The Anxieties of History: National Identity, the Idea of America, and the Rhetoric of Return in British Romantic Writing
Document Type Article
A DISSERTATION Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements For the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Major: English, Under the Supervision of Professor Stephen C. Behrendt. Lincoln, Nebraska: May, 2011.
Copyright 2011 Derek T. Leuenberger
While much of current scholarship on transatlantic relationships in the Romantic era focuses on British perceptions of America and Americans (in the broadest senses of those terms), there has been little attention paid to how representations of these perceptions affect British understandings of their own historical situation. This study seeks to fill an important gap in transatlantic Romantic studies by exploring a prevalent and pervasive trope in British Romantic literature from the 1770s through the mid-nineteenth century that reveals much about the way British writers conceived of America’s connection to the British nation. This trope, which is examined through a broad cross-section of the period’s writers of imaginative literature, takes the form of a representation of return – physical and geographical, ideological and political, historical and conjectural – from America to Great Britain (often centered on England as the core national constituent) and whose key notes are not achievement or victory but failure and extinction. Further, this broad sense of failure is tied closely to understandings of national identity and history that are magnified through the perception of a complex transatlantic relationship. Chapter 1 charts the cultural and historical context of this rhetoric of return through British conceptualizations of, first, national identity and character and, second, through the complex and evolving ideas of history and historiography that mark the Romantic era as a transformational time in the understanding of history. Chapter 2 examines the works of Gilbert Imlay and Charlotte Smith, who conclude, in their ways, that Britain’s societal antipathy toward Godwinian enlightened virtue – and those who embody it – cannot be overcome. Chapter 3 focuses on William Wordsworth’s depiction of an America that deranges the British self and, thereby, the British nation. And Chapter 4 discusses visionary conceptions of the transatlantic relationship and their consequences for imagining Britain as a historical entity in the works of William Blake, Thomas Day, Anna Letitia Barbauld, and Percy Shelley.