Contrasting with subsequent periods, much late eighteenth-century thought conceptualized race as an external, mutable bodily condition that could change over time. Identifying how this thinking shapes and is shaped by literary culture, this book argues that the notion of transformable race structures how early American writers depict the production of racial identities. This introduction describes systems of thought—such as natural-historical, nativist, environmentalist, and theories of social influence—that circulated during the late eighteenth-century because they inform the close readings of literary texts in subsequent chapters. After introducing debates about the possible mutability of the physical body, it describes how natural historians and “nativist” Indians offered conflicting accounts of the creation of humankind and explanations of racial difference. It then discusses how natural-historical ideas influenced the ways US leaders discussed racial identity around the time of the Revolution, specifically their theories of environmentalism and social influence.
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