In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Poe’s Queer Eye
  • Gretchen J. Woertendyke (bio)
J. Gerald Kennedy. Strange Nation: Literary Nationalism and Cultural Conflict in the Age of Poe. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2016. 457pp. $125.00 cloth, $35 paper.

I approached J. Gerald Kennedy’s book with some measure of skepticism. There may be no topic more thoroughly questioned, debated, dismissed, or resurrected than the “nation”—especially in “American” literary studies. Recent criticism, in response to cultural studies and archival expansions, has mostly assumed a post-trans-inter-intra-national and hemispheric perspective. It was in this mindset, coupled with some curiosity, that I began Strange Nation. The study never presents bold claims or provocations; rather, it rewards the reader through a steady and scrupulous accretion of ideas and literary examples. In this impressively extensive analysis of antebellum nation-building, Poe stands apart in his recognition of the jingoism, chauvinism, and hypocrisy that underlie—and finally undermine—the nation. “Against bracing fables of heroic purpose that glorified the United States,” Kennedy writes, “he [Poe] juxtaposed tales exposing the grotesqueness—the cruelty and perverseness, the deformity and enormity—to which nationalism had already closed its eyes” [400]. Poe’s “queer eye” challenges the prevailing sense of national innocence in the decades leading up to the Civil War and reinforces Kennedy’s central premise, that “nationalism produces a way of seeing that is also a not-seeing, and the strange, unresolved contradictions of nationhood and nationality lurk in this cultural blind spot” [3]. Some of the more fascinating readings are of lesser-known works by Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, William Gilmore Simms, Lydia Maria Child, and Catharine Sedgwick, but Kennedy also brings Eliza Cushing, John Pendleton Kennedy, William Wells Brown, William Apess, and Black Hawk into his broad national archive. It is Poe’s commentary, however, that serves as the book’s touchstone; in Poe, Kennedy finds trenchant wit, keen insight, and compelling resistance to the nation’s increasingly sanitized story of itself.

The narrative of Strange Nation roughly takes up the years between the War of 1812 and the decade preceding the outbreak of civil war, with occasional nods to earlier works. The 1820 Missouri Compromise, the 1825 passage of an Indian removal bill, implemented in 1830 by Andrew Jackson, and the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law frame thoughtful readings that “defamiliariz[e] [End Page E5] American nationalism by uncovering its contingent and conflicted formation” [4]. Kennedy develops his key terms, nation and strange, in the introduction. Drawing on French historian Ernest Renan’s 1882 lecture “What is a Nation?,” he underscores US “fictions of unity,” historical amnesia, and the brutality ultimately essential to unifying a national body. Nations “exist paradoxically nowhere (in no fixed place) and everywhere” [12], he asserts, even while locating the singularity of American nationhood “in the unprecedented circumstance of a mixed colonial population gaining independence and establishing a republic before it had achieved national solidarity” [18]. The tension between an ahistorical, abstract conception of “nation” as both everywhere and nowhere, and the historically specific context of US nationhood, is richly suggestive and, of course, strange.

Kennedy characterizes that strangeness as the “inadvertent baggage, traces of the ruptures, schisms, or debacles that nationalism always strives to conceal”—those “monstrous figures, bizarre actions, or strange narrative inconsistencies” [13]. At times his understanding of “strange” implies estrangement, especially in the early chapters when Irving, Cooper, and Child struggle to reconcile their sense of place, their nation-ness, against Europe; but at other times, “strange” simply means an event or concept that a writer cannot account for. This capaciousness makes the term, and the work Kennedy wants it to perform, a bit elusive. Drawing on Fredric Jameson’s concept of a political unconscious, Kennedy identifies the “split personality” produced by sectionalism and the nation’s increasingly disassociative relation to itself. As a result, “strange” takes on more precision and theoretical rigor. Ultimately, the book’s historical depth, literary breadth, and interpretive freshness tell a wonderfully compelling story and, perhaps, hint that “strange” has a higher use value than “queer” (reserved for Poe) or “alien.”

The first three chapters attend most to expatriate writers whose work reflects anxieties about how Europe imagines the United States...


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