U.S. Intellectual History Blog

2011 USIH conference CFP: proposed panel potentially relating to many 19th c. topics

A message from Jonathan Wilfred Wilson regarding a proposed conference panel:

I am working on a paper proposal related to intellectual culture in early nineteenth-century Manhattan (with an emphasis on the 1820s). Specifically, my paper will examine the work of a close circle of young white writers living in the city — the founders of so-called “Knickerbocker” literary culture in the antebellum period, who gathered around James Fenimore Cooper — who embarked on a project of literary nation-building that lasted through the Civil War. I argue that these writers articulated a popular narrative of American progress, which defined the United States as a pastoral “virgin land,” in a paradoxical attempt to explain the uncertainties of urban life. The story they presented to their reading publics, describing a fresh new nation on the brink of becoming a rival to European powers, was an attempt to provide coherence to individual experiences of disruption and disinheritance. I plan to contrast their chosen narrative with that of a free African American cook who prepared meals for these writers in New York. She too was acquainted with the dislocations of the early republican metropolis. Yet the story she told about herself — which I have retrieved from state records in her home state of South Carolina — told a much different story about American progress. For her, the supposedly open and forward-looking nation was no replacement for the intimacy of the home from which she had been banished. Her story can thus be considered as a narrative describing the failure of the nation.

This paper could be part of a discussion of personal intellectual networks, nationalism, center-periphery tensions, early transatlantic dimensions of intellectual life, or broader questions of race in the early United States. If possible, however, I would be especially glad to contribute to a discussion of antebellum intellectual work, since that is a period that is generally less well-developed in USIH.

For more information or to discuss possibilities for this panel, please contact Jonathan Wilfred Wilson, Ph.D. candidate in the Syracuse University Department of History.