Ancient History, American Time: Chesnutt’s Outsider Classicism and the Present Past

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This essay advances a theory of black classicism as a mode of resistance to the dominant narrative of American history, according to which the United States was to be a new Rome, rooted in the best traditions of classical antiquity yet destined to surpass its antecedent through the redeeming power of American exceptionalism. In the late nineteenth century this narrative reemerged as a means of getting beyond sectional conflict and refocusing on imperial expansion and economic growth. For Charles Chesnutt, a post-Reconstruction African American writer, the progress of American civilization was a dubious notion, a fiction suited to the nation's imperial purposes. In opposition, Chesnutt developed an outsider classicism, challenging the figuration of the United States as inheritor of the mantle of Western civilization by linking the nation to the ancient world through the institution of slavery-a very present relic of the past.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)71-86
Number of pages16
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2014
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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