Exceptional America: Newness and National Identity

Exceptional America: Newness and National Identity

Exceptional America: Newness and National Identity

Exceptional America: Newness and National Identity

Synopsis

The belief that America is not only different but "exceptional" is a central aspect of American identity that appears in the speeches and writings of John Winthrop to Martin Luther King Jr. to Ronald Reagan. Yet how and why America is exceptional has produced widely diverse answers. Philip Abbott alters this debate by arguing that Americans are the way they talk. He examines American exceptionalism as a preoccupation with "newness" in both politics and culture and traces its influence in a series of great American political texts, including the Declaration of Independence, The Federalist Papers, Democracy in America, Walden, The Souls of Black Folk, and various novels and speeches.

Excerpt

Just after the “velvet revolution,” I visited a Czech university recently liberated from Communist rule. As a visitor, my eyes focused upon the ornate medieval buildings and stolid Soviet party and government offices. Unlike Prague, which was already sprouting casinos and McDonald’s, Palecki University and the surrounding town seemed frozen in this ungainly mixture of two worlds. But there was also a palpable air of exhilaration among both students and faculty. A faculty member pulled out from his desk a copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road which he had reread many times over the years. “We do not have American space but now we have American newness!” he said. This professor, who was actually an expert on Ludwig Wittgenstein, was well aware of Kerouac’s marginality in terms of American culture and his critique of American society but what he had plucked from this book was the sense of adventure and possibility. Moreover, it was this perception of American identity as newness, and his identification with it, that became the central part of my memory of the visit. I have lost contact with the faculty at Palecki. I suspect that this fascination with newness and its connection with America has deteriorated or changed. But it did cause me to wonder how a culture that is perpetually engaged with the idea of the new, functions across time. Though I did not include Kerouac in this volume, I have arranged a series of works that confront this exceptional notion of national identity. Academics have often been suspicious of the concept of American Exceptionalism and Americans at large have had their own doubts but it is this very preoccupation with our difference, defined as newness, that, I argue, makes us who we are by how we talk.

I am grateful for many people who have generously commented on this book in whole or part: Joanna Scott, Christopher Duncan, Garrett Ward Sheldon, David F. Ericson, Mark Roeloff, George Graham, Carol Nackenhoff. Versions of various chapters have appeared in Political Research Quarterly, Review of Politics, Amerikastudien, The So-

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