This was the set-up for the rest of the talk--it consists of a reading of my title, “The End of the American Century in Contemporary U.S. Literatures.” Should I have been invited to the speaker series that Tohoku University put together? Should they have withheld my honorarium? Inquiring authors want to know!
Let’s start with the second part of my talk’s title, “in Contemporary U.S. Literatures,” which pointedly refuses to identify a core culture that would constitute the mainstream of American literature today. Due in part to the incredible and accelerating diversification of literary production, distribution, and reception in the United States over the course of the twentieth century--not just of region, class, ethnicity, race, gender, religion, but also of publishers, formats, genres, audiences, traditions, movements, and more--many Americanists agree with me that it is better to refer to “U.S. literatures” than “American literature.” For one thing, “U.S. literatures” acknowledges that the U.S. does not have a monopoly on the term “American,” which can refer as easily to a continent or hemisphere as to any of the many literary traditions in the Americas. For another, “U.S. literatures” troubles the link between “nation” and “literature” presumed in such concepts as “national literature,” suggesting instead that there can be many literatures within a single nation-state. So one of the things I will do in this talk is introduce you to the multiplicity of contemporary U.S. literatures--and particularly to their interrelations, interactions, and interweavings.
To do this, I will focus on African American writers Toni Morrison, Gayl Jones, and Octavia Butler, Afro-Caribbean writers Paule Marshall and Maryse Conde, Asian American writers Bharati Mukherjee and Karen Tei Yamashita, Latino writer Gloria Anzaldua, and Native American writer Leslie Marmon Silko. Each has participated in multiple U.S. literatures in her career. Butler, for instance, has made major contributions to both African American literature and science fiction. Mukherjee, Marshall, and Yamashita have all participated brilliantly in the literature of immigration but have also contributed to their different ethnic, racial, and diasporic U.S. literatures. Anzaldua, Yamashita, and Silko have all written literature of the U.S. West and of the borderlands, but could be grouped separately as Texas, California, and Arizona writers, respectively, not to mention in their respective pan-ethnicities as Latino, Asian American, and American Indian, or in their respective ethnicities as Chicano, Japanese-American, and Laguna Pueblo. As these few examples show, precisely because individual writers contribute to and have been influenced by multiple literatures inside and outside the U.S., it would be wrong to conclude that “U.S. literatures” means the dispersal of a unified national literature into several separate literatures with little in common. Rather, “U.S. literatures” constitute a complex and dynamic network that is at once intranational, international, and transnational.
So in part this talk tries to move us from the debates over canonization that have dominated public discussion of contemporary multicultural and multiethnic American literature to the debates over periodization implied by my title’s temporal focus: “The End of the American Century in Contemporary U.S. Literatures.” That is, rather than obsessively asking, “who counts as a major American author?” “which U.S. literatures make up the mainstream of American culture?” we ought to be asking other questions, like “what patterns or shapes have U.S. literatures formed in the past?” “what have been the relationships within, among, and between U.S. literatures?” “what might they reveal about the commonalities and differences in U.S. society?” Of course, there are any number of ways to identify literary periods in the U.S.--centuries, wars, and literary movements spring most readily to mind--which are all more or less arbitrary. Nevertheless, there’s a lot at stake in the process. To understand why, let’s look more closely at the first half of my title.
“The End of the American Century,” alludes to two of the most influential attempts by U.S. conservatives to shape the contours of a post-Cold War national consensus. One is “the end of history,” the idea Francis Fukuyama advanced in 1989 that history has reached its endpoint and achieved its purpose by revealing that the global extension of capitalist liberal democracy is humanity’s ultimate social destiny. The other is the neoconservative Project for the New American Century, which William Kristol convened in the spring of 1997 to advocate for “American global leadership,” advance “a strategic vision of America’s role in the world,” and stiffen the nation’s “resolve to shape a new century favorable to American principles and interests.” By combining the two phrases in the way I do, I aim to expose tensions within and between them--and put them to other ends than their authors intended. On the one hand, I want to suggest that Fukuyama’s vision of the end of history is circumscribed by the logic of the American Century; on the other hand, I want to suggest that Kristol’s American Century may well be in its last throes, so to speak. Unlike my talk last Saturday, when I explored the political and economic implications of the end of the American Century in Asia at the Japan-America Society of Fukuoka, today I look at the end of the American Century from a literary perspective. My core argument is that contemporary U.S. literatures, as exemplified by the writings of the nine women writers I feature in this talk, help us historicize the American Century, reexamine its logic and assumptions, and speculate about what may come after it.
Today, then, I’ll move from considering the origins and endpoint of the American Century to examining how Marshall, Jones, and Morrison have renavigated Atlantic slavery, how Anzaldua, Silko, and Yamashita have remapped North American borders, and how Butler, Conde, and Mukherjee have rewritten “American” history. I’ll close by using the insights their works provide us with to offer a new periodization scheme for U.S. literary history and to suggest what may be at stake in the reconceptualization of relations between U.S. and other literatures that it entails.
Want more later?