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Grant number like: FZ-250436-16

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Paul Berman
Unaffiliated independent scholar

Public Scholars
Research Programs

[Grant products]

$50,400 (approved)
$50,400 (awarded)

Grant period:
1/1/2017 – 12/31/2017

American Exceptionalism and the Cult of Hawthorne

A history of the concept of American exceptionalism, including its origins in the 19th-century New York magazine Democratic Review, its relationship with European Romanticism, and its surprising connections with such figures as John Hill Wheeler (ambassador to Nicaragua in the 1850s) and American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne.

My project: to describe the origins of the grandiose version of American nationalism that is sometimes known as American exceptionalism -- the doctrine that attributes to America a destiny to lead the world from tyranny and oppression into the zone of democracy and prosperity. The doctrine, I will argue, began in New York magazines, 1830s-50s, with backward glances at Puritans and 1776, and was quite sophisticated (my big point). Comparisons to French and European writers will reveal a literary, philosophical and spiritual Romanticism, culminating in a cult of Hawthorne. The doctrine favored the 1848 revolutions. It was uncannily prophetic. And yet, for all its depth and self-critical impulses, it lent itself to atrocities in Latin America and pro-slavery fanaticism -- to be shown with a discussion of Nicaragua filibusters and Hannah Crafts' apposite slave narrative. In sum, American grandiose nationalism, in the beginning: a Hawthornean symbol, profound and ambiguous.