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American Incarnation

American Incarnation

The Individual, the Nation, and the Continent

Myra Jehlen

ISBN 9780674024274

Publication date: 01/01/1989

In exploring the origins and character of the American liberal tradition, Myra Jehlen begins with the proposition that the decisive factor that shaped the European settlers’ idea of “America” or the “American” was material rather than conceptual—it was the physical fact of the land. European settlers came to a continent on which they had no history, bringing the ideology of liberal individualism, which they projected onto the land itself. They believed the continent proclaimed that individuals were born in nature and freely made their own society. An insurgent ideology in Europe, this idea worked in America paradoxically to empower the individual and to restrict social change.

Jehlen sketches the evolution of the concept of incarnation through comparisons of American and European eighteenth-century naturalist writings, particularly Emerson’s Nature. She then explores the way incarnation functions ideologically—to both enable and curtail action—in the writing of fiction. Her examination of Hawthorne and Melville shows how the myth of the New World both licensed and limited American writers who set out to create their own worlds in fiction. She examines conflicts between the exigencies of narrative form and the imperatives of ideology in the writings of Franklin, Jefferson, Emerson, and others. Jehlen concludes with a speculation on the implication of this original construction of “America” for the United States today, when such imperial concepts have been called into question.


  • Students of history and North America alike will find this work of enormous value in understanding many aspects of what constitutes ‘America’ and ‘the American,’ aspects which are often difficult to explain in the light of the European understanding of history… [A] stimulating and perceptive analysis of America… Those seeking deeper insights into the American nation will find this book of inestimable value.

    —Anglo-American Studies

Book Details

  • 250 pages
  • Harvard University Press