Constituting Americans

Cultural Anxiety and Narrative Form

Constituting Americans

New Americanists

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Book Pages: 408 Illustrations: Published: April 1995

Author: Priscilla Wald

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, American Studies, Cultural Studies

Ever since the founders drafted "We the People," "we" have been at pains to work out the contradictions in their formulation, to fix in words precisely what it means to be American. Constituting Americans rethinks the way that certain writers of the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth century contributed to this project; in doing so, it revises the traditional narrative of U.S. literary history, restoring an essential chapter to the story of an emerging American cultural identity. In diverse ways, very different writers—including Frederick Douglass, Herman Melville, Harriet Wilson, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Gertrude Stein—participated in the construction and dissemination of an American identity, but none was entirely at ease in the culture they all helped to define. Evident in their work is a haunting sense of their telling someone else’s story, a discomfort that Priscilla Wald reads in the context of legal and political debates about citizenship and personhood that marked the emergence of the United States as a nation and a world power.
From early-nineteenth-century Supreme Court cases to turn-of-the-century Jim Crow and immigration legislation, from the political speeches of Abraham Lincoln to the historical work of Woodrow Wilson, nation-builders addressed the legal, political, and historical paradoxes of American identity. Against the backdrop of their efforts, Wald shows how works such as Douglass’s autobiographical narratives, Melville’s Pierre, Wilson’s Our Nig, Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folks, and Stein’s The Making of Americans responded, through formal innovations, to the aggressive demands for literary participation in the building of that nation. The conversation that emerges among these literary works challenges the definitions and genres that largely determine not only what works are read, but also how they are read in classrooms in the United States today.
Offering insight into the relationship of storytelling to national identity, Constituting Americans will compel the attention of those with an interest in American literature, American studies, and cultural studies.


Constituting Americans does more than immensely enrich current scholarship on nationalism, subjectivity, and U.S. literature and culture. By ranging in its objects of study from law, journalism, psychology, and history to sociology and political documents, it also sets a standard for the contribution of literary criticism to interdisciplinary study.” — Maggie Sale, American Literature

"Priscilla Wald’s groundbreaking project is a study of American cultural identity in the context of theories of subjectivity and nationalism. Constituting Americans makes an important, because controversial, intervention in debates over intercultural analysis of African American and ‘ethinc’ literatures." — Susan Gilman, University of California, Santa Cruz

"With beautiful sensitivity to language, Wald offers a unique blend of nuanced textual analysis and historical interpretation. The result is a provocative and well researched account of national stories and the concept of personhood." — Akhil Reed Amar, Yale Law School


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Priscilla Wald is Assistant Professor of English at Columbia University and a contributing editor to American Literary History

Table of Contents Back to Top
Abbreviations ix

Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction 1

1. Neither Citizen Nor Alien: National Narratives, Frederick Douglass ,and the Politics of Self-Definition 14

2. "As From a Faithful Mirror": Pierre, Our Nig, and Literary Nationalism 106

3. "The Strange Meaning of Being Black": The Souls of Black Folk and the Narrative of History 172

4. A "Losing-Self Sense": The Making of Americans and the Anxiety of Identity 237

Coda: An American "We" 299

Notes 305

Selected Bibliography 353

Index 375

Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-1547-6 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-1550-6
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