- The American School of Empire by Edward Larkin
Empire, Literature, Art, Painting, American exceptionalism, Cultural history
"The United States was itself an empire before it was a nation," Bernard DeVoto wrote in The Course of Empire (1952), "though it was first a people who had made a society" (391). Edward Larkin's concisely and elegantly written study does not make clear distinctions between people, society, or states, but it does offer a long-overdue application of the insights of historians of the Imperial School to the interpretation of early American literature and painting. Larkin is a literary critic with a secondary interest in art. His argument is that the literary and visual culture of the early republic embraced empire as a way of imagining the not-always-hierarchical connections that tied together the multiple sovereigns of a federal system, as well as the diverse peoples that constituted one country. Refreshingly, Larkin is interested in how novels and paintings imagined the construction of the state, rather than in how they modeled an American subjectivity or a new idea of national citizenship; this approach facilitates an original contribution to the ongoing scholarly renunciation of American exceptionalism. While Larkin could have much expanded his short book to reflect on the details of interstate relationships or on the development of federalist theory, he effectively synthesizes a large [End Page 167] body of historical scholarship and elegantly applies it to literary and artistic studies.
Empire principally refers for Larkin to the early republic's internal organization in the first decades of its existence, rather than to the later westward expansion of the United States. His introduction and first chapter argue that instead of replacing an empire with a strong sense of nationality or a powerful state, political elites in the early republic should be seen as setting out to construct a better imperial system than the one they left behind. Larkin is not interested in making empirically verifiable claims about the development of political thought but in proposing a plausible historical narrative for the transition wrought by the American Revolution and the ratification of the Constitution. The groundwork has been done for him by historians such as T. H. Breen, who conclude that American patriots pursued political independence only at the end of a long process of becoming more like the English, culturally speaking. Larkin points to moments in the Articles of Confederation and The Federalist in which the concept of the nation is consistently rejected. He suggests that Royall Tyler's The Algerine Captive triangulates the ideal American empire between an actually existing but chaotic U.S. state and an overly centralized Algiers.
The second chapter, on Letters of an American Farmer, argues that Crèvecoeur thought of the British Empire as protecting cosmopolitans like himself; empire was for him not "an aggressive interventionist authority" but instead "a distant, diffuse, nonhierarchical, and unobtrusive model of governance" (42). Calling attention to the author's Loyalism, Larkin argues that Crèvecoeur did not oppose colonial to national identity, but saw them as continuous, finding that American conditions could reinvigorate the European cultural inheritance. This is Larkin's weakest chapter. Larkin overstates the originality of his approach; nationalist readings and sociological interpretations have not predominated in Crèvecoeur criticism for many decades. Though Larkin faults previous critics for not reading the Letters as a novel, he refers to its narrator (Farmer James) and Crèvecoeur interchangeably, but for a minor biographical difference. (By "novel," Larkin means simply a non-factual discourse, but he does not discuss other novelistic elements.) That said, Larkin concludes his chapter with a timely and moving invocation of Crèvecoeur's call for a reinvigorated cosmopolitanism.
The third chapter frames the painters Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley as colonial-born Britons who "came to the question of empire from the perspective of the margins rather than the center" (72). [End Page 168] Thanks to Larkin's dazzling series of interpretations, West's paintings of classical Roman subjects emerge as allegories of the British Empire, encouraging...