Representative Words: Politics, Literature, and the American Language, 1776-1865

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Cambridge University Press, 1992 - Literary Criticism - 469 pages
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Ralph Waldo Emerson's dictum "The corruption of man is followed by the corruption of language" belongs to a long tradition of writing connecting political disorders and the corruption of language that stretches back in Western culture at least to Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. Representative Words, which gives an account of the tradition from its classical and Christian origins through the Enlightenment, is primarily a study of how and why Americans renewed and developed it between the ages of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Drawing upon a wide range of materials from politics, linguistics, literature, history, rhetoric and law, this study focuses on the quest by statesmen and writers from John Adams and Noah Webster to Emerson and Lincoln to oppose the corruption of words or to establish a more representational language - a quest, Gustafson argues, that was at the heart of revolutionary politics and American Renaissance literature. By studying the history and dynamics of the relationship between fears of corruption and efforts at conservation and renewal in language - a relationship embedded in Emerson's reflections on language in Nature - Representative Words establishes an important context for understanding the connections between the classical rhetorical and republican traditions and the ideology of the Declaration and the Constitution as well as between the politics and the literature of antebellum America. The American Revolution, the Civil War, and works by such writers as Brackenridge, Cooper, Melville, and Stowe are viewed in part as arising from a crisis of linguistic as well as political representation that Gustafson terms the "Thucydidean moment"--A time when words are perceived to be not a representative sign of ideas but a sovereign, duplicitous force. Combining extensive historical investigation in grammars, rhetorics, political pamphlets, and journal essays with the perspectives provided by contemporary literary theory on the politics of representation and interpretation, this study offers a comprehensive examination of the language of politics and the politics of language in the early history of what Washington Irving called the American "logocracy."

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