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From colony to empire: The decolonization of national literary identity in antebellum American literature

Nicole Renee de Fee, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


This study focuses on postcolonial re-readings of Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, and Herman Melville. I argue that the development of the national literary identity during the American antebellum period mirrors Franz Fanon’s theoretical and historical construct of decolonization. The process of decolonization also creates postcolonial anxiety for the antebellum American identity. The postcolonial anxiety that informs the dominant white antebellum American identity results from what Lawrence Buell explains as the “typical aspects of…early canonical expressions to define themselves over against the prior cultural hegemony of the former ruling power…” (199). These attempts by the early Americans to re/define themselves against the Europeans and in opposition to them with the hopes of establishing a distinctly American identity underscores the type of Fanonian decolonial process that I argue takes place. For example, Irving’s identification with Europe and his desire to “be American” marks the beginnings of this “anxiety” of the dominant identity. Cooper picks up, if you will, where Irving leaves off by rejecting the former colonizer in his attempts to create a distinctly American hero. While this anxiety may at first blush seem to dissipate with Cooper, Poe takes the reigns and his works illustrate just how difficult carving out an American identity during the process of decolonization is. The psychological trauma in Poe’s works exposes the anxiety of the identity this process creates. On the other side of this trauma emerges an American identity that looks similar to the former colonizer. Instead of Fanon’s process moving the dominant identity away from its colonial roots, the antebellum Americans find themselves right back at the beginning. However, what emerges from this process is not simply a colonial identity; it is one that is also imperial. What I find taking place then in Melville is an exploration of this imperial identity, the danger it poses, and why the process of decolonization has gone horribly wrong for antebellum Americans. ^

Subject Area

Literature, American

Recommended Citation

de Fee, Nicole Renee, "From colony to empire: The decolonization of national literary identity in antebellum American literature" (2008). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3326859.