BARBARIAN VIRTUES by Matthew Frye Jacobson


The United States Encounters Foreign People at Home and Abroad, 1876-1917
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Jacobson (American Studies/Yale) deftly sketches the often-xenophobic US relationship with foreign peoples as it evolved through history, and the sense of a distinctive American nationhood as it developed during an age of massive immigration at home and empire-building abroad.

Theodore Roosevelt was no sentimentalist about the decline of Native American `savages.` Yet, in 1899, he decried the disappearance of `barbarian virtues` in an American civilization he saw as increasingly effete. Jacobson takes this as his text, seeing Roosevelt's ironic blend of smug contempt for foreign cultures and self-doubt regarding his own as emblematic of the US approach to foreigners during its `age of empire.` The author first looks at the America's economic relationship to foreign peoples, both as markets for American goods abroad and as workers at home: Americans identified foreign consumers as inferior precisely because their dependence on them, while immigrants, needed for America's industrial labor force, were simultaneously wooed and resented. In both cases, Jacobson argues, America's very dependence on foreigners fueled resentment and contempt of them. He then turns to American perceptions of foreigners, both in popular literature and in the development of the nascent social sciences: literature reinforced notions of American cultural progress and foreign inferiority, while scientific work in psychology and anthropology, shaped and driven by chauvinist and nativist thinking, supplied theories that substantiated white Americans' sense of racial and cultural superiority. Finally, Jacobson shows the political consequences of this thinking: political controversy surrounded America's acceptance of `un-American,` often politically radical foreigners as future citizens, and sanguinary imperialist wars ensued in Latin America and the Philippines. Jacobson sees enduring lessons in America's experience from this period, arguing that the US survived the diversity from immigration previously and will again, and that it should not forget its imperialist legacy when it intervenes in global affairs.

A thoughtful analysis of America's uneasy relationship with foreignness.

Pub Date: April 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-8090-2808-5
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 2000