The concept of the nation as an imaginary construct that binds people together using tangible beliefs, values, and history was introduced by Benedict Andersen in his book titled “Imagined Communities.” In the USA, the idea of a nation is very strong, as many people associate themselves with the ideals and achievements of people that are from the same nation. In literature, the wholesome representation of the nation as an imagined political community relies on demonstrating not only the better sides of the nation as a whole but also its flaws and imperfections. The purpose of this paper is to support this thesis by analyzing and comparing two examples of American literature: “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” written by Harriet Jacobs and “Letters from an American Farmer” under the authorship of J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur.
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Benedict Andersen “Imagined Communities”
Anderson’s methodology uses three base criteria to analyze the nation as an imagined political community. The first criterion is the sovereign power, which stands for the ability of the state to exercise its power and control. In “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” the sovereign factor is explored superficially – the main character does not see nor look for the protection of the State. After the introduction of the Fugitive Slave Law, the sovereign power becomes hostile to her and her children by approximation. In the writings of de Crèvecœur the perception of sovereign power changes as the story progresses. The author sees the lack of a large and corrupt centralized apparatus as a good thing, but his perception changes as the existing governments evolve and introduce laws and practices that the author considers wrong, namely in regards to slavery and the events that led to the Revolutionary War.
The second criterion, limitation, is amply explored in both stories. Jacobs explores the differences between white and black people in terms of not only culture but perceptions as well, whereas de Crèvecœur compares the simplicity and purity of the early colonist culture to decadent Europe. Jacobs shows all sides and facets of American society, presenting not only the corrupt and violent slave owners but also the people who were sympathetic to her and wanted to help her out. In so doing, she paints a complete picture of the existing society.
The third criterion is the community, which is defined by the ideas of citizenship, justice, and equality. De Crèvecœur’s initial review of the American nation as a community is enthusiastic, especially in comparison to Europe, which he grew to despise. His view gradually changes as the story progresses, and he begins to see that the ideals he worshipped neighbored with the dangerous notions of human exploitation, nationalism, and slavery. Jacobs’ review of the American community and its values focuses largely on the question of how an advanced society who claims freedom as its primary virtue, could allow the notion of one person being owned by the other exist.
Both texts paint a complete picture of the American nation as an imagined social and political community. The images presented by the authors differ from one another in certain aspects, as the perspective of an American farmer and slave owner differs from that of an American slave. However, both stories present the community where strong and noble values coexist with terrible flaws that are either justified and ignored. The tale of American Exceptionalism crumbles as the flaws of its foundation laid bare, revealing a society no less corrupt than those left behind in Europe. One set of flaws and wises was simply traded for another. This realization is found at the end of de Crèvecœur’s story, as his main character, John, contemplates the way of life of Native Americans, and considers doing yet another cultural migration.