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  • The Postcolonial Genius of Unbecoming British
  • Harvey R. Neptune (bio)

Postcolonialism, Colonialism, Decolonization

Unbecoming British: How Revolutionary America Became A Postcolonial Nation. By Kariann Akemi Yokota. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. PP. xiv + 354, illus. Cloth $34.95.)

Kariann A. Yokota has written a first book of remarkable portent. Precociously well crafted, this study of commodity consumption among the patriotic elite in the early republic subverts professional North Americanist historiography through a stunningly simple yet major premise: Citizens of the newly independent United States, the author assumes, faced challenges that made them for the most part just "[l]ike people of other nations emerging from colonialism" (8). By virtue of this unexceptional approach, Unbecoming British conjures up an image of the republic's founding fathers that might be strange to the U.S. field but familiar to the point of clichéd in the study of other former colonies. In Yokota's account of the variegated trade between the young American country and its old European colonizers, the fresh patriots are shown cultivating desires—material, aesthetic, and intellectual—that reduce them to a kind of historic caricature, to quintessential "mimic men." In other words, early U.S. nationalists, in other words, come across in this book as so pathetically consumed by insecurities and ambivalences about their derivative cultural relation to Europe that they might have well belonged to an intellectual lot traditionally located in the "Third World."1 [End Page 335]

Intriguingly, then, although Yokota does not advertise this book as a study of "decolonization," this is its proper historiographical habitat. Unbecoming British no doubt will receive well-deserved credit for its deft analysis of the cultural politics played out in elites' use of possessions like maps, tea, ginseng, educational credentials, botanical knowledge, and racialized bodies. Yet what ultimately lends this work its scholarly gravity is the profoundly unorthodox if not blasphemous way in which the author frames the "early republic." Explicitly rejecting the governing historiographical assumption that the United States should not be conceived within the generic experience of "postcolonialism," Yokota departs from a presumption about the republic that brings to mind the voguish phrase "state of exception." In the study under review, then, lies a radical break with a longstanding consensus within the U.S. field. In its own way, this work does revolutionary scholarly service, threatening to overturn the established "First World" constitution of North American historiography.

Unbecoming British begins its unconventional portrait with a careful consideration of the cartography business in the new nation, treating maps and geographical visuals as material evidence of an ambivalent mimicry that the author presents as characteristic of the patriotic elite's cultural disposition. Men like Jedidiah Morse, the study contends, urgently sought to put the new country on the map—both literally and figuratively. Inspired by a firmly anticolonial politics, Morse insisted on displacing an enduring tradition in which Europeans charted North America as a marginally civilized New World place. For him, though (as for many of his nationalist peers), this quest for a representational counter to the dominant colonizing mode was contradictory and compromised. In the first place, according to Unbecoming British, Morse himself, as an author of geography texts, remained beholden to the tastes and mental habits of readers in Europe—crucially, the most promising market for aspiring U.S. writers. Even more obstructive than his commercial interests, though, was the new nation's prevailing cultural politics. Morse, Yokota claims, was among those patriots who remained dependent on British (and more broadly European) cartographical presumptions, betraying a doubled sense of social values that students of "postcolonialism" have embraced in theory as hybridity. He was "caught between the urge to innovate and the need to adhere to European standards and traditions" (44). Accordingly, and representative of the early republic's nationalist intelligentsia as a whole, Morse managed no more [End Page 336] than a partial and often only a paradoxical break with "British intellectual hegemony" (45).

What was true for these patriots' relationship to objects of geographical representation in the new North American nation also held, Unbecoming British argues, for other kinds of commodities, most memorably perhaps clothes and tea. While leading U.S. statesmen and thinkers...


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