A close-up look at America's perceived historical ideal
Exceptionalism, the notion that Americans
have a distinct and special destiny different from that of other nations,
permeates every period of American history. It is the single most
powerful force in forming the American identity.
In American Exceptionalism Deborah
L. Madsen traces this powerful theory from its origins in Puritan and Revolutionary-era
writing to its latest manifestations in the Vietnam conflict and in current
films and fiction.
The growth of the idea is complex.
In the 1600s the Massachusetts Bay colonists believed that God had intervened
to create in America a "redeemer nation," as is shown in the writings of
Mary Rowlandson, William Bradford, and John Cotton. From the perspective
of works by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville comes the nineteenth-century
vision of expansion and dispossession of Native Americans. Later,
antislavery writers wielded the rhetoric of exceptionalism against "the
peculiar institution." Recent history of American exceptionalism
is revealed in the culture of movie Westerns and revisions of the American
myth as shown by the novels of Larry McMurtry, Toni Morrison, and Thomas
Alongside each chapter on American perspectives,
Madsen places the counterweight of views from Native Americans, Chicanos,
and non-Americans. The result is a balanced and thorough sounding
of the New World superpower's legacy to the Old World.
"One has a good sense, from this book,"
says Miles Orvell, "that exceptionalism is not to be dismissed or condemned
out of hand (as some are wont to do these days) but must be understood
in all its complexity, as a source of America's distinct cultural shape,
for better or worse. Madsen succeeds in bringing an intelligent detachment
and broadly-informed perspective to an issue that is fraught with passion
on all sides."
Deborah L. Madsen is a professor of English at South Bank University