- Reinventing the Periphery
The nineteenth-century United States matured in a world of preponderant European power. Seated at the periphery of the Old World, the republic was fixed on a transatlantic axis, bound by ties of investment, commerce, and culture to Europe and the former colonial metropole. Citizens of the young nation were caught between the postcolonial anxieties these ties generated and the desire to emulate the center of the “civilized” world. To their disappointment, Americans found that the economic and cultural exchange flowing through the dense thicket of transatlantic interconnections was asymmetrical. They were, at best, a provincial satellite, orbiting the expanding imperial centers of the Old World, unable or unwilling to fully escape the gravitational attraction of the British Empire.
The individuals in both of these works crossed oceans to engage with this marginality. The history of transatlantic travel has inspired a number of works by literary historians such as Christopher Mulvey (Transatlantic Manners: Social Patterns in Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Travel Literature, 1990) and William Stowe (Going Abroad: European Travel in Nineteenth-Century American Culture, 1994). They examined the private formation and public performance of national identity in the encounters with “otherness” of Euro-American travel writers. Gloria Deák’s Passage to America is driven by famous episodes from this oeuvre. Deák introduces the lively, often derisive, encounters of famous European travelers with the United States to a general audience unfamiliar with the rich historiography of transatlantic travel in the nineteenth century.
Daniel Kilbride’s Being American in Europe, however, diverges from this approach. Although Kilbride is interested in travel as a context for “othering,” he is more concerned with the creative, analogistic languages of American nationalism as it evolved between the mid-eighteenth century and the out-break [End Page 47] of the U.S. Civil War. He takes travelers seriously as emblematic of a cosmopolitan strand of American national identity that embraced European connections and drew nourishment from them. Kilbride connects travel with identity to reflect on the postcolonial processes of establishing U.S. independence. Travel, he argues, was at the center of early national debates over the content and nature of American gentility, literature, and history. More than that, it “was on the front lines of a struggle about the place of the United States within western civilization” (p. 6). American national identity constantly evolved through travelers’ interactions with European class, poverty, culture, and Catholicism. These themes animate the sweep of Being American in Europe, which navigates American national development, in four chapters, from the colonial era to the eve of the U.S. Civil War: “an era when Americans were calibrating their national identity on a scale from exceptionalism to cosmopolitanism” (pp. 68–69). The central pillar upon which Being American in Europe rests is the conception that American national consciousness evolved through the triangulation of interactions between the postcolonial anxieties of American citizens, the knowledge of civilization and cosmopolitanism acquired in Europe, and the protracted consolidation of American independence.
Kilbride’s account begins in the colonial period, which “established a pattern of ambivalence to Great Britain that would last well into the next century” (p. 10). Through travel, colonials hoped to demonstrate their refinement and membership in the English Atlantic World. Yet, the very act of travel “underscored their provinciality” (p. 15). Colonists hoped that sociability would affirm their British credentials but were disappointed to find they had overestimated their importance to the empire. Nonetheless, where some interconnections were severed, new ones took their place. “Sociability in Britain planted the seeds of American identity” through the inter-colonial connections they forged in the metropole (p. 30). “Rich, well-connected provincials discovered they had much in common with each other,” writes Kilbride, and as a result, “provincial differences eroded” (p. 30). This was part of a broader reorientation of colonial horizons. Britain delighted...