- Cultural Formations in Colonial North America and the Early National United States
The establishment of an intellectual and artistic culture in the British colonies of North America and postwar new republic of the United States has been the subject, in constituent parts, of a number of studies in the last decade, the books under review among them. Scholars have long found the American Revolution a rich source of historical interest; more recently, the 1790s have drawn the attention of cultural historians. Together, the period from 1750 to 1800 constitutes not merely the founding of the British American polity but also a period of cultural experimentation that laid the grounds for future cultural developments. But in many ways, these periods, for the past and recent investigation, still remain not fully known. And if none of the books being considered here shocks with surprising revelations, each in its own way offers up information and insights into sometimes familiar, sometimes obscure situations and personages that in the accumulation urge scholars of the American eighteenth century to explain in even greater detail what this confusing, radical, reactionary, sanguinary, exhilarating half-century was truly about. [End Page 462]
One difficulty facing all scholars of the period is determining what constitutes an American culture. Neither the Stamp Act riots, nor the Boston Massacre, the Declaration of Independence, nor even the inauguration of George Washington as the first president under the new constitution specifically delimits the beginning of an intellectual and artistic heritage that can be claimed to be specifically American. The long shadow of colonialism extended well past these signpost events, past Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, Edwin Forrest and Margaret Fuller, at least into the 1860s, when an aging Nathaniel Hawthorne struggled with three incomplete novels about Americans recovering an English past, and thus, a vestigial British identity. Nevertheless, writers, artists, actors, and orators on both sides of the Atlantic recognized that the North American colonies were not Great Britain, as much as some colonials tried to emulate English squires and at certain moments declared the differences to be stark and clear. The truth is, however, that colonials-turned-citizens of the United States often wanted it both ways, an identity that declared the specificity of residence in the New World within a broader framework of transatlantic circulation and exchange. Americanness could be performed, it seemed, as a way of trying out certain attitudes and behaviors—republican simplicity and restraint, for instance—and as a playacting upon the theater of the world, where individuals and nations postured and gestured for places on the macrocosmic stage before global audiences.
That consciousness of acting before the eyes of the world had a long history in colonial North America, but as Jason Shaffer reiterates in his fine new study, Performing Patriotism, it became especially acute during the long Revolutionary period when professional theater itself found a place in the colonial landscape. For Shaffer, the linkage of the political and theatrical generates expression of a rising American nationalism within the context of an imported cultural frame. As he points out, the "appropriations of texts, both theatrical and polemical, helped to generate an American nationalism that used British culture against itself, invoking both the cultural affinity between the two nations and their irreconcilable political differences" (7). In Shaffer's view, a touchstone play like Joseph Addison's Cato, long known as a Washington favorite, carries with it complex associations and registers of political position when transplanted to a New World setting and...