and Edward Soja guided their movement beyond the organizing unit of the nation-state and into a broader world of intersecting local, national, and global scales.2 For Americanists, this movement beyond the nation inevitably returns to the vexing issue of the constitution of national culture. And when it does, Samuels's conception of the link between domestic ideology and the violence of nation building is an indispensable aid for our attempts to better understand the extension of the national home into non-national global territories.
I am alluding to a problem of scale—the nation-state as the scale of choice—that organizes US history and literary history, respectively. Since my research focuses on structures of imperialism that link national and global scales, I have taken a special interest in trying to understand this spatial relationship. Americanists working at the intersections of national and global scales draw our attention to how the act of locating the outward reaches of empire redefines the nation-state. However, there is a reciprocal relationship that often goes unnoticed. The outward reaches of empire simultaneously emphasize the violent inward reach of nation building. In Lefebvre's famous metaphor of the merging of scales, the home is produced by a nexus of spatial relations. The home—permeated from every direction by intersecting scales and showing linkages with global flows of capital, culture, and politics—is always contingent.
The homes that Samuels examines are built upon a national ground, but they share similar ambiguities. Those fractured national structures tell a different version of historical development, and while this version has been narrated largely within a US national framework, the permeations of the national home inevitably lead outward to—and intersect with—global scales of empire. As Samuels argues, the novels of Lydia Maria Child and Catharine Maria Sedgwick return to foundational moments of national history to imagine a political and cultural alternative to the formation of racial and gender hierarchies in the early US. Thus, the political work of these novels is also historiographic work, and it begs the question of how our preference for national scale predetermines our preference for, and notion of, historical context. Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, literary and cultural critics found republicanism to be an ideal national context for their investigations of early American culture. Some Americanists, such as Samuels, Cathy Davidson, Christopher Looby, Dana Nelson, and Michael Warner, among others, surpassed the historians, defining an even more dynamic republicanism and creating [End Page...