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  • Localizing American StudiesMapping Nationality
  • Molly Ball (bio)
The Genius of Place: The Geographic Imagination in the Early Republic
Lebanon: University of New Hampshire Press, 2016
Mapping Region in Early American Writing
Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015
Turns of Event: Nineteenth-Century American Literary Studies in Motion
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016

In his 1826 missive to Albert Gallatin, Cherokee leader John Ridge describes the Cherokee Nation. He begins by sketching its geographical boundaries—a strategy that suggests that a nation is, first and foremost, based in territorial holdings. The bulk of Ridge’s letter presents the Cherokee Nation in similarly conventional terms: as a territorially based, internally unified polity. Still, Ridge ultimately concludes that adhering to conventional standards of nationhood will not sustain the Cherokee. He argues that “Indian nations” fail because “[t]heir Council fires could not be united into one, as the seat of a great empire. It was for strangers to effect this, and necessity now compels the last Remnants to look to it for protection” (2410). In this vision, nations confront a new, imperial formation: the United States.

Notably, for Ridge, the United States is something other than a nation. For instance, he suggests that the United States lacks the racial homogeneity that many nineteenth-century thinkers associated with cohesive nationality. He writes: “Cherokee blood, if not destroyed, will wind its [End Page 691] courses in beings of fair complexions, who will read that their ancestors became civilized under the frowns of misfortunes & causes of their enemies” (2410). In this vision of the future United States, “ancestors” and “enemies” unite, creating an internally riven body politic. Similarly, Ridge portrays the United States not as a grounded nation but as a strangely mobile force, writing: “All Nations have had their rises & their falls. This has been the case with us. Within the orbit of the U. States move the States & within these we move in a little circle, dependent on the great center” (2410). In Ridge’s account, the “U. States” exerts a kind of gravitational pull, causing individual “States” and the Cherokee Nation to rotate around it. Still, the “great center” that causes this movement is itself ill defined. Is this center a geographical place, an abstract concept, or something else altogether? Whatever this center signifies, it lacks the clear national status that Ridge ascribes to the Cherokee Nation.

Whether or not Ridge is correct in portraying the 1826 United States as something other than a nation, his portrayal aptly depicts the uncertainty that currently surrounds the field of American studies. Unified by a national designation that seems increasingly inadequate to describe many scholars’ research, the coordinates of the field can seem hazy at best. Ridge’s complex, contradictory portrait of nationality suggests that if we want to approach the “great center” of early American studies (if only to dismantle it), we must interrogate the links between place, race, and nation. Three recent volumes put place, race, and nation into productive conversation, asking where American studies stands in relation to critical methodologies that privilege geography. While The Genius of Place: The Geographic Imagination in the Early Republic, Mapping Region in Early American Writing, and Turns of Event: Nineteenth-Century American Literary Studies in Motion do not speak with one voice or arrive at one unified conclusion, they all suggest that geopolitical frames—and, particularly, regional frames—are indispensable to the field. Specifically, they show how attention to geography unsettles Benedict Anderson’s and Michael Warner’s models of national unity. Building on the work of scholars—including Martin Brückner, Anna Brickhouse, Hsuan L. Hsu, Sean X. Goudie, and others—who have used geographical frames to question the primacy of nation as an organizing category, these volumes suggest that national unity was more ephemeral than achieved, particularly in the first few decades of the nineteenth century. Further, these volumes all indicate—as Ridge does—that the politics [End Page 692] and culture of the early United States troubled a vision of nationhood predicated on stable territorial boundaries and racial homogeneity.

In advancing such ideas...


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