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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
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Using the Video

Video Activities
Activities connecting this video episode to the Guiding Questions for this Unit.

Video Authors:
Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson

Who's Interviewed:
Michael J. Colacurcio, professor of American literary and intellectual history to 1900 (University of California, Los Angeles); Bruce Michelson, professor of English (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign); Carla Mulford, associate professor of English (Pennsylvania State University); Dana Nelson, professor of American literature (University of Kentucky); John Carlos Rowe, professor of English and comparative literature (University of California, Irvine); Rafia Zafar, director of African and Afro-American studies (Washington University, St. Louis)

Points Covered:
• In the wake of the political revolution that separated them from the Old World, Americans became determined to liberate themselves culturally as well. A new belief in the power and importance of the individual shaped what became a uniquely American philosophy and literary style.

• Benjamin Franklin helped shape the foundational myth of America and the "American dream." Relying on his own cleverness and hard work to rise from his station as a poor indentured apprentice and become a successful businessman, writer, philosopher, and politician, Franklin served as a model of the "self-made man." His witty, endearing representation of himself and his life in his Autobiography set a new standard for the autobiographical genre in America. In Franklin's time, prejudice and oppression limited the definition of who counted as an American, but Franklin's work inspired men and women of subsequent generations to strive to expand those boundaries.

• Forty years later, Ralph Waldo Emerson built on Franklin's practical ideals of self-improvement and virtue and made them more personal and spiritual. Emerson encouraged Americans to look inward and find power and inspiration within themselves. He turned to nature as a spiritual resource that could energize the nation politically and elevate it morally. His Transcendental ideas about the unity of nature, the individual soul, and God profoundly influenced his peers as well as subsequent generations of American writers and thinkers. His ideas about self-reliance, in particular, inspired such writers as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and Anzia Yezierska. In a difficult historical period, Emerson was a prophet of hope and unbounded optimism. His ceaseless efforts on behalf of the individual generated important ideas about social reforms that would make America a more inclusive and equal society.

• Both Franklin and Emerson championed the rights and potential of the individual and called for independent thought. Through their own works, they gave new power to the genres of the autobiography and the moral essay. By writing about their experiences and offering their own lives as examples, they encouraged other Americans to examine themselves and trust in their own principles and beliefs.

• Preview the video: In the wake of the Revolution that severed America's colonial ties to Great Britain, the new nation struggled to liberate itself culturally from the Old World values and aesthetics that structured life and art in Europe. Many Americans turned to the Enlightenment ideals of self-determination and individualism as the basis for the new culture they were in the process of forming. Benjamin Franklin, often called the "first American," helped shape the national ideal of the "self-made man" in his Autobiograph y, a book that traced his rise to prominence through hard work and virtue. Forty years later, Ralph Waldo Emerson also celebrated individualism, but in a more Romantic and spiritual context. Issuing a clarion call to Americans to break free of European traditions, Emerson encouraged individuals to use their intuition and intellect to cultivate spiritual power within themselves. He looked to nature both as a source of inspiration for the individual and as an expression of the correspondence among humans, God, and the material world. Although their understanding of individualism and their vision of national culture were profoundly different, both Franklin and Emerson committed themselves to championing independent thought and individual development.

• Tying the video to the unit content: Unit 4 expands on the video's introduction to Franklin's and Emerson's development of an American literature tied to an ethos of individualism. The curriculum materials offer background on a variety of other eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers who modified or rejected English models and developed uniquely American literary styles and themes. Unit 4 examines genres not covered in the video--such as plays, novels, and poetry--and pays attention to the ways female, black, and Native American authors built on and transformed Franklin's and Emerson's ideas. The unit also offers contextual background to expand on the video's introduction to the political issues, historical events, and literary and aesthetic styles that shaped the development of a "spirit of nationalism."

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