A Forgetful Nation

On Immigration and Cultural Identity in the United States

A Forgetful Nation

Book Pages: 232 Illustrations: Published: July 2005

Author: Ali Behdad

American Studies, Critical Ethnic Studies, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies

In A Forgetful Nation, the renowned postcolonialism scholar Ali Behdad turns his attention to the United States. Offering a timely critique of immigration and nationalism, Behdad takes on an idea central to American national mythology: that the United States is “a nation of immigrants,” welcoming and generous to foreigners. He argues that Americans’ treatment of immigrants and foreigners has long fluctuated between hospitality and hostility, and that this deep-seated ambivalence is fundamental to the construction of national identity. Building on the insights of Freud, Nietzsche, Foucault, and Derrida, he develops a theory of the historical amnesia that enables the United States to disavow a past and present built on the exclusion of others.

Behdad shows how political, cultural, and legal texts have articulated American anxiety about immigration from the Federalist period to the present day. He reads texts both well-known—J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass—and lesser-known—such as the writings of nineteenth-century nativists and of public health officials at Ellis Island. In the process, he highlights what is obscured by narratives and texts celebrating the United States as an open-armed haven for everyone: the country’s violent beginnings, including its conquest of Native Americans, brutal exploitation of enslaved Africans, and colonialist annexation of French and Mexican territories; a recurring and fierce strand of nativism; the need for a docile labor force; and the harsh discipline meted out to immigrant “aliens” today, particularly along the Mexican border.


A Forgetful Nation is a comprehensive work that combines breadth and depth to produce an authoritative diachronic account of the nexus of national culture and identity politics in the United States.” — Adriana Neagu, Journal of American Studies

A Forgetful Nation: On Immigration and Cultural Identity in the United States is an extraordinary work of cultural memory and an important contribution to critical historiography. In writing it, Ali Behdad has established a heretofore unrecognized connection between the culture’s mythical representation of itself as an ‘Immigrant Nation’ and the negation of the history of the violence inflicted against immigrants that this self-forgetful representation necessitated.” — Donald E. Pease, Nations and Nationalism

“[T]he genealogy Behdad offers us in A Forgetful Nation opens up directions to think about the discursive strategies of the current mobilization of migrants in the US and elsewhere—movements that bear the political possibility of re-constitution of citizenship.”

— Ayse Deniz Temiz, Borderlands

“Behdad’s analysis reminds us that memories that obliterate the difference that difference makes could very easily be a kind of historical amnesia that resists the accountability of the past and traditionally grounds all hegemonic narratives of national identity in the United States.” — Ioanna Laliotou, Journal of American Ethnic History

“This impressive work persuasively argues that the cultural identity of the United States historically excludes immigrants…. Overall, this is a highly recommended study.” — Kristin Whitehair, Multicultural Review

“This lucid book, written with quiet passion, is provocative and insightful in its analysis of contemporary policy….” — James Dawes, American Literature

“By way of valuable new readings of Jefferson, Hamilton, Tocqueville, Crèvecoeur, and others, Ali Behdad has found a new way into established terrain. Neither pro- nor anti-immigration per se, this book traces the cultural workings and productions of immigration politics, an angle explored by few contributors to the immigration literature. A Forgetful Nation should be required reading for all those interested in the long and often hidden history of nation-building in the United States.” — Bonnie Honig, author of Democracy and the Foreigner

“This book offers a deeply relevant argument in the wake of 9/11 and counter-terror. Ali Behdad provides psychological depth to immigration discourse with a nuanced examination of ‘forgetting’ as a mode of negation that both denies and acknowledges a past built on the exclusion of otherness.” — Russ Castronovo, author of Necro Citizenship: Death, Eroticism, and the Public Sphere in the Nineteenth-Century United States


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Ali Behdad is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Belated Travelers: Orientalism in the Age of Colonial Dissolution, also published by Duke University Press.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface ix

Introduction: Nation and Immigration 1

Imagining America: Forgeful Fathers and the Founding Myths of the Nation 23

Historicizing America: Tocqueville and the Ideology of Exceptionalism 48

Immigrant America: Liberal Discourse of Immigration and the Ritual of Self-Renewal 76

Discourses of Exclusion: Nativism and the Imaginging of a “White Nation” 111

Practices of Exclusion: National Borders and the Disciplining of Aliens 143

Conclusion: Remembering 9/11 169

Notes 117

Bibliography 193

Index 205
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3619-8 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3606-8
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