Domesticating Foreign Struggles

The Italian Risorgimento and Antebellum American Identity

Title Details

Pages: 216

Illustrations: 13 b&w photos

Trim size: 6.000in x 9.000in



Pub Date: 06/01/2012

ISBN: 9-780-8203-4341-9

List Price: $36.95

Domesticating Foreign Struggles

The Italian Risorgimento and Antebellum American Identity

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  • Description
  • Reviews

When antebellum Americans talked about the contemporary struggle for Italian unification (the Risorgimento), they were often saying more about themselves than about Italy. In Domesticating Foreign Struggles Paola Gemme unpacks the American cultural record on the Risorgimento not only to make sense of the U.S. engagement with the broader world but also to understand the nation’s domestic preoccupations.

Swayed by the myth of the United States as a catalyst of and model for global liberal movements, says Gemme, Americans saw parallels to their own history in the Risorgimento—and they said as much in newspapers, magazines, travel accounts, diplomatic dispatches, poems, maps, and paintings. And yet, in American eyes, Italians were too civically deficient to ever achieve republican goals. Such a view, says Gemme, reaffirmed cherished beliefs both in the United States as the center of world events and in the notion of American exceptionalism. Gemme argues that Americans also pondered the place of “subordinate” ethnic groups in domestic culture—especially Irish Catholic immigrants and enslaved African Americans—through the discourse on Risorgimento Italy.

Thus, says Gemme, national identity rested not only on differentiation from outside groups but also on a desire for internal racial and cultural homogeneity. Writing in a tradition pioneered by Amy Kaplan, Richard Slotkin, and others, Gemme advances the movement to “internationalize” American studies by situating the United States in its global cultural context.

Gemme’s study is the most original and best-documented analysis of American attitudes toward Risorgimento Italy that we have. Gemme’s book is a first-rate example of the new internationalist turn in American studies. Lucid, provocative, nuanced, and thoroughly documented, it makes a lasting and perceptive contribution both to emergent transnational scholarship and to the larger case for early-American cultural imperialism.

—Dennis Berthold, Texas A&M University

Reading antebellum America and the Italian Risorgimento in light of each other, Gemme wonderfully furthers the project of a trans- or postnational American studies. Her tandem account of nineteenth-century republican ideology is detailed and riveting.

—Eric Lott, author of Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class

A welcome and eye-opening contribution to the project of internationalizing American studies. From a truly comparative perspective, Gemme argues powerfully that the American fascination with Italian struggles for freedom in the nineteenth century reveals more about myths of American national identity than it does about Italian politics. Drawing on a broad array of Italian and American sources, Gemme shows how the myth of the United States as a global model of democratic revolution developed out of willful misreadings of the Italian Risorgimento and how that vision in fact contributed to an imperial attitude toward Italy. At the same time, the heterogeneity of American responses to Italy exposed fractures of a nation divided by race, immigration, and religion. By showing how the United States reinvents itself at home through a discourse about foreignness, this book resonates with our own times.

—Amy Kaplan, author of The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture

The movement toward a comparative approach to American studies and its internationalization receives an important contribution from Gemme's volume. . . . Gemme offers a comprehensive and compelling panorama of antebellum American views on the international role of the United States and the character of American democracy. . . . Gemme's international and comparative perspective, combined with her clear, jargon-free prose, makes for stimulating and fascinating reading.

American Historical Review

Gemme develops her argument with exemplary subtlety. . . . Original in conception, wide-ranging in research, and crisp in execution.

Nations and Nationalism

Well researched and coherently argued . . . a characteristic product of the 'new American studies.'

Journal of American History

Gemme's original, strongly argued, and clearly written study is a model of the transnational turn in American cultural studies. . . . This is stimulating, readable, well informed scholarship that opens new paths to understanding America's national identity.

Catholic Historical Review

[A] 'must' for any collection strong in both racial issues in America and histories of either Louisiana or the South as a whole.

The Bookwatch

About the Author/Editor

PAOLA GEMME is an assistant professor of American studies and English at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville, Arkansas.