Ethnology and Empire

Languages, Literature, and the Making of the North American Borderlands

304 pages

10 halftones

October, 2015

ISBN: 9781479849055



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Robert Lawrence Gunn is Associate Professor of English at the University of Texas at El Paso.

All books by Robert Lawrence Gunn

Winner, The Early American Literature Book Prize

Ethnology and Empire
tells stories about words and ideas, and ideas about words that developed in concert with shifting conceptions about Native peoples and western spaces in the nineteenth-century United States. Contextualizing the emergence of Native American linguistics as both a professionalized research discipline and as popular literary concern of American culture prior to the U.S.-Mexico War, Robert Lawrence Gunn reveals the manner in which relays between the developing research practices of ethnology, works of fiction, autobiography, travel narratives, Native oratory, and sign languages gave imaginative shape to imperial activity in the western borderlands.

In literary and performative settings that range from the U.S./Mexico borderlands to the Great Lakes region of Tecumseh’s Pan-Indian Confederacy and the hallowed halls of learned societies in New York and Philadelphia, Ethnology and Empire models an interdisciplinary approach to networks of peoples, spaces, and communication practices that transformed the boundaries of U.S. empire through a transnational and scientific archive. Emphasizing the culturally transformative impacts western expansionism and Indian Removal, Ethnology and Empire reimagines U.S. literary and cultural production for future conceptions of hemispheric American literatures.



  • “An original, beautifully written book on the rapidly changing ideas about language in American culture during the early nineteenth century.  Ethnology and Empire engages the social history of the borderlands and linguistics to introduce a new way of looking at the formation of ideas about race and ethnography in the antebellum period.  A fascinating read.”

    —Kirsten Silva Gruesz, author of Ambassadors of Culture: The Transamerican Origins of Latino Writing

  • “Through masterful engagement with nineteenth century literary production and ethnology, Robert Gunn underscores how the cultural work of linguistic contact is vital to our understanding of the ideologies of empire that slowly gained force in the evolving U.S. nation-state. Ethnology and Empire makes a significant contribution in the hemispheric turn in American studies, threading together little-known histories that advance the field and push our thinking about borderlands in innovative ways.”

    —Robert David Aguirre, author of Informal Empire: Mexico and Central America in Victorian Culture

  • “A superb work. Summing Up: Highly recommended.”


  • "Ethnology and Empire demonstrates the power and flexibility of postmodern approaches to the study of colonial relationships."

    American Quarterly