The standard way of dating the origins of the “American Century” is to go back to Henry Luce’s pre-Pearl Harbor 1941 essay of that title, in which he argued that America needed to take up its responsibility to advance freedom and prosperity throughout the world. Proponents of this view thus hold it to be an anti-totalitarian concept, tied both to America’s subsequent fights in World War II against fascist regimes and in the Cold War against communist ones. Radical historians tend to date its origins earlier, to the 1898 liberation of the Philippines from Spanish rule and subsequent multi-year occupation to put down a Filipino independence movement. Hence, they consider the American Century to be a much more ambiguous if not imperialist concept. For now, I’m less interested in the “American Century” as a contested concept and more in the way it provides us with a useful name for a period that has posed major problems for U.S. literary historians. Most agree that modernism was the defining literary movement of the early twentieth century in the U.S. and Europe, but when did that period end and what name should the new period following it be given? The two most popular alternatives, postmodern culture and Cold War culture, both have and raise problems.
Postmodernism is a vague and baggy term that meant different things in post-W.W. II literature than it did in architecture, literary criticism, theory, or the dozens of other specialized discourse communities in which it was first used. Moreover, using it to name a period commits you to a movement-centered approach to literary history--say, from neoclassicism and gothicism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to romanticism and transcendentalism in the mid-19th century, to realism and naturalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to modernism and postmodernism in the rest of the 20th century. This can hide the existence of or distort the features of other literary movements in each period, misleadingly imply that older movements don’t continue into later periods, and present literary history as if it were completely separate or autonomous from other histories.
Using the Cold War to name a period avoids these problems, but commits you to a larger periodization scheme based on wars--say, from the Revolutionary War to the War of 1812 (1776-1815), then to the Civil War (1815-1865), then to World War I (1865-1918), then to World War II (1918-1945), then to the Cold War (1945-1989). This not only downplays the significance of major wars like the Mexican and Spanish-American wars, but also forces you to shoehorn literary history into the confines of military history. Including wars you think are important runs as much of a risk of putting writers who were responding to common events and issues in separate periods as excluding seemingly less important wars risks lumping very different writers together.
I don’t want to imply that my alternative term, “the American Century,” is without its own problems, but it does enable you to develop a periodization scheme that connects literary and other histories without privileging one and making the others conform to it. Moreover, it allows me to put forward the idea that literary periods overlap. If we date the American Century’s origin to 1944, when it was clear that the U.S. was winning the Pacific War and would play a major role in defeating Nazi Germany, this suggests that its early years overlap with an earlier period whose name I will unveil at the end of this talk. Moreover, we don’t know yet if the American Century has already ended or, if it has not, when it will. Some think that the Vietnam War and the oil crisis in the early 1970s marked the end of the American Century, but the Bush administration seems even more committed to military escalation than Johnson’s or Nixon’s. Others argue that the recovery of Germany’s and Japan’s economies in the 1980s signalled the end of the American Century, but American capitalism made a comeback in the 1990s and seems to have weathered 9/11 reasonably well. Still others suggest that the twenty-first century may be a globalizing century, a Chinese century, a century of resource wars or climate change or technological revolution.
By the time I returned to these issues at the end of the talk, all I had time to mention about the first period--"New Worlds for All: Encounters and Plantation (1492-1776)"--was: "As Anzaldua, Conde, Silko, and Yamashita show, encounters between European explorers, traders, and settlers with indigenous Americans and with enslaved Africans took place across the hemisphere, and different kinds of plantation complexes emerged."
Today I would add "creole cultures and" before "plantation complexes" and would have made it clearer that my name for the period was borrowed from the title of a Colin Calloway book. And if I hadn't been so pressed for time, I would have noted that in this sentence, I was condensing several courses' worth of material and engaging new scholarship on early America (particularly Thomas Bender's A Nation Among Nations, Tony Hall's The American Empire and the Fourth World, and Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker's The Many-Headed Hydra). In fact, if I had been speaking in the talk to specialists rather than members of the public who happened to be involved in Tohoku University's Open University program that semester, I would have divided this huge colonial Americas (Columbus to Declaration of Independence) period into several and been more specific about my acknowledgement that the closing date for each set of national literatures would change depending on when each American nation's independence movement formally began. And I would have discussed the larger curricular context in which I believe this literary focus should be embedded: an approach to the history of the Americas that does for students something like what Charles Mann's 1491 (and the new scholarship it attempts to survey and popularize) does for its readers, namely, try to offer a non-Eurocentric history of the Americas before the Europeans' arrival.
This is because in order to identify what made Columbus's arrival the beginning of "new worlds for all," one must compare pre- and post-1492. What was it about the initial and ongoing encounters among European explorers, traders, settlers, and indigenous Americans that lead to so many changes around the world and in the hemisphere? What creole cultures and plantation complexes emerged as Europeans, Africans, and Americans (each grouping characterized by relatively equal--and quite large--spans of cultural, social, and political diversity) continued to interact with each other (in all kinds of ways)?
So that's a precis of the way I'm conceptualizing the "first" period in American literary history. Please see my courses for more details on how I've taught these issues in the past. If anyone wants access to the ANGEL space of my Introduction to American Studies course from the fall, where I pulled a lot of my ideas for the talk together--particularly in the recommended readings not mentioned on the syllabi--feel free to contact me. I also have a brief bibliography of new work on the colonial Americas period that I can email to anyone who's interested. Some of the most interesting and influential work in American Studies has been going on in this period over the past couple of decades, so I'll be returning to it after a tour through the later ones.