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  • America's Troubled Postcoloniality:Some Reflections from Abroad
  • Gesa Mackenthun (bio)

Until quite recently, postcolonial ideas have largely remained absent from American Studies. The opposite is also true: the United States, in spite of the fact that by far the most chairs for postcolonial studies are harbored by U.S. universities, has remained conspicuously absent from postcolonial studies readers and essay collections. This situation is beginning to change, and I want to spend the next few pages reflecting on the critical potential of postcolonial theory for the study of United States culture and history.

There is hardly an agreement within scholarship as to the postcolonial qualities of United States culture. The authors of The Empire Writes Back notoriously raised the United States to a postcolonial model country, dating its postcoloniality to the revolutionary period (Ashcroft, Griffiths, Tiffin 2 and 16). American Studies scholars Lawrence Buell and Edward Watts followed suit in stressing a series of analogies between antebellum literature and the literature of recently decolonized countries in Africa and the Caribbean (Buell, "American"; Buell, "Melville"), or in deducing the "postcoloniality" of early American novels striving for a national form from their similarity with the narrative modes of recent postcolonial novels (Watts). Most monographies of postcolonial theory, however—like those by Elleke Boehmer, Ania Loomba, or Bart Moore-Gilbert, exclude the United States from their study of postcolonial literature, referring, as Boehmer does, to the fact that America "won [End Page 34] independence long before other colonial places, and its literature has therefore followed a very different trajectory" (Boehmer 4).

One possibility to deal with the situation is to ignore the "different trajectory" of U.S. history and establish transhistorical analogies between the literary texts of recently decolonized countries in Africa, India, and the Caribbean and the early national literature of the United States. But Lawrence Buell, who juxtaposes classic U.S. writers such as Cooper, Thoreau and Emerson with "third world" writers like Achebe, Rushdie and Ngugi, would seem to tread difficult ground, both historically and morally. In his essay "American Literary Emergence as a Postcolonial Phenomenon," Buell accordingly raises doubts about his own method. Referring to the "link between American postcolonialism and American imperialism," he concludes that Cooper, for example "played the postcolonial to the extent that he deferred to Scott's plot forms, but he played the imperialist to the extent that his own narratives reflected and perpetuated the romance of American expansionism" (Buell, "American" 435). With a more sobering, and less theatrical, view of the ideological function of "romance," Eric Cheyfitz, in his contribution to Cultures of United States Imperialism (ed. Amy Kaplan and Donald Pease), reads The Pioneers's discourse on property and removal alongside the imperialist logic of the Supreme Court ruling Johnson vs. McIntosh that inaugurated the Jacksonian removal policy. He concentrates on Cooper's "romantic" translation of a colonial property conflict between Native Americans and the United States into a post-revolutionary inter-European conflict to which the Indians serve as mere spectators (Cheyfitz 118).

Cheyfitz's essay alerts us to the fact that Buell's analogy between the postcolonial United States and postcolonial Africa, in indigenizing the European immigrants, denies the previous and ongoing existence of indigenous cultures in America. Buell's Emersonian reading of Melville's writings, moreover (he reads Redburn as a mental act of decolonization from the cultural dominance of England), reduces Melville's transnational anti-imperialist vision to a tête-à-tête with the mother country and ignores the text's references to slavery, the middle passage, and Indian dispossession (Buell, "Melville"). And finally, his choice of contemporary African literature in constructing a transhistorical comparison with early America's struggle for cultural independence symptomatically effaces the historical importance of Africa and African people in the constitution of early American society, culture, and literature (for a reading of the Africanist presence in Redburn, see Karcher).

In casting the postcoloniality of the United States in purely bilateral terms, Buell thus downplays his own insight, stated more [End Page 35] systematically by Peter Hulme, that the Early Republic, in combining a postrevolutionary political consciousness with a heightened effort to continue the European project of imperial expansion, was "postcolonial and colonizing...


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