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Building an American Identity

The United States of America was an experiment in inventing an entirely new kind of nation. In the new republic, Americans saw possibilities opening before them that few people had ever experienced before. Representative government, the absence of an established aristocratic class, and, most of all, the unlimited possibilities of the huge continent, made it seem as if humanity was being offered a fresh start. This newness continued, as Americans joined in the industrial revolution and, eventually, took the lead--becoming the most powerful and prosperous nation in history. But, despite rapid and continuous growth, there were numerous problems in the new nation. Slavery and the destruction of the native Americans were two of the results of the Americans' belief in their right to succeed at any cost. Thus, as Americans worked at building a new society, they also had to develop new codes of behavior that would fit their situation. They were involved in creating a new identity for themselves, as Americans. In order to do this, they had to decide what was expected of an American. Political and literary writing were sources that inspired Americans to social rectitude--behavior toward the rest of the people that was in accordance with their images of themselves.

A canon of American writing can be constructed from works that told Americans what their public duties were. These works range from letters to stories, and they convey their ideas about American identity in very different ways. But, all of them emphasize the difficulties that Americans faced in creating a new identity within a new type of society. The 10 works are: a letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, William Apess' "An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man," Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous essay "Self-Reliance," a story by Rebecca Harding Davis called "Life in the Iron Mills," Henry Adams' "The Dynamo and the Virgin," a chapter from Booker T. Washington's "Up...

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Building an American Identity. (1969, December 31). In Retrieved 10:47, November 29, 2021, from