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  • Strange Nation: Literary Nationalism and Cultural Conflict in the Age of Poe by J. Gerald Kennedy
  • Travis Montgomery
J. Gerald Kennedy. Strange Nation: Literary Nationalism and Cultural Conflict in the Age of Poe. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 472pp. $125.00 (cloth), $35.00 (paper).

Building on his previous investigations of antinationalist themes in the works of Edgar Allan Poe, J. Gerald Kennedy offers a comprehensive study of the ways that Poe and several of his contemporaries practiced unconventional ways of representing America and/or its past. While many antebellum writers insisted that America was a chosen nation, a unified, liberty-loving polity, others “presented contrary images of American life,” exposing “nation-building as a massive, fractious, and grimy endeavor” (x). Some of these critiques, such as the antislavery salvos of William Wells Brown, were the fruit of conscious effort, but other texts expressed traumas and fears hidden within what Kennedy, borrowing a term from Fredric Jameson, calls “the political unconscious,” a reservoir for the irrepressible unease about national life that shaped literary expression. Dedicated to the three decades before 1850, which year F. O. Matthiessen considered the beginning of the “American Renaissance,” Strange Nation is a remarkably comprehensive work wherein Kennedy analyzes several prose texts in multiple genres, including travel writing, the novel, the romance, the tale, and autobiography in various forms; and by treating a diverse lineup of writers such as William Apess, James Fenimore Cooper, Frederick Douglass, Margaret Fuller, John Rollin Ridge, and William Gilmore Simms, to name only six, Kennedy makes a compelling case that gross inconsistencies between national ideals and political realities preoccupied nineteenth-century writers of all regions within the United States and the surrounding territories, and that this tension created a national angst from which works of ideological complexity and emotional power emerged. Arranged topically, Strange Nation contains [End Page 193] sections devoted to the following subjects: literary portrayals of Europe and the European roots of many American cultures (Chapter 1), accounts of European travel written by Americans (Chapters 2 and 3), texts about conflicts, military and political, between white settlers and Native Americans (Chapters 4 and 5), literary depictions of the Revolution (Chapter 6), responses to the slavery crisis (Chapter 7), and writing about westward expansion (Chapter 8). In the introduction and Chapter 9, which serve as bookends for Strange Nation, Kennedy establishes the unsettling texts of Poe as models of writing that queers exceptionalist conceptions of national life and reveals “the cultural conflicts emanating from racism, religious bigotry, sexism, slavery, Indian removal, nativism, sectionalism, and many other antebellum controversies” that divided Americans, whose grim experiences countered the “fictions of unity” characteristic of celebratory nationalism (x).

A critical tour de force, Strange Nation exhibits the vitality of American writing before the sectional crisis of the 1850s. Particularly effective is Kennedy's technique of juxtaposing works by major authors and writings of their lesser-known contemporaries. For example, Chapter 6 contains analyses of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Spy as well as Saratoga, a rarely discussed novel of the Revolution penned by Eliza Cushing. This procedure helps Kennedy demonstrate that subversive themes pervaded much writing produced during the heyday of American literary nationalism. Throughout Strange Nation, Kennedy relies on summary, which seems, at times, excessive, but the summaries are useful for readers unfamiliar with the more obscure texts examined in the book; furthermore, the accumulation of detail achieved through summary bolsters Kennedy’s argument. More important, interpretive commentary that is often fresh and thought provoking peppers the book. One memorable example is Kennedy’s detailed response to Simms’s The Partisan, a novel set in the late eighteenth century and marked by its author’s awareness of class strife in Revolutionary society, a discord that Simms linked, as Kennedy argues, to social problems of the Jacksonian era, troubles that exposed deep divisions within a supposedly unified nation. Equally intriguing is Kennedy’s well-supported claim that the (in)famous frontier fighter Alexander Macomb, not Richard M. Johnson, was the “model for” General A. B. C. Smith, the broken-down “ military hero” of “The Man That Was Used Up,” an 1839 story in which Poe “deconstructs the illusion of sacred destiny...


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pp. 193-195
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