One can easily be attracted to this book by merely taking a look at the cover picture. The picture has been wisely chosen as it suits the topic under discussion very well. The picture shows an angel moving westward, therefore representing the Westward movement and the idea of Manifest Destiny which is inevitably bound to the idea of exceptionalism. She has got a wire in her hand which is attached to the telegraph posts on her right hand side. As she moves westward, she is bringing that wire, let's say modernity, to the left hand side where you can see the Native Americans and the wilderness.
This book is among a published series of books which are designed to help students of American Studies touch the key factor in this field. Madsen, a professor of English at South Bank University in London, provides those students with six chapters on exceptionalism each covering an important factor quickly. Besides, she has provided the reader with a paragraph at the beginning of each chapter in which she explains what the chapter is about and who the key writers of that period are.
In introduction of the book it is said: "American exceptionalism permeates every period of American history and is the single most powerful agent in a series of arguments that have been fought down the centuries concerning the identity of America and Americans" (p. 1). The author outlines how exceptionalism has helped to the evolution of the US as both an ideological and geographical entity from 1620 to the present day.
In the first chapter, Madsen talks about the Puritan era and how they created a notion called exceptionalism. Roger Winthrop's idea of the colony as a "city upon a hill" was one of the early phrases which later helped the coinage of exceptionalism. These sentences in a report from Winthrop to a minister show how unique they thought this colony was: "...how evident it was, that God had chosen this country to plant his people in, and therefore how displeasing it would be to the Lord, and dangerous to himself, to hinder this work." (p. 19).She goes on talking about other famous people which were prominent at the time. One of those people was Benjamin Franklin who wrote in his `Information to Those Who Would Remove to America` (1784): "Hard work, industry, thrift, common sense, altruism, moral integrity and fair-mindedness - these are the qualities that will guarantee success in America."
The second chapter is mainly focusing on Native American's literature but the reader wonders how it can help to the contribution of the idea of exceptionalism. The last sentences of this chapter shows perfectly how the Native Americans felt towards the so-called American exceptionalism: "The apocalyptic culmination of American history envisioned by the Puritan colonists who attempted to create a perfect church-society becomes in the Native American imagination of Silko and Vizenor a punitive apocalypse where the arrogance, self-congratulation and self-interest that were the sins of the Founding Fathers are now visited upon the sons." (p. 68)
This chapter named "Exceptionalism in the Nineteenth Century" can be considered as the most important chapter of the book. It talks about important authors of the century such as Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, Whitman and James Fenimore Cooper, the abolitionist movement and the idea of Manifest Destiny which led to the expansion of the United States.
The authors mentioned above believed in American exceptionalism to a degree. "Where their Puritan (intellectual) ancestors had anticipated an exceptional destiny based upon the perfection of ecclesiastical institutions, nineteenth century intellectuals anticipated the perfection of political, specifically democratic institutions." (p. 71)
It's also been mentioned here that as Americans mission was to move westward and civilize the wilderness, it was quite acceptable to destroy "everything that stood in the way of expanding the institutions and culture of American Democracy." (p.92) No matter that the obstacles are large herds of bison or Native Americans.
This chapter is titled "Chicano Responses to the Ideology of American Exceptionalism". It basically is talking about the expansion of the United States in1840s due to the doctrine of Manifest Destiny and how the Chicanos/Mexicans felt about this. Their feeling is represented in their writings and mostly talks about the loss of their homeland.
In the fifth chapter named, "Westerns and the Westward Expansion" Madsen firstly focuses on Turner Thesis: "In this statement, Turner defines the West not as a geographical place or region but as a process, a process that arises from and defines a unique American character." (p. 122) Then she continues by describing how the notion of frontier came into existence in western novels and films.
At the end of the chapter a witty comparison has been used between the cowboy hero and the USA which justifies all US military actions: "...this same nation supports one of the largest military establishments in history, its rate of violent crime is enormously high and it possesses the technological capacity to destroy the world. Perhaps one source of the cowboy hero's appeal is the way in which he resolves this ambiguity by giving a sense of moral significance and order to violence." (p. 143)
The last chapter of the book is called "Contemporary Interpretations of Exceptionalism". A lot of contemporary novels are introduced in this chapter which portray the idea of exceptionalism. Madsen also traces exceptionalism in dialogues which are uttered in Sylvester Stallone's Rambo movies.
At the end of this chapter, Madsen talks about the effect of exceptionalism on the Vietnam War, saying, "The Vietnamese landscape becomes comprehensible if seen to require a kind of redemption that can only come from God's chosen people, those whose historical mission is to save other nations from their own folly." (p.166)
She concludes this chapter by a daring statement: "Exceptionalism was the legacy of the Old World for the New, but exceptionalism is now the legacy of the United States for us all" (p. 166).
Suggestion for readers:
Although the purpose of this book is to help students touch the key elements in American studies, the author has gone so far through a lot of books that are not known to students. In other words, one may find himself hapless among the names of novels and writers. Well, at least, I do not suggest this book to students of North American Studies who are not living in the United States. To understand this book you need to know about important American writers and films. Furthermore, the fluency of the book is far from good, most probably because of different excerpts from different books.
Author: Deborah L. Madsen
Publication: Edinburgh University Press
Date of Publication: 1998