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Identity and the Failure of America

Identity and the Failure of America: From Thomas Jefferson to the War on Terror

Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    Identity and the Failure of America
    Book Description:

    John Michael explores the contradictions between a mythic national identity promising justice to all and the realities of a divided, hierarchical, and frequently iniquitous history and social order. Through a series of insightful readings, Michael analyzes such cultural moments as the epic dramatization of the tension between individual ambition and communal complicity in Moby-Dick, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s antislavery activism, and Frederick Douglass’s long fight for racial equity.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-5669-1
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. introduction The Failure of America and the Claims of Identity
    (pp. 1-38)

    Within the university and in the more general public sphere, thoughtful people seem uncertain what to say about identity. Identity, of course, has long been a problem. For several decades considerations of identity—the construction of subjects by particular attributes or positionings related to race, class, or gender—energized research in literature, history, and the social sciences. Differences of culture and perspective rather than the commonalities of national belonging or universal values focused work in women’s studies, in African and African-American studies, in postcolonial theory, and in mainstream English, history, and political theory.¹ While the best of such work struggled...

  5. Part I. Failed Virtues

    • chapter 1 Jefferson’s Headache: Race and the Failure of a Benevolent Republic
      (pp. 41-70)

      On the way to writing what has been perhaps the most crucial sentence identifying the American republic with its commitment to equality and justice, Jefferson suffered the first of the migraine headaches that would afflict him throughout his long public career. It delayed his return by several days to the Continental Congress, where he would compose the Declaration of Independence.¹ These headaches suggest Jefferson’s conflicted inner life. They bespeak his sense of the problems besetting the virtuous republic he hoped to establish and intimate that the most difficult problems in the way of accomplishment were internal to the state. In...

    • chapter 2 Ahab’s Cannibals: Vicissitudes of Command and the Failure of Manly Virtue
      (pp. 71-102)

      Moby Dickstands as a colossal and spectacular monument to American failure and especially to the failure of American identity for American men. Ishmael, Starbuck, Ahab, and Melville all fail brilliantly to find community, to avert disaster, to encompass revenge, to author a popular success. A description of the plot of Melville’s novel need not be long. A sailor with an intellectual and garrulous bent who names himself Ishmael tells the story of a whaling voyage he undertook near in time to the presidential election of 1848. As the ship nears the southern whaling grounds, the captain, deprived of his...

  6. Part II. Failed Sympathies

    • chapter 3 Lydia Maria Child’s Romance: Cosmopolitan Imagination and the Failure of Gender Reform
      (pp. 105-138)

      Lydia Maria Child’s advocacy for Native Americans, enslaved Africans, and oppressed women has made her at times the standard-bearer for canon revisionists who find her unambiguous political commitments an attractive alternative to such masculine ironists as Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville. If Melville’s Ahab represents the maddening impossibility of actually being a man and the dangerous tendencies of those who try to become men through mastering self and others, Child explored alternatives to Ahab in her fiction and essays throughout her long career. In Child, “antipatriachalism” takes the place of “irony as the elixir of legitimacy.”¹ But these same revisionists often...

    • chapter 4 John Brown’s Identities: Nat Turner and the Fear of Just Deserts
      (pp. 139-172)

      In 1859, John Brown was lying wounded and in the custody of the State of Virginia after his failed raid on Harpers Ferry. Lydia Maria Child wrote an open letter to Governor Wise asking his permission to nurse the wounded insurgent. This permission was denied her, but what ensued was a series of letters from Child to Governor Wise and to Mrs. Mason, a Southern woman who publicly doubted Child’s Christianity, on the topics of slavery, virtue, and violence. Mrs. Mason’s letter to Child had opened with the following salvo: “Do you read your Bible, Mrs. Child? If you do,...

  7. Part III. Failed Judgment

    • chapter 5 Emerson’s Activism: The Trials and Tribulations of an American Citizen
      (pp. 175-200)

      Robert Penn Warren’s first book was an essay on the prehistory of the Civil War.John Brown: The Making of a Martyr(1929) defends the South and its peculiar institutions in the Jim Crow era of the twentieth century and blames the North for a misguided and unjust war of aggression. For Warren, Northern reformers, especially Ralph Waldo Emerson, who failed to distinguish high-sounding principles from practical realities, who championed abolition and made Brown its martyr, bear a large part of the blame. Like Thomas Dixon’sThe Clansman(The Making of a Martyrboasts a chapter titled “The Birth of...

    • chapter 6 Douglass’s Cosmopolitanism: American Empire and the Failure of Diplomatic Representation
      (pp. 201-234)

      Frederick Douglass made his literary career and fashioned his public identity by championing the universality of America’s abstract principles against the specificity of its racist failings. Throughout a long career, during which he enthusiastically embraced the role of public intellectual that Emerson found so burdensome, he repeatedly staged the question of his own identity and his conflicted identifications with “his” race and nation to advance the cause of justice. That he in fact became the representative colored man in the United States and that he identified with American culture and values has earned him both praise and blame.¹ Douglass’s self-identification...

  8. conclusion American Identities and Global Terror
    (pp. 235-256)

    Beau Geste, William A. Wellman’s 1939 cinematic romance of legionnaires besieged by Bedouins in a desert outpost, represents a version of Arab identity still familiar in the West. The orphaned Geste brothers, Beau (Gary Cooper), Digby (Robert Preston), and John (Ray Milland), described by their charming guardian (Susan Hayward) as “three little gentlemen of fortune,” grow up and join the French Foreign Legion. Their incidental motivation involves a chivalrous desire to protect their guardian from a family scandal involving financial ruin and a purloined jewel, the Blue Water Sapphire. Their real motivation stems from their boyish desire for adventure. Their...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 257-294)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 295-302)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 303-303)