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  • The American School of Empire by Edward Larkin
  • John Funchion
The American School of Empire. By Edward Larkin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 163 pages. Cloth, ebook.

For nearly three decades, Amy Kaplan's "Nation, Region, and Empire" framed how literary critics have understood the relationship between U.S. nationalism and imperialism. Kaplan's essay assumed this importance because it distilled the aims of New Americanist scholarship, which steered U.S. literary studies away from exceptionalism and toward postnationalist paradigms and critical engagements with race, class, and gender. As Kaplan argued, empire figured largely as a late nineteenth-century phenomenon. Throughout the nineteenth century, she maintained, the United States imagined its revolution as a decidedly anti-imperial conflict, and its fin-de-siècle embrace of Anglo-Saxon imperialism jarred with the nation's self-proclaimed anticolonial tradition. According to Kaplan, historical romancers resolved this contradiction by reinventing the view of the U.S. revolution in the 1880s and 1890s "to underplay political conflict with Britain and to unite the two countries in a uniquely Anglo-Saxon heritage of manliness."1

What if instead, late nineteenth-century historical romances only sustained a long-standing affection for empire? Edward Larkin's elegantly written The American School of Empire addresses this question by fundamentally challenging our decades-long assumptions about the invention of empire and U.S. nationalism. Larkin argues that from its inception "the United States was conceived as an empire, culturally, politically, and legally" (2). Initially, settler colonialists embraced Britain's central administrative authority. Americans revolted, he maintains, because they wanted to belong politically and culturally to the imperial center rather than the periphery. Revolution did not stem from nationalist sentiment, in other words, but from intense feelings of Britishness; the colonists believed so deeply in their Britishness that they demanded an immediate and coequal hand in the empire's administration. Anglo-Americans thus sought to create and perfect their own version of empire through the revolution.

Why did empire, rather than nation building, remain so appealing? According to Larkin, empire appeared conceptually better suited to unifying a discrete and diverse aggregate of colonies that perceived themselves as separate. Though nationalism, as famously conceived by Ernest Renan, required people to forget their ethnic and local differences to cohere into a unified whole, empire followed a heterogeneous integrative logic.2 It [End Page 820] accommodated separate regional, social, political, economic, and religious identities. The notion of empire, crucially, also facilitated expansion across the continent and beyond. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and John Jay, Larkin explains, all synthesized empire with democracy by contending that empire would make the differences among the states an asset rather than a liability. Their collective efforts—along with work carried out by other thinkers, politicians, writers, and painters—produced a distinctly American incarnation of empire.

Larkin's argument clarifies the connection between two major scholarly accounts of early U.S. culture: the Anglicization thesis and postnationalist studies. The first approach—embodied in work by Elisa Tamarkin, Ezra Tawil, and Leonard Tennenhouse—insists that U.S. citizens clung to their British cultural identity long after the American Revolution.3 By contrast, postnationalist scholarship by Andy Doolen, David Kazanjian, and Dana D. Nelson underscores how nascent U.S. nationalisms both emboldened imperial expansionism and threatened the ideals behind representative democracy.4 As Larkin succinctly puts it, "these two accounts produce a narrative in which the American colonies move from an imperial colonial moment to a nationalist phase and then return to a new imperial mode" (16). Taken together, both approaches regard the revolution as a disruptive nationalist phenomenon that interrupted Anglo-American empire building. Larkin, however, maintains that nationalism in the United States remained intensely local and tied to state or sectional identity, but that it could coexist with the notion of empire, which presented a larger cohesive framework. The revolution thus did not interrupt but contributed to an American school of empire.

Larkin tracks empire's conceptual development in the early republic in ways that command the attention of U.S. literary critics and historians alike. He draws upon a broad archive while strategically singling out writings by James Fenimore Cooper, J...

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