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Home feelings with the past: Antebellum American literature and the anachronistic imagination

Jeffrey Robert Insko, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Home Feelings with the Past explores modes of historiographical thinking among antebellum writers in order to explore the relations of history and literature as well as the uses of history in literature. Informed by postmodern theory and neo-pragmatism, yet authorized by the practice of antebellum writers, the dissertation departs from a consensus of assumptions and methodologies that have governed American literary studies since the “historical turn” in order to suggest alternative ways of imagining literary history. I contend that the historicist tendency to view literary texts as both constituted by and constitutive of their historical moment risks consigning texts inexorably to a particular cross-section of history, shackling them to a single slice of historical time. In the first part of the dissertation, I show that writers as different as Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Catharine Sedgwick, and Ralph Waldo Emerson all imagine history anachronistically, disrupting the historical sequence of events or ventriloquizing voices from one historical period into another in order to imagine alternatives to the sequential course of history. Narratives which themselves refuse to be bound to a single moment in history, I argue, do not invite a critical approach which seeks to link them to a particular historical context. By contrast, in the second part of the dissertation, I demonstrate how old texts might be studied fruitfully by emphasizing historical contexts other than their time of production. Thus, I, too, “commit” anachronism, placing works by James Fenimore Cooper and Herman Melville in relation to contemporary contexts. Unlike “new” historicists, then, my readings do not assume that text “belongs” to particular moments in time or that I can tell a story about the past uninfected by my own location in history. Rather, I strive to portray these texts as I apprehend or “recognize” them in the context of our own time. The works by Cooper and Melville, then, become not just indices of a bygone era, but documents that place us, as readers, in a constellation of past and present, that allow us to experience history, not simply to know it.

Subject Area

American literature|American history|American studies

Recommended Citation

Insko, Jeffrey Robert, "Home feelings with the past: Antebellum American literature and the anachronistic imagination" (2003). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3096286.