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Stefanie Schäfer, "Yankee Yarns: Storytelling and the Invention of the National Body in Nineteenth-Century American Culture" (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2021), 304 pp.:


Stefanie Schäfer, Yankee Yarns: Storytelling and the Invention of the National Body in Nineteenth-Century American Culture (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2021), 304 pp.

According to the OED, the term “Yankee” may refer to “a native or inhabitant of New England,” or, in a wider sense “to a native or inhabitant of the United States generally; an American.” Given this definition of the “Yankee” as a quintessential American, it is surprising to see that so little academic research has been invested in what seems to be a key theme in U.S. cultural history. Stefanie Schäfer’s monograph Yankee Yarns: Storytelling and the Invention of the National Body in Nineteenth-Century American Culture is literally the first comprehensive study that fully traces this national image back to its cultural origins.

“The Yankee,” Schäfer writes, “is the oldest rendition of American individualism, pragmatism, and desire for independence, the first embodiment of national fantasy in the white settler nation” (1-2). Originally used as a derogatory term for settlers from the Northern states, the “Yankee” soon became the epitome of everything that America was associated with in the world. Published as part of the series “Critical Studies in Atlantic Literatures and Cultures” at Edinburgh University Press, the present monograph sheds light on a long-neglected aspect of the Yankee figure: its transnational dimension. As Schäfer plausibly argues, the Yankee discourse, in its genealogy, encapsulates numerous components that connect Europe with the United States, capitalizing upon what the author calls “transatlantic nationalism” (5). Notably, the folk song “Yankee Doodle Dandy” was adapted from an English tune composed during the French and Indian War (1754-63), encompassing references to both eighteenth-century London and Revolutionary America.

The claim on the book’s jacket text that the “Yankee” became “the most iconic national character in nineteenth-century literature and culture” is certainly no overstatement. The emergence of the Yankee as a key national figure during the first century after the foundation of the U.S. republic offers some revealing insights into the making of America as a fictional construct during this crucial period. The hardly flattering caricature of the Yankee personifies the development of what Schäfer terms the nation’s “body politic” (8), namely the configuration of a U.S. cultural community based on the premises of Whiteness and masculinity.

Aside from the concept’s transnational aspects, the Yankee discourse is scrutinized in Schäfer’s study with respect to its allegiance with “a culture of literary fraudulence, performance, and storytelling” as well as the “affective history of Yankeedom” (5). Distancing itself from U.S. national historiographies that have praised the uniqueness and exceptionalism of the American experience, Schäfer’s study claims that transnationalism, structural ambiguity, and narrativity lie at the heart of the hegemonic rhetoric. Providing insightful readings of pivotal characters such as Yankee Doodle, Brother Jonathan, Uncle Sam, the Yankee Peddler, and the Down Easter, the book highlights the complexity and contradictoriness of the U.S. collective imaginary. Using a wide array of archival resources and visual examples, Yankee Yarns challenges racialized and gendered assumptions of U.S. cultural identity and takes a bold look at the transatlantic shape of this “vernacular and streetsmart character” (2). Encapsulating multiple signifiers—from working class and bourgeois conceptions to urban and rural identity markers—the Yankee figure appears as an involuntary mirror image of American self-fashioning in the nineteenth century, often transfigured into a key symbol of U.S. imperial fantasies.

The most fascinating aspect of Yankee imagery, according to Schäfer’s reading, is its utter malleability with regard to the formation of national allegories and master narratives. The author traces the figure’s iconographic history through U.S. print culture, national theater as well as economic and regional historiography. Conceived in this manner, the Yankee epitomizes the “transition from female national allegory to male national allegorical character (27) that parodically comments on the erratic history of the American cultural self, most famously personified by the figure of Uncle Sam as a symbol of “mature […] national manhood” (59). As a “transatlantic fantasy of English comedians,” the stage Yankee represents the unsteady dimensions of intercultural dialogue and specifically the rise of “a new and ambiguous American masculinity” (131). In the American marketplace, the Yankee becomes a shapeshifter that is capable of transforming simultaneously into a monster, a wizard, and a founding father (140-51). Finally, New England’s “Homespun Yankee” figures as dramatic hyperbole of regional idiosyncrasies that demarcate the character from its counterpart, the gentleman (197-258).

“In the nineteenth century,” Schäfer concludes, “American national identity is played out in a farce orchestrated by and starring the Yankee” (270). Defined by a set of striking ambiguities based in his storytelling persona, the Yankee is both a figure of social practice and a figment of the dominant literary and cultural imagination associated with tall-tale narratives. Through a grotesque “fusion of literary confabulation and nation-building,” the Yankee manages, in Schäfer’s words, to bridge the gap between the nation’s colonial past, its alluring industrial future, and its apparent imperial destiny. Throughout the nineteenth century, the Yankee has been revised, transformed, and reinvented to match the necessities of a continuously changing zeitgeist. The “long nineteenth century” has cast its shadows up to the present day, with a Trumpist rhetoric that, in many ways, imitates gestures and attitudes of the imaginary Yankee. Although the author, in the final sentence of her study suggests that “people living in America have heard enough of Yankee storytelling” (272), Yankee Yarns proves the opposite. While deeply embedded into a nineteenth-century rhetoric, the Yankee discourse, in all its paradoxical nature and inconsistency, seems eerily topical, given the performative character of present-day media culture and its insistence on both storytelling and transnationality.

The Yankee may be a phenomenon of a long-gone past, but his specter still hovers above hegemonic American culture to this very day, imbuing current debates and dialogues with an acute sense of global connectedness as well as fraudulence and narrative performance (when it comes to the genres of reality TV shows, docudramas, and deep fake).

Schäfer’s book is not only knowledgeable, well-researched, and inspiring in its examinations of the nineteenth-century Yankee rhetoric. But also takes readers on a lively time-travel excursion into a crucial discourse of American cultural history, the ramifications of which can be felt today in the shape of a media obsession with White male “con men” and abstruse forms of storytelling. Going through Schäfer’s analyses of Yankeedom in its multiple facets within nineteenth-century American cultural life, one feels reminded of the contemporary U.S. national body that seems equally permeated by elements of transnational dialogue, spectacular performance, and ambiguity.

Stefan L. Brandt (Universität Graz)

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