Egypt Land

Race and Nineteenth-Century American Egyptomania

Egypt Land

New Americanists

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Book Pages: 376 Illustrations: 16 illustrations Published: November 2004

Author: Scott Trafton

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, American Studies, Theory and Philosophy > Race and Indigeneity

Egypt Land is the first comprehensive analysis of the connections between constructions of race and representations of ancient Egypt in nineteenth-century America. Scott Trafton argues that the American mania for Egypt was directly related to anxieties over race and race-based slavery. He shows how the fascination with ancient Egypt among both black and white Americans was manifest in a range of often contradictory ways. Both groups likened the power of the United States to that of the ancient Egyptian empire, yet both also identified with ancient Egypt’s victims. As the land which represented the origins of races and nations, the power and folly of empires, despots holding people in bondage, and the exodus of the saved from the land of slavery, ancient Egypt was a uniquely useful trope for representing America’s own conflicts and anxious aspirations.

Drawing on literary and cultural studies, art and architectural history, political history, religious history, and the histories of archaeology and ethnology, Trafton illuminates anxieties related to race in different manifestations of nineteenth-century American Egyptomania, including the development of American Egyptology, the rise of racialized science, the narrative and literary tradition of the imperialist adventure tale, the cultural politics of the architectural Egyptian Revival, and the dynamics of African American Ethiopianism. He demonstrates how debates over what the United States was and what it could become returned again and again to ancient Egypt. From visions of Cleopatra to the tales of Edgar Allan Poe, from the works of Pauline Hopkins to the construction of the Washington Monument, from the measuring of slaves’ skulls to the singing of slave spirituals—claims about and representations of ancient Egypt served as linchpins for discussions about nineteenth-century American racial and national identity.


Egypt Land is an ‘irreducibly interdisciplinary’ tour de force of cultural and historical analysis. . . . [A] major contribution to understanding the complex underpinnings of American culture, and its ‘irreducibly interdisciplinary’ approach, essential to its ambitious task, is brilliantly executed.” — Hilton Obenzinger , Journal of Interdisciplinary History

“[E]rudite. . . . [Trafton] unearths a mass of new and useful material, and interprets it with vigorous imagination.” — Wilson J. Moses , Journal of African American History

“By revealing the long history of debates over Egypt’s racial identity, Trafton contributes to an American studies interest in the nuances of nineteenth-century racial representation and to debates surrounding contemporary Afrocentrism.” — Gretchen Murphy , American Literature

“Scott Trafton has written a fascinating work exploring what he aptly describes as the Egyptomania of nineteenth-century America. With a remarkable use of archival material, Trafton shows how the trope of Egypt offers a point of entry through which to examine the complex discourse of race in nineteenth-century America. . . . [T]he brilliance of the text resides in Trafton’s amazing ability to explore his more general claim through particular investigations of the ambivalence and ambiguity evidenced in invocations of Egypt.” — Eddie S. Glaude , American Historical Review

“Trafton is terrific evoking the seductive paradoxes Ancient Egypt created for nineteenth-century Americans: serenity paired with despotism, genius paired with maddening obscurity and morbidity, and of course, the great problem of whether Pharaoh, the Judeo-Christian tradition’s icon of slave mastery, was black. . . . [A] valuable study. . . .” — Bruce Dain, Journal of American History

"Scott Trafton's splendid Egypt Land presents a United States with racially divergent views of that legendary Nilotic civilization. Trafton . . . chronicles and details the schizophrenic ways Americans thought about Egypt. . . . Trafton's examination of the racist 'anthropology' of Josiah Nott and George Gliddion, who both tried to prove that the ancient Egyptians were white, and the Black scholars like James McClune Smith, Frederick Douglass, and Edward Wilmont Blyden--who all insisted on Egypt's Africana--is the high point of this important study." — Eugene Holley Jr. , Black World Today

"This book raises some interesting questions on a fascinating topic. Recommended." — R. Fritze, Choice

“Now that Scott Trafton has taught us the meaning of Egyptomania, we’ll all be seeing its register everywhere and feeling astonished that we weren’t noticing it before.” — Dana D. Nelson, author of National Manhood: Capitalist Citizenship and the Imagined Fraternity of White Men

Egypt Land is an exceptional interdisciplinary study of the centrality of Egyptomania to considerations of race and nation in nineteenth-century America.” — Robert S. Levine, author of Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, and the Politics of Representative Identity

“A magnificent piece of scholarship, Egypt Land does justice to the complexity of the work of nation- and race-making as such work moved circularly along axes of racialized science, ideology, Biblical and political authority, songs, and images, producing social and material effects. In short, the imagining of ancient Egypt was a weapon among an array of agents that both made and resisted, as Scott Trafton puts it, the ‘iconography of empire.’” — Wahneema Lubiano, editor of The House That Race Built


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Scott Trafton is Assistant Professor of English and African American Studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Illustrations ix

Acknowledgment xi

Preface: “An Inspired Frenzy of Madness” xv

Introduction: “This Egypt of the West”: Making Race and Nation along the American Nile 1

1. “A Veritable He-Nigger after All”: Egypt, Ethnology, and the Crises of History 41

2. The Egyptian Moment: Racial Ruptures and the Archaeological Imaginary 85

3. The Curse of the Mummy: Race, Reanimation, and the Egyptian Revival 121

4. Undressing Cleopatra: Race, Sex, and Bodily Interiority in Nineteenth-Century American Egyptomania 165

5. Egypt Land: Slavery, Uprising, and Signifying the Double 222

Notes 263

Works Cited 315

Index 339
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3362-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3375-3
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