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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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4. Spirit of Nationalism   

4. Spirit of Nationalism

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- William Apess
- J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur
- Jonathan Edwards
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Benjamin Franklin
- Margaret Fuller
- Thomas Jefferson
- Susanna Rowson
- Royall Tyler
- Phillis Wheatley
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Suggested Author Pairings

Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin
Born just three years apart at the beginning of the eighteenth century, Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin in some ways seem to inhabit different eras. Certainly Edwards's commitment to the Puritan beliefs of his ancestors and his passion for exploring his own spiritual nature is at odds with Franklin's secularism and practical drive for financial success and community standing. Nonetheless, both relied on and divergently engaged with their Puritan inheritance. For all his secularism, Franklin's commitment to virtue, thrift, and industriousness can be traced to Puritan values, while Edwards's brand of piety--though it is clearly based on strict Puritan models--is inflected with an almost Romantic interest in self-discovery. It might be useful to ask students to compare Edwards's "Personal Narrative" with Franklin's Autobiography. While both men were interested in keeping track of their faults and cultivating their virtues, they take very different approaches to this project.

Thomas Jefferson and J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur
Both Jefferson and Crèvecoeur grappled with the difficult question of what it meant to be an American at the end of the eighteenth century. Jefferson wrote a manifesto of American values in the Declaration of Independence, while Crèvecoeur laid out an answer to the broad question "What is an American?" in his Letters from an American Farmer. Crèvecoeur and Jefferson idealized agrarian life as the best expression of American values, though their cosmopolitanism and aristocratic tastes made both of them rather ironic spokesmen for agrarian simplicity. You might ask students to compare Jefferson's attempt to deal with the issue of slavery in his original draft of the Declaration with Crèvecoeur's narrator's problematic account of his meeting with a tortured slave in South Carolina.

Royall Tyler and Susanna Rowson
As writers of plays and novels, both Tyler and Rowson were targeted for participating in what were often considered trivial, immoral, and even dangerous genres. Ask students to think about how these two writers dealt with readers' and viewers' hostility toward their projects. Rowson frequently interrupts her narrative to address readers directly, while Tyler prefaces his play with a direct appeal to his viewers and includes a number of soliloquies in which characters address the audience. Both Tyler and Rowson take on the national obsession with female chastity--though their two Charlottes meet very different fates.

Phillis Wheatley and William Apess
As members of minority groups in the young nation, Wheatley and Apess offer poignant challenges to dominant views of who qualifies as an American. Wheatley's patriotic celebrations of American ideals in her poems are underlain with subtle critiques of the injustice of slavery and the difficulties of her own situation as an African American. Apess is much less subtle in his attacks on European American society--his "Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man" is an openly angry protest against racial prejudice. Both Wheatley and Apess occupied difficult liminal positions in their respective societies. As a highly educated and cultivated woman, Wheatley lived a very different existence from other African American women and spent much of her early life among whites. As an ordained Methodist minister, Apess also found himself pulled between white culture and his own Native American community. Both Wheatley and Apess were profoundly religious and may have found Christianity appealing because of its potential to afford them equal status with European Americans as spiritual brethren in the eyes of God. They both draw attention in their work to the discrepancy between whites' professed beliefs about Christianity and the unfair treatment of racial minorities.

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller
Emerson and Fuller, good friends and lifelong supporters of one another's work, make an obvious pairing. They were both active in the Transcendentalist movement and frequently met to share ideas, discuss philosophy, and critique each other's work. But despite the fact that they shared important core beliefs about the power and potential of the individual, their writings have very different implications. In her eloquent case for the equality of the sexes, Fuller pushes Emerson's views in directions he never dared to go. Fuller's journalistic background and commitment to forwarding practical reforms also separate her from Emerson's more abstract and philosophical approach to the problems of American society.

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