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Reviews in American History 30.4 (2002) 530-540

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American Natural

Benjamin Schmidt

Joyce E. Chaplin. Subject Matter: Technology, the Body, and Science on the Anglo-American Frontier, 1500-1676. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001. 384 pp. Tables and figures, notes, and index. $46.50.

What makes America so special? The answer to this perennial question du jour depends, of course, on whom you ask and when you do the asking. Or perhaps why you ask and where you look for your answers. What is certain, in all cases, is that the question of American exceptionalism is a question frequently posed, and that various and often competing responses run throughout the tradition of American historiography—from Christopher Columbus (not much of an historian, but certainly someone who asked probing questions) to Thomas Jefferson, and from Frederick Jackson Turner to Perry Miller. It is also the sort of Major Question that makes a historian's reputation—everyone wants a thesis named after her or him. And it is, further, the sort of historical challenge that conveys such an elevated sense of purpose and maintains such an indubitable reputation for orthodoxy, that one rarely sees it dispensed with, briskly, as a question mal posé. It is with some hesitation, therefore, that I risk the perhaps naïve question (full disclosure: I'm a Europeanist by training): What makes American history so special? Why, that is to say, the unceasing Americanist zeal for a national narrative built upon the lofty foundations of exceptionalism? 1

In regard to the first and grander of the questions on the qualities of America: most answers over the years have pointed to something inherent in the American earth, American air, or, more vaguely, American spirit, which in various ways are understood to have nurtured the Republic to its state of distinction. Columbus's take on the New World was, in some regards, the most elegant in its simplicity: America was Paradise, biblically speaking, its soil the very source of sacred history. And if the Almirante—surely a better sailor than exegete—meant America in the hemispheric sense, it is not hard to find echoes of his eschatological sensibilities attached to what would later become the United States. New York City's first "poet laureate," as the second-rate rhymester Jacob Steendam was known, hymned America as the "noblest spot on earth," a land "where milk and honey flow / . . . A veritable [End Page 530] Eden." 2 America's very water was heavenly. Indeed, a trajectory can be traced in such provincial boosterism, which shows a movement from those who cite evidence physical to those who celebrate matters spiritual in supporting their various claims for American singularity. By the time Walt Whitman revisited Steendam's poetic stomping grounds, it is a thing more ethereal that makes America extraordinary. This, too, is the pattern of historiography from the mid-nineteenth century—think of New England-bred William H. Prescott and John Lothrop Motley and the many under their influence—into the twentieth, when Turner and then Miller make their names as master distillers of the American spirit. By the late twentieth century, it is an essential "character" that renders us nationally distinctive, the question being only what the quality of that character might be and what to make of its collateral consequences and cultural implications.

Joyce Chaplin's impressive new book, Subject Matter, moves the discussion of American exceptionalism in yet another direction—or rather in two separate directions, since it points us toward the historical debates over this issue in the early colonial period and, as a consequence, redirects the historiographic debates of recent years. It is part of a swell of new research on the early modern colonial world, produced by a new generation of globally minded historians who take a broader approach to the topic, most particularly to that quintessential moment of early American history, the encounter of the Old World and the New. In contextualizing the Atlantic World dynamics of the encounter, these studies have mostly prodded the argument away from the prevailing, insular rendition of American exceptionalism, which has tended to...


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