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"The continent of glories": Geographical concepts in historical literature, 1846-1877

Kimberly Winschel Banion, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


This dissertation argues that geographical beliefs serve as an important ideological basis for historical literature of the mid-nineteenth century. Shaped by eighteenth-century Enlightenment thought, the cultural heritage of the Puritans, and nineteenth-century developments in the pseudo-sciences, writers' geographical beliefs were challenged by various domestic and foreign political crises in the years between the U.S.-Mexican War and Reconstruction. The geographical principles explored in this study include four core beliefs: 1) the United States has a divine mandate to possess the entire continent; 2) generations of white Northern Europeans in the U.S. formed a new race best suited to possess North America (and perhaps beyond); 3) by virtue of racial heritage, Africans and their descendants, American Indians, inhabitants of Latin America, and non-Northern European immigrants are not suited for republican forms of government; and 4) the work of expansionism is essential to American democracy, making annexation a righteous act. Limited to historical literature between 1846 and 1877, this study centers on works by four authors: George Lippard’s Washington and His Generals and Legends of Mexico; Walt Whitman’s journalism, Brooklyniana manuscripts, and “The Sleepers”; Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Oldtown Folks; and María Amparo Ruiz de Burton's Who Would Have Thought It?. These works focus on the nation's Revolutionary history or its Pilgrim origins in order to comment on contemporary events, such as annexation of Mexico and Reconstruction politics. This dissertation finds that to maintain a coherent narrative of national origin, Lippard, Whitman, and Stowe negotiated between past precedents and present realities to instill a sense of a shared geographic identity at the expense of racial Others. Their texts also assert the authors' regional superiority by granting their localities special status as sites of the nation's democratic origin. While Ruiz de Burton's novel exposes the flawed logic of such geographical chauvinism, her purpose in doing so is to assert an alternative model of regional and racial privilege. This project argues that geographic principles inherited from New England's early settlement are embedded in historical literature, and that these assumptions about region and race impose limitations on writers' visions of the nation's past, present, and future.

Subject Area

American studies|Literature|American literature

Recommended Citation

Banion, Kimberly Winschel, ""The continent of glories": Geographical concepts in historical literature, 1846-1877" (2013). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3604615.