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Exploring the Exceptional: A Case for American Exceptionalism in Literature and the Curriculum

Jessica Rosenberg

Definitions of American exceptionalism abound. To begin an explanation somewhere, professor of history Joyce Appleby described exceptionalism as an approach to America that "projects onto a nation... qualities that are envied because they represent deliverance from a common lot." (Byers, 85) Those qualities began as the moral innocence and religious freedom of early settlers, and stretched in the 19th century to include personal insight and Transcendentalist self-reliance. And though challenges to the concept are now more frequent than defenses, it is impossible to deny the concept's presence in the current political climate, most notably in our faith in American military invincibility and holding onto what Dale Carter described as "a belief in the quasi-mystical recuperative powers of the American landscape." (Carter, 79) American exceptionalism maintains that our beginnings as a nation, foundational credos, historical evolution, as well as religious and political organizations and cultural institutions, make us an incomparable nation.

Coined by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831, the term "American exceptionalism" is used to describe the mode of telling the American story and histories as a grand narrative, unique and ahistorical. Beginning with a look at how the Americas were "discovered," and the ideas of (supposed) religious freedom in the pre-colonial project; though exceptionalism was not coined as such at the time, there are surely the rumblings of the exceptionalist mindset in the tabula rosa view of America taken on by early settlers. The roots of American exceptionalism easily stretch as far back as John Winthrop's "City on a Hill" sermon of 1630. Through the success of the Revolutionary War, American exceptionalism holds that the United States was founded on standards that make it special and different from other nations.

The frontier work of the 19th century, backed by the spread of the phrase and belief in manifest destiny, brought American exceptionalism to the forefront of political policy. Used to help justify the westward development of the nation, the land-grabs and the territory takeovers, American exceptionalism was at this time less of a critical debate, and more of a political tool and popularly held belief. It was not until the 20th century that American exceptionalism became a mode of study and question.

Today, the debate rages on over the relevancy of American exceptionalism and its place in debates of history, political science, cultural studies, literature, even the existence of American Studies as a field. In his collection of essays, Is America Different?, Byron Shafer summed up the contemporary debate, and confusion, on American exceptionalism, claiming "it never was; it once was, but is no more; new versions have substituted for old; it continues on, unchanged in its essence." (Shafer, 222)

First loosing popularity during the Civil Rights movement, scholars attempted to tear down American exceptionalism to make way for social histories and multiple perspective work. American exceptionalism was said to have constrained the concept of American identity. As Elizabeth Fox-Genovese wrote in American Quarterly in 1990, lambasted American exceptionalism for that major limitation, saying that the idea only held water when it "excluded who did not fit." (Carter, 79) By opening up history to women, African American, Native American, and immigrant stories, American exceptionalism was going to have to be replaced by a multicultural view of the United States, in what Appleby called "recovering and expanding the public memory," (Carter, 78). Appleby, in her 1992 presidential address to the Organization of American Historians, claimed that "exceptionalism...was less a manifestation of nature's laws than a racial-, ethnic-, and gender-specific cultural construct." (Appleby) And once we include all of these perspectives, how can we claim to have a unified American culture? Fox-Genovese asks. And without that, there is no validity behind American exceptionalism.

New Left historiography of the 1960's furthered this criticism. Though the ideals of individuality over state and class control were coherent with the movement's political perspectives, critics were extremely concerned with the narrative of exceptionalism. William Appleman Williams wanted to confront the notion of American mythology, and replace that telling with a past, a fact based history, and desired that this would pull down American exceptionalism. Starting with the 19th century foundation of the term, Williams wrote that the U.S. must abandon the idea that "utopia is in the old American frontier." (Carter, 80) Williams urged a confrontation of America's Imperialist past and present.

Contemporary critics are interested in incorporating the reality of globalization into understandings of American exceptionalism, an act they believe will break it apart even further. Eric Guthey writes that both economic globalization and technological innovation "threaten to dissolve the usefulness of the nation state and further confuse and fragment the already problematic notion of an American national identity itself." (Carter, 84) This further attack on the very idea of an American identity again challenges any attempt to claim exceptionalism.

Despite these attacks, American exceptionalism persists. Carter claims, in fact, that it is not despite of, so much as because of critical attacks, that exceptionalism remains ubiquitous:

In an era during which concerns for borders, fragmentations and differences have grown in prominence, it should not be completely surprising that exceptionalism's own logic of differentiation endures. (Carter, 83)

Meanwhile, the public's belief in the fact of American Exceptionalism has once again become paramount to the academic debate over its validity. Stephen Fender maintains that "Americans are different because they think they are, or wish to be, and the wish has always been mother and father to the fact." (Carter, 83).

To me, firmly agreeing with Fender in his analysis, it is academic frivolity to debate whether American exceptionalism exists, even if it is accurate, worthwhile, or based in any facts whatsoever. More interesting to me is examining the presence of exceptionalism viewpoints within American culture. This ideology has so often been used as an ego-centric excuse for terrifying political policies and forgetful historical misinterpretations. But examining it is necessary academic work and can be the foundation of illuminating critical readings.

There are texts in the American literary canon that cannot be understood without the conception of exceptionalism, considerations of how the ideology was present in both the internal narrative and the act of writing it. Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlett Letter has such a dual dialogue going on with the volume turned all the way up. It helps that the historical beginnings of American exceptionalism sit squarely in the center of Hawthorne's 17th century Boston. American exceptionalism holds that from this beginning, we on this land had an uniqueness. It is not ever left at that. From that place of special comes a special relationship with god and humanity. Though this is not an aspect of American exceptionalism stressed today, it holds forth widely in Scarlett Letter. Today's reader is all too aware of the place exceptionalism, specifically in America's relationship to god, faith, and moral superiority, held in the Hester's community.

From the historical reality of exceptionalism comes this subtext to the Scarlet Letter that pervades the conflict of the story. In the laws of Boston, the enforcement of which cause conflict for Hester, there is suggested a special relationship with human behavior, as if the traits of desire and sexuality could be erased simply by man saying it was so. The town's treatment of Hester exhibits the moral high ground taken by early colonizers. This idea of the individual as superhuman is seen furthermore in the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale's verbal and physical self-flagellation. Dimmesdale tells his congregation repeatedly that he is "utterly a pollution and a lie!" (Hawthorne, 99), and truly believes, in his heart of hearts, that his one sin makes him disgusting and evil through and through. He goes without sleep and food for days, punishing himself with "a bloody scourge...laughing bitterly at himself all the while, and smiting so much the more pitilessly, because of that bitter laugh." (Hawthorne, 99) Though Hawthorne tells us he is a "lost and desperate man," (Hawthorne, 150), Dimmesdale is nonetheless held up in Boston as the ideal of religiosity and humanity. Hawthorne uses Dimmesdale to represent a severe manifestation of the disconnect between the ideal of the individual in the American exceptionalist view, and the reality of such an exceptionalist ideology being enforced on the individual. Hawthorne, in his portrayal of characters so clearly struggling and, more often than not, failing in their struggle with the American expceptionalism of their time, delivers a harsh critique of that philosophy.

Even in his narration, Hawthorne makes rarely subtle, scathing critiques of the early excpetionalism of the colonies, beginning the story proper by telling the reader that

The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it amoung their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin the site of a prison. (Hawthorne, 33)

But it is not merely the story he tells of exceptionalism that shows Hawthorne's own resistance to the belief of the term; it is not the narration, nor the act of writing a story showing the darker side of excpetionalism. The device of "The Customs- House" as an introduction to The Scarlet Letter plays out how Hawthorne is grappling with the exceptionalism present in his own time.

We see his narrator character at odds with his Puritan roots, and the stringent throw-back world of the customs-house he is forced to occupy. By starting at the customs-house and not simply with "The Prison-Door," Hawthorne reminds contemporary readers that the themes of The Scarlet Letter, though rooted in the 17th century, are by no means exclusive to it. Written less than a decade after the term American exceptionalism came into use, The Scarlet Letter shows Hawthorne guiltily and self-consciously overturning the Puritanical ideals of morality, much in the same way critics today try to deal with the idea of American exceptionalism. In his telling of a woman's story of early Boston, Hawthorne is "expanding the public memory" as feminist critics of over a century later tried to do when tearing down the legacy of exceptionalism purported to be upheld by literature such a The Scarlet Letter.

Perhaps all one needs to do, is glance at his dedication of Moby Dick to Nathaniel Hawthorne to begin to gauge Herman Melville's take on the American exceptionalist question. But Moby Dick takes its own probing look at the ideology, extending many of the questions of The Scarlet Letter further and deeper. Beginning with Ishmael's troubled emotional state, Melville's narrator has an exceptionalist view of himself in the world. "In the habit of going to sea whenever [he begins] to grow hazy about the eyes," (Melville, 20) Ishmael's world view is cemented for the reader during his first encounters with Queequeg. Ishmael is uncomfortable with this foreign threat, at first, especially in his obvious physical and masculine superiority. Eventually, as Ishmael gets to know Queequeg's habits and motivations, his exceptionalism breaks down, and he goes so far as to pronounce that "Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed." (Melville, 55). Accepting Queequeg as, for their time period, an equal, Ishmael does not truly become our simple hero of the story until he rejects American excpetionalism.

Any doubts to Melville's opinions on American exceptionalism are answered with a close investigation of Captain Ahab and his ship. The Pequod's first, second, and third mates are natives of Nantucket, Cape Cod, and Martha's Vineyard, respectively, but the rest of the ship is made up of all manner of men, from all corners of the globe, brought together for the adventure and economic voyage that was whaling. The ship is a modern critic's dream vessel for the exploration of American exceptionalism; a multi-national and cross-cultural ship, with an inherent purpose of global economic superiority.

But Ahab takes this boat and, quite literally, puts it at the bottom of the sea. He unquestioningly and unflinchingly believes that his unique history has lead him to a place of moral superiority where his needs are paramount to the health and welfare of the others on the ship, and its original commercial purpose. Ahab follows his mission at all costs. Though Moby Dick is certainly a love song to the individual, for those of us who eventually make it to the end, Melville's intention is clear. Ahab displays the height of American exceptionalism, in all of its invincible glory, and Melville portrays him as doomed for the mouth of the whale and the bottom of the ocean.

Most striking and disturbing in Melville's response to the ideology of exceptionalism is the fate of the rest of the boat. Every other nation ends up going down with Ahab's ship, save one measly American's escape to tell the story. Ahab even manages to convince the men on the Pequod that the voyage of destruction for his own selfish purposes will be noble, and thusly worthy of their commitment. Readers today continue to respond to this tale of American individualistic jingoism destroying a ship of united nations, displaying how sadly relevant Melville's response to American exceptionalism stays.

In both Scarlet Letter and Moby Dick's socio-political commentary underlining the stories and their, there is a decidedly negative, unswervingly anti- American-exceptionalism view taken. This calls into question the original issues 20th century critics have with the role of American exceptionalist views of history, especially in curriculum building. Currently, even the seemingly inherently exceptionalist field of American Studies is taking on a borderland, multi-national approach to its topic. Every time the definition of "American" and the identity labeled as such is widened, it is believed that exceptionalism is knocked down a peg. Why, then, should we teach American Literature, the books and the distinctive category, at all? And why especially should we teach 19th century literature, written in a time of seemingly unflinching American Exceptionalism?

First and foremost, there is nothing exceptionalist about one knowing their own nation's literature; even, if not especially, the literature produced before one's own people were included in the definition of the nation. There is history to be seen and learned, but also felt and understood, in the reading of 19th century American literature. For scholars of America, even with modern boundary breaking definitions of the nation, this literature is the foundation of the entity that we are all so eager to tear down, and understanding it is crucial to our ability to criticize it.

Why read teach a class with an overtly exceptionalist agenda? There are righteous themes that emerge from laying literature of the same time and place next to each other. As Byers suggests, American "exceptionalism bears a relation to...literature that is at once constraining and generative." (Byers, 1997) The further burden of American literature to be not only distinctive in its grouping by time and place, but also unique for being American is a weighty yoke to bear, but achievable for the very issues modern critics call to question. American literature of the 19th century was the foundation for the multi-cultural, multi-voice narratives of the 20th century, and for the borderland stories of the 21st. It is this imperfect, troubled history that brought us here, and this ideology that imperfectly built a country with as many varied voices as are now present to critique it.

And as shown through this investigation of exceptionalism in some of the big books of the 19th century, there are critiques of contemporary exceptionalism rampant within the literature. There is no reason to read American exceptionalist curriculum in an unquestioning way. It would be, in fact, a short-selling of 19th century authors to assume they are complacent in the American excpetionalism of their time. They were asking the same difficult questions about the idea of America that we continue to break our heads upon today. This, above all, is why these big authors deserve to remain on our shelves and in our course catalogues.


Appleby, Joyce. "Recovering America's Historic Diversity: Beyond Exceptionalism." The Journal of American History. Bloomington: Sep 1992.Vol.79, Iss. 2, 419-431.

Byers, Thomas B. "A City Upon a Hill: American Literature and the Ideology of Eceptionalism." American Studies in Scandinavia. Vol. 29, 1997.

Carter, Dale. "American Exceptionalism: An Idea That Will Not Die." American Studies in Scandinavia. Vol. 29. 1997.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Dover Publications: New York, 1994.

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick; or, the White Whale. Norton & Company: New York, 2002.

ed Shafer, Byron. Is America Different. Claredon Press: Oxford, 1991.

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