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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
- Instructor
- Bibliography
& Resources
- Glossary
- Learning
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
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•  Activities

Unit Overview: Instructor Overview

Classroom and other assignment activities for this Unit.
In his answer to the difficult question "What is an American?" Farmer James, the narrator of J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer, claims that Americans are characterized by their lack of distinction between rich and poor, by a "pleasing uniformity of decent competence," and by their respect for the "silken bands of mild government." As his letters continue, however, James's idyllic picture of American life becomes increasingly troubled. A horrifying encounter with a tortured African American slave in South Carolina, doubts about the morality and civilization of Americans living in backwoods settlements, and intense distress brought about by the violence of the Revolution leave the narrator uncertain about exactly what—and who—is an American. The ambiguities and tensions surrounding this question characterized much of the literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As the young nation struggled to define its values and beliefs, debates raged about what America should stand for and what it should be. Unit 4, "The Spirit of Nationalism: Declaring Independence, 1710-1850," examines the work of a wide variety of writers who participated in these debates, including Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Thomas Jefferson, Phillis Wheatley, Royall Tyler, Susanna Rowson, William Apess, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Mar-garet Fuller. The unit provides contextual background and classroom materials designed to explore the role these texts have played in the formation of American values and in the creation of enduring myths about America.

The video for Unit 4 focuses on Benjamin Franklin and Ralph Waldo Emerson, two influential writers who articulated American ideals and celebrated the potential of the American individual. Franklin helped shape the foundational myth of the "American dream" by narrating his own rise from obscurity through hard work and virtue. His Autobiography served as a model that inspired many later Americans and helped define the autobiographical genre. Forty years later, Emerson built on Franklin's practical ideas of self-improvement and made them more personal and spiritual. He encouraged Americans to look inward, trust their intuition, and develop their own principles. His spiritual philosophy of the correspondence among nature, the individual soul, and God was influential both in his own time and for subsequent generations. Emerson's optimistic belief in the potential of all individuals had far-reaching implications and repercussions. Although Emerson was not especially active in social reform movements, he articulated ideas that inspired individuals to make America a more inclusive and equal society.

In its coverage of Franklin's and Emerson's development of American ideals, the video introduces students to the complexities and evolution of ideas about individualism and the national character. What makes an American? To whom is the ethos of individualism available? How did ideas about the rights and potential of the individual change over time? How were American ideals influenced by people's relationship to the natural world? How did changing spiritual beliefs shape national ideals? Unit 4 helps to answer these questions by situating Franklin and Emerson within their cultural contexts, as well as connecting them to other units in the series and to other key writers of the era. The curriculum materials fill in the video's introduction to the spirit of nationalism by exploring writers who represented other, diverse experiences, such as Phillis Wheatley (an African American slave who composed and published poetry), Susanna Rowson (an English-born novelist whose best-selling book portrayed the social consequences of the sexual double standard), and William Apess (a Pequot Indian who became a Methodist minister and champion of Native American rights).

The video, the archive, and the curriculum materials locate the writers featured in Unit 4 within several of the historical contexts and artistic movements that shaped their texts: (1) ideas about individualism, from the Enlightenment through the beginnings of Romantic Individualism; (2) the early national interest in classical Greece and Rome and the aesthetic of neoclassicism; (3) the symbolic connection between American natural history and the American nation; (4) the aesthetic of the sublime; and (5) the representation of America as the female allegorical figure Columbia.

The archive and curriculum materials suggest how the authors and texts featured in Unit 4 relate to those covered in other American Passages units: How have ideas of individualism changed over time? How have they influenced the genre of the autobiography and the slave narrative? How did later nineteenth- and twentieth-century American writers challenge and expand the definition of who should be considered an American? What is the place of nature and the wilderness in American philosophy and in American society?

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