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.
For those approaching American literature from under the European shadow, American Incarnation is the culminating work… Jehlen’s brief is…that the successful emancipation of America from Europe cut American literature off not just from Europe but from history itself… American Incarnation is the brilliant elaboration of her position… [Jehlen has crafted] many breathtaking pieces of analysis.
Often brilliant, ever provocative… There are nuggets here not to be mined anywhere else.
This demanding, closely reasoned work will become required reading for everyone in the American Studies field.
Brilliant and compelling… American Incarnation, widely ranging and throwing off ideas like sparks, ends with a look at our more dismantled cultural situation today.
This is indeed an ambitious book, one likely to have a strong impact on American studies, both literary and historical. It is a complex and subtle reexamination of some of the central problems of the American liberal tradition. Jehlen has done a superb job of altering the terms of discussion and redefining the history of ideas in the American Renaissance in a subtle and compelling way.
- 250 pages
- Harvard University Press
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