Race and the Founding of an American Literature, 1787-1845
Selected by Choice Magazine as an Outstanding Academic Title
While it is well known that American writers of the early national period were preoccupied with differentiating their work from European models, Jared Gardner argues that the national literature of the United States was equally motivated by the desire to differentiate white Americans from blacks and Indians. Early American writers were drawn to fantasies of an "American race," and an American literature came to be defined not only by its desire for cultural uniqueness but also by its defense of racial purity. Gardner follows the shifts in American narrative's engagement with race, from Royall Tyler's Algerine Captive through the novels of Brockden Brown and Cooper, to Poe's tales and Douglass's autobiographies, narratives that differently sought to rewrite the intersections of racial and national identity the first generation had plotted.
The larger story Master Plots describes is how the racial language of "slavery" and "savagery" helped nationalist writers plot a unique identity for the new nation and the cost this "master plot" exacted when the empty rhetoric of one generation confronted the historical facts of slavery and Native American Removal in the next. The question of what it meant to be an American had lost none of its severity and the desire for an answer none of its urgency. As early nationalist writers wrestled with the question, they proved how hard a question it is to answer and how great are the dangers in scripting its answers too easily.