A Janus-faced Empire

The Decolonization and Recolonization of American Literature


  • Adam Nemmers




American literature, American Empire, (Post)colonial literature, British literature, national literature


Upon gaining independence from Great Britain, the newly formed United States of America underwent a rapid process of cultural decolonization, including the development of a native and self-sovereign ‘American Literature’ throughout the long 19th century. Yet just as quickly, the US pursued a concurrent process of overseas empire-building that brought into the American cultural and literary sphere a number of (neo)colonies including the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Nicaragua, Liberia, Alaska, and Hawai’i. The result is a body of un- and under-studied literature from American-occupied territories, past and present, produced by subalterns who wrote while subject to the Stars and Stripes, often during a period of recolonization after the initial European colonizers had been supplanted. As I argue in my article, by using this innovative transcolonial framework we can chart and consider this concurrent process of decolonization at home and recolonization abroad, juxtaposing works of literature from US/American writers and gaining crucial insight into both the United States and the nature of colonialism itself.


Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. London: Routledge, 2002.

Burns, Adam, American Imperialism: The Territorial Expansion of the United States, 1783-2013. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017.

Boehmer, Elleke. Migrant Metaphors: Colonial and Postcolonial Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Boorstin, Daniel J. The Americans: The Colonial Experience. New York: Random House, 1958.

Brown, Mary Antionette. “Education in Liberia.” Educational Horizons 35.2 (1956): 46-50.

Brydon, Diana and Hellen Tiffin. Decolonising Fictions. Sydney: Dangaroo, 1993.

Calverton, V. F. The Liberation of American Literature. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932.

Corse, Sarah M. Nationalism and Literature: The Politics of Culture in Canada and the United States. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Doolen, Andy. Territories of Empire: US Writing from the Louisiana Purchase to Mexican Independence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Fairfield, Sumner Lincoln. “American Poetry: Freneau’s Works.” The North American Magazine 1 (1833): 275-289.

Gatta, John. “Colonial Writing in North America.” Oxford Research Encyclopedias 25 June 2018. https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190201098.013.553. Last visited 29/05/2023.

Gilderhus, Mark T. “Founding Father: Samuel Flagg Bemis and the Study of U.S.-Latin American Relations.” Diplomatic History 21.1 (1997): 1-13.

Giles, Paul. The Global Remapping of American Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.

Hamilton, Alexander. The Federalist: And Other Contemporary Papers on the Constitution of the United States. Edited by E. H. Scott. Chicago: Scott, Foresman, and Company, 1894.

Hart, Albert Bushnell. The Foundations of American Foreign Policy. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1901.

Holowchak, Mark. Thomas Jefferson and Philosophy: Essays on the Philosophical Cast of Jefferson’s Writings. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2014.

Hulme, Peter. “Including America.” ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 26.2 (1995): 117-123.

Immerman, Richard. Empire for Liberty: A History of American Imperialism from Benjamin Franklin to Paul Wolfowitz. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012.

Immerwahr, Daniel. How to Hide an Empire: A Short History of the Greater United States. London: Vintage, 2020.

Lawson, Alan. “Comparative Studies and Post-Colonial ‘Settler’ Cultures.” Australian Canadian Studies 9.1-2 (1991): 67-78.

Lifshey, Adam. Subversions of the American Century: Filipino Literature in Spanish and the Transpacific Transformation of the United States. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015.

Lowell, Abbott Lawrence. “The Colonial Expansion of the United States.” The Atlantic Monthly 83.296 (1899): 145-154.

Lowell, James Russell. My Study Windows. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1899.

Madison, James. “Number X.” The Federalist, on the New Constitution: A New Edition, with the Names and Portraits of the Several Writers. Philadelphia, Benjamin Warner, 1919. 49-56.

Madsen, Deborah. Beyond the Borders: American Literature and Post-colonial Theory. London: Pluto Press, 2003.

Murakama, Milton. All I Asking for is My Body. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1988.

Paine, Thomas. Rights of Man, Part II. London: R. Carlisle, 1819.

Pattee, Fred Lewis. The New American Literature, 1890-1930. New York: The Century co., 1930.

Paulding, James Kirke. “Americanisms.” Analectic Magazine (1814): 404-409.

Santos Perez, Craig. from unincorporated territory [guma’]. Richmond: Omnidawn Publishing: 2014.

Singh, Amritjit and Peter Schmidt. “On the Borders Between US Studies and Postcolonial Theory.” Postcolonial Theory and the United States: Race, Ethnicity, and Literature. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000. 3-72.

Slawson, Douglas J. “Rev. John J. Burke, the National Catholic Welfare Conference, and the American Occupation of Haiti (1915-34).” The Catholic Historical Review 100.3 (2014): 514-554.

Smith, Sydney. “America.” The Edinburgh Review 33 (1820): 69-80.

Spencer, Benjamin. The Quest for Nationality: An American Literary Campaign. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1957.

Thornton, A. P. Imperialism in the Twentieth Century. New York: MacMillian, 1980.

Todd, Charles Burr. Life and Letters of Joel Barlow, LL.D.: Poet, Statesman, Philosopher. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1886.

Watts, Edward. “Settler Postcolonialism as a Reading Strategy.” Early American Literature 45.2 (2010): 447-456.

Wesling, Meg. Empire’s Proxy: American Literature and U.S. Imperialism in the Philippines. New York: New York University Press, 2011.

Williams, Angela Noelle. “Border Crossings: Filipino American Literature in the United States.” Beyond the Borders: American Literature and Post-Colonial Theory. Edited by Deborah L. Madsen. London: Pluto Press, 2003. 122-134.