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Identity and the Failure of America

From Thomas Jefferson to the War on Terror

2008
Author:

John Michael

Identity and the Failure of America

Investigates the idealistic promise of American justice and equality

John Michael explores the contradictions between a mythic national identity promising justice to all and the realities of a divided, hierarchical, and frequently iniquitous history and social order. Through a series of insightful readings, Michael analyzes such cultural moments as the epic dramatization of the tension between individual ambition and communal complicity in Moby-Dick, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s antislavery activism, and Frederick Douglass’s long fight for racial equity.

A bold critical jeremiad on the complexities of identity and political justice in U.S. writings over an approximately 200-year period. Michael takes on some of the most hotly debated issues in Americanist inquiry and provides new ways of thinking about the recuperative power of imaginative literature in our troubled times.

Robert S. Levine, author of Dislocating Race and Nation

From Thomas Jefferson to John Rawls, justice has been at the center of America’s self-image and national creed. At the same time, for many of its peoples—from African slaves and European immigrants to women and the poor—the American experience has been defined by injustice: oppression, disenfranchisement, violence, and prejudice.

In Identity and the Failure of America, John Michael explores the contradictions between a mythic national identity promising justice to all and the realities of a divided, hierarchical, and frequently iniquitous history and social order. Through a series of insightful readings, Michael analyzes such cultural moments as the epic dramatization of the tension between individual ambition and communal complicity in Moby-Dick, attempts to effect social change through sympathy in the novels of Lydia Marie Child and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s antislavery activism and Frederick Douglass’s long fight for racial equity, and the divisive figures of John Brown and Nat Turner in American letters and memory.

Focusing on exemplary instances when the nature of the United States as an essentially conflicted nation turned to force, Michael ultimately posits the development of a more cosmopolitan American identity, one that is more fully and justly imagined in response to the nation’s ethical failings at home and abroad.

Identity and the Failure of America

John Michael is professor of English and of visual and cultural studies at the University of Rochester.

Identity and the Failure of America

A bold critical jeremiad on the complexities of identity and political justice in U.S. writings over an approximately 200-year period. Michael takes on some of the most hotly debated issues in Americanist inquiry and provides new ways of thinking about the recuperative power of imaginative literature in our troubled times.

Robert S. Levine, author of Dislocating Race and Nation

Michael posits a more cosmopolitan American identity that addresses rather then masks ethical feelings.

Choice

Embodying a renewed commitment to American studies, Michael presents us with a thoughtful analysis worthy of consideration for anyone thinking seriously about identity.

Callaloo

Michael works toward a conception of identity that is both universal and mindful of difference.

Reviews in Cultural Theory