Friday, March 16, 2007

Just a New Way of Periodizing (and Conceptualizing) "American" Literature, That's All; or Adventures in Lazy Blogging, Part II: The Sequel

Remember those extravagant claims I alluded to making in my Sendai talk? Well, here's the most extravagant of all of them. With its implications.... Hey, end on a high note, right? (The talk, not the blog--don't get your hopes up!)


What, then, is the new understanding of U.S. literary history that the works of Anzaldua, Butler, Conde, Jones, Marshall, Morrison, Mukherjee, Silko, and Yamashita make possible? I identify six periods in U.S. and new world history from Columbus to the present: 1) New Worlds for All: Encounters and Plantation (1492-1776); 2) After the Great War: Revolution and Constitution (1763-1815); 3) Manifest Destiny: Expansion and Consolidation (1803-1896); 4) A New Nation: Modernization and Migration (1877-1952); 5) The American Century: Hegemony and Transformation (1944-?); 6) Contemporary U.S. Literatures: Transnationalism and Globalization (?-). While the specific dates and names of each period will vary for each nation in the new world, the processes identified in the subtitles will remain fairly consistent across the hemisphere.

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. As Conde and Mukherjee hint, the aftershocks of England’s catastrophic victory over France in the great war of the eighteenth century paradoxically created the conditions for the age of revolutions across the hemisphere. As Butler, Jones, Morrison, Silko, and Yamashita suggest, newly independent nation-states across the Americas dealt with the conflicts that came with expansion and consolidation, including border wars, civil wars, and Indian wars. As Jones, Morrison, Silko, and Yamashita reveal, most nation-states in the region then embarked on a process of modernization, which included a strengthened central government, industrialization, urbanization, and immigration. As Anzaldua, Marshall, and Silko suggest, the U.S., as one of the most successful modernizers in the hemisphere, and rivalled only by England, Germany, Japan, and Russia in the world, established itself as a rising power during this period, which meant that its neighbors got a preview of the American Century well before the Middle East and Asia did.

Of course, these nine writers represent a fraction of the U.S. literatures that make possible this new understanding of national and hemispheric histories and that lead me to suggest that the key processes of our time are competing versions of transnationalism and globalization. Also, even all the U.S. literatures that could be linked to these processes are only a small fraction of the literatures of each nation-state in the hemisphere, many of which represented, responded to, and influenced past and present processes quite differently than U.S. literatures have.

With this in mind, the periodization scheme I have laid out here today points the way to a large-scale collective project for Americanists around the world: understanding the interrelations, interactions, and interweavings among the literatures of the new world; mapping the ways in which the intranational, international, and transnational network of U.S. literatures links up with those of other literatures of the Americas; making sense of the juxtapositions, parallels, and other patterns that such a mapping makes possible, in a way that forges new understandings of the relations between literary and other histories; and trying to settle the questions hovering about the end of the American Century and the emergence of something new from it. This is a huge project, but if we want to make sense of the past, present, and especially the future of literatures in and outside the U.S., if we truly believe that another world is possible than that of the American Century, this is what I believe scholars of my generation should be working on in coming decades.


So yes, read the nine novels listed in the labels below and get a new understanding of what constitutes American literature and how to organize its study, plus a new perspective on the history of the world since Columbus....

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