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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Westering Knights: American Medievalisms and Contestations of Manifest Destiny

  • Author(s): Riley, Scott
  • Advisor(s): Gillman, Susan
  • et al.

This Dissertation explores the abiding American fascination with the European Middle Ages, that nebulous historical periodization spanning roughly the Fall of Rome (410 CE) to Columbus’s arrival in the New World (1492 CE). Recent research in the field of postcolonial medievalism, when brought to bear upon canonical works of American Literature such as Edgar Allan Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher,” Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, reveals the extent to which American medievalisms exist as creole medievalisms, simultaneously sublimating modern European colonial contestations and subverting those contestations by reinterpreting the history and literature of the Middle Ages in terms of a non-European and modern spacetime. This ideological ambivalence is especially apparent in the associations developed between these medievalisms and the western frontier. The American tendency to present the western frontier as akin to medieval Europe both romanticizes the American West and treats that region as un- Modern, in need of development. American medievalisms demonstrate how the discourse of Manifest Destiny relies upon not only a spatial but also a temporal contestation, especially the medieval/modern divide outlined by theorists of postcolonial medievalism, and a project that compares contemporary research on the Middle Ages, especially works in the nascent field of global medieval studies, with American literature can unsettle this spatiotemporal colonial contestation, by emphasizing the continuities that link America to and the discontinuities that distinguish America from the Middle Ages.

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