Archives of American Time
Literature and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century
2009 | 248 pages | Cloth $55.00
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Written to the Future
Chapter 1. Figures of Print, Orders of Time, and the Character of American Modernity
Chapter 2. "A Magnificent Fragment": Dialects of Time and the American Historical Romance
Chapter 3. Local Time: Southwestern Humor and Nineteenth-Century Literary Regionalism
Chapter 4. The Deprivation of Time in African American Life Writing
Epilogue: The Spatial Turn and the Scale of Freedom
Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]
Written to the Future
It is the present's responsibility for its own self-definition of its own mission that makes it into a historical period in its own right and that requires the relationship to the future fully as much as it involves the taking of a position on the past.
—Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity
Nostalgia is not always about the past; it can be retrospective but also prospective. Fantasies of the past determined by needs of the present have a direct impact on realities of the future.
—Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia
In the winter of 1829, a handful of young women and men on the island of Nantucket began gathering the first Thursday of every month to write the history of the future. Before their meetings, each member of the group composed a short piece of writing. Upon arrival, they deposited their anonymous contributions in a small bag, or "budget," that gave the group its name: the Budget Society. One by one, each piece was drawn from the bag; one by one, each piece was subjected to friendly critique. The Budget Society wrote on many topics and in several genres. Their compositions included lyric accounts of baked beans, a caustic satire in dialect of an imagined inauguration speech by Andrew Jackson, and at least one barbed poem criticizing a member unable to endure even the mildest criticism of her writing.
The Budget Society's most telling artifact is a fictional epistle with the heading "Mouth of the Columbia River, NW Coast, February 3 AD 2000." This composition is an exercise in proleptic historiography. Its author adopts the persona of a letter writer in the future corresponding with a contemporary about the customs of nineteenth-century Nantucketers. From the imagined vantage point of the year 2000, this fictional descendant of the island and amateur historian recounts the peculiar mores of his nineteenth-century ancestors. In a dizzying and illuminating moment of self-reference, he also explains how his knowledge of his ancestors' ways derives from some "old manuscripts" of the Budget Society. Detailing the conduct of the society's meetings and its goals, he impugns the women's taste for novels and applauds the ancient writings of the "chaste" Benjamin Franklin and William Ellery Channing. This dispatch notes as well the predictive savvy of the members of the society, who anticipate(d) the ability of twenty-first-century Americans to fly from one end to the other of America's transcontinental geography in steam-powered vessels.
This 1829 letter typifies the way that many American writers came to manage their self-representation in anticipation of the future during the first half of the nineteenth century. This period's amateur and professional writers alike staged dialogues with the future undertaken less for reasons of vanity than out of a desire to influence how their descendants would understand their relationship to the past and in turn come to know themselves. As Anthony Giddens has written of utopian discourse, these letters to the future constitute "prescriptions or anticipations" that "set a baseline for future states of affairs." In the early national and antebellum United States, these letters to the future were encoded as familiar literary genres, and they were organized around shaping how later generations would think of their descent from their ancestors, thus influencing how those later generations would conceptualize their own present tense. Like the Budget Society epistolarian's correspondence, this writing effectively set the parameters of "life to come" by passing down teleological and eschatological narrative structures designed to realize the nation's future history. These authors occupied the future—our present—by captioning their own and earlier periods as the origin of an inevitable national fate and by bequeathing to us certain familiar narrative genres organized around imagining that fate. Over the past two centuries, these resilient narrative structures have often led those who study early and nineteenth-century American writing to imagine that the future these authors predicted actually came to pass—that to live on U.S. soil during this time has inevitably been to experience oneself as an "American" or one kin to Americans. Generations of literary critics and historians have argued that their own moment was finally fulfilling—for better or for worse—the future first figured in this writing. In important ways we live even now in the house these writers built.
In this book, I attempt to push back against these early efforts to populate the horizon with Americans. I do this by focusing on the often ignored disaggregating potential of this period's literature and its peculiar account of time. In this effort, I take up the increasingly accepted view that the early national and antebellum United States was the site of a conflicted experience of time characteristic of modernity. Svetlana Boym has argued that modernity allows "for multiple conceptions of time." In this context, American temporality can be understood "not as a teleology of progress or transcendence but as a superimposition and coexistence of heterogeneous times." I also emphasize that this particular temporal conjuncture was deeply inhospitable to the consolidation of national and racial identity. I seek to understand this temporal conjuncture as something other than a conflict to be overcome or a moment of transition that is interesting primarily for what it tells us about the origins of our current seemingly calcified categories of nation and race. I am more interested in the fact that, at this moment, when American writers began self-consciously to quest after a future in which national and racial identity would reign triumphant over all, the end result was that time was restructured in such a way as to begin foreclosing on that particular future. I argue that this writing's characteristic formal features—the outlines of its genres as well as its literary tropes—trace the intermittent interest of American authors in the extraliterary conflicts between different modalities of time that forbid the homogeneously linear time whose emergence has sometimes been associated with this period's nationalism. In addition to suggesting that this literature gives us a measure of access to the temporalities that defined this conflict, and thus the context of this literature's composition, I also argue that this literature superadded certain specifically literary temporalities to those already circulating in the extraliterary settings of nineteenth-century America. If the interest of American authors in the everyday lives of North Americans, the political commitments of these authors, and their intellectual inclinations led them to archive and rearticulate the conflicting experiences and understandings of time that defined life in this America, then their resort to the conventions of ancient, classical, and emergent literary genres meant that they also exposed literate Americans to antecedent and nascent orders of time in addition to those already informing their experience of daily life. In other words, I argue that this literature both documented and compounded a conflict of times that inhibited the consolidation of U.S. national and racial identity. I adopt from recent social theory and from postcolonial studies the view that modern time is internally differentiated in unprecedented ways that are only now coming to be understood. I also propose that the expansion of print and transportation technologies magnified this pluralization of time when it made literature's various printed avatars increasingly commonplace. In this sense, I claim that the print and reading revolutions that distinguish this period did not come close to achieving the homogenization of time with which they have sometimes been associated in American literature, American literary studies, and U.S. history. I describe this period's literature as instead having helped to stimulate the near collapse of processes of national and racial formation at a conjuncture that the literature itself (and later scholarship) routinely associates with the opposite event.
For reasons that I will explore in more detail later, this internal failure of nationalism and race in the United States has received less attention than it warrants. This period's writing has bequeathed to us a way of thinking in terms of social inevitabilities that has often controlled literary critical and historiographical approaches to time in the colonial American and U.S. national environments. Such approaches have, in turn, supported a particular portrait of the social fortunes of nineteenth-century America. As I indicate later, commentators on both sides of the Atlantic began to argue as early as the late eighteenth century that the emerging national print culture of the United States would Americanize its readers by homogenizing time. National literature, national newspapers, and other nation-based print media would function as the nation's temporal infrastructure. In the nineteenth-century United States, thinkers as seemingly dissimilar as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Frederick Douglass, as well as other authors I study here, would contribute to thinking in this vein (when they were not countervailing it). They implied that new modes of industrial printing, emerging models of professional authorship, and a revivified cultural nationalism would hasten the full-scale emergence of a soon-to-be-secured American national identity. In polemics and asides, they suggested that print culture's specific contribution to this emerging American national identity would be to supply U.S. citizens with a virtual experience of time as linear progress that they all could share. These authors often contradict themselves and each other; there can be no absolute uniformity of opinion across such a wide range of writing. The combined effect is nevertheless to suggest in an overarching way that progress would quickly emerge as America's common time and as the basis of a renewed sense of national belonging. In an exceedingly diverse nation, this collective temporality, which would later be identified as "homogeneous empty time," would be a crucial unifying resource. The emergence of a homogeneous empty time associated with progress and delivered via the medium of print culture would produce a future dominated not just by America but also by Americans.
It will surprise no one familiar with nineteenth-century American writing to learn that the vision that pervades this period's writing is of a United States inclined uniformly toward a single glorious destiny. The strong counterevidence of form suggesting that this period and its literature articulate a conflicted experience of time working against this notion of destiny is less well known. The early national and antebellum United States did give us the Young Americans, the benevolent kingdom, and the Transcendentalists, all of whom were indebted at some level to an ideology of linear progress. Yet, however much this period's writing may seem to anticipate a uniform national destiny emerging from the narrowing down of future possibility that the American ideology of progress envisions, the very same literature articulates at the level of form a modernity defined by not one but several distinct temporal dispositions. This literature also deepens the period's temporal repertoire; it supplements the orders of time that emerged from industrial manufacture, slave economies, and the like with the anachronistic temporalities that any literary genre (re)introduces into the present. Stuart Sherman has argued that a "given narrative will inevitably, by the particulars of its form, absorb and register some of the temporalities at work in the world that surrounds its making." If literature not only "absorb[s] and register[s]" but also superadds to the temporal landscape it inhabits, then it only makes sense to say that when this literature speaks of an inevitable future emerging from a uniformly structured present tense, it speaks against evidence that it routinely manifests to the contrary. There might be a plurality of futures implicit in this literature, but it offers no reliable prediction of the nation's singular destiny. Despite its often well-articulated wish that the nation share a consistent experience of time around which its members might unite, the available evidence contradicts the idea that this experience of national simultaneity actually came to pass. This literature combined the temporalities of everyday life with the untimely chronotypes that its conventions of genre demanded and then redistributed both of them to Anglophone readers. This literature pluralized time. It did not purify it.
This book therefore deflects the overtures of this earlier period's letter to the future by attending to certain aspects of time's articulation—in this period and through its literature—that have been downplayed or ignored. Chapter 1 explains how the classic American literature of roughly the first half of the nineteenth century cites and revises certain late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century European ideas about historical time, progress, and destiny to support specific U.S. national ideologies of historical time and the future. Here I give an account of what we might call early American modernization theory, and I indicate the extent to which something called "print culture" was figured—in fact, figured itself—as a uniquely homogenizing and nationalizing force. I identify certain "figures of print" that emerge early in the nineteenth century and persist in later historiographic and theoretical accounts of the advent of modernity. These figures of print helped to suppress the complex industrial history of printing, authorship, distribution, and copyright currently being recovered by the history of the book, while at the same time they encouraged the reduction of literature's many avatars to a uniform fetish called print culture lacking in both form and content.
In the next three chapters I offer a counterhistory of time in this period's literature that focuses on recapturing at a reasonably detailed level something of that form and content. I demonstrate how three of this period's more influential genres have been repeatedly linked to the work of consolidating "social totalities" (nation, region, and race), while at the same time I show how they seek to diagnose certain pivotal aspects of the conjuncture called modernity. This is a literature of modernity in that it is "contradictory, critical, ambivalent, and reflective on the nature of time." I also propose that these genres, as well as literary tropes such as dialect writing and ekphrasis, register and compound a pluralization of time—a splitting of time into temporalities—characteristic of modernity. This literature archives the extraliterary emergence of linear progressive time, a laboring time that is a compound of repetitive and static temporalities, and a politicized revolutionary messianic time—each one of which is associated with one or more of modernity's signal economic and societal features. Yet I focus just as much (or more) on how this literature also overlays these temporalities with literary ones pulled from the past and the near future into the present by virtue of the fact that every author must inhabit at least some of the conventions of literary genre. This literature's characteristic formal features track and compound, I suggest, an experience of time that precipitated superlocal experiences of belonging and encouraged detachment from broader supralocal identity categories. As various theories of modernity, global capitalism, and postcolonialism explain, the spread of market capitalism, now called globalization, does not homogenize the globe but rather involves the tactical "production of locality." This production of locality proceeds, I contend, more in temporal than in spatial terms, and it confounds the broader identifications typically associated with nation, region, and race in conditions of modernity by encouraging identification across and within these naturalized categories of modern selfhood. Literature played a significant role in the production of locality, and its role is irreducible to the movements of global capitalism.
In this book, therefore, the self-nominations associated with nation, region, and race turn out to matter somewhat less than and much differently from what has been imagined when it comes to the cultural work of the literature of the first half of the nineteenth century. Literate Americans spent their laboring days, and their hours of leisure reading, negotiating a conflicting experience of time that made internally consistent collective selfhood(s) largely impracticable. In this respect, I elicit through a reading of literary form a modern subjectivity rendered increasingly invisible over the course of the last two centuries. I do not locate in the past only Americans, whites, and other figures of abstract identity, a gesture that allows nationalism and race to colonize both the past and the present. I recount a reading subject faced with a relationship to the future in which that future is a disconcertingly undefined vector made so by virtue of the fact that any given present is felt to incline toward several different futures (and pasts) at once. I also suggest that some of this reading subject's most significant political tendencies can be traced to an encounter with literature. This subject resembles, for reasons outlined later, the "torn, divided monster" that D. H. Lawrence once characterized as America's peculiar offering to the world. However, this subject is not immune to or insulated from his environment, as the literary modernist Lawrence might have had it: he is instead made "monstrous" by it.
In telling the story of American modernity and American literature in this way, without the emergence of social identity as a structuring entelechy, I seek as much to reanimate our own present tense as I do to reorient our knowledge of the past. One consequence of reading the past as this literature would (sometimes) have us do is a shutting down of our own present as a site of possibility. The inevitability thesis that is one of this period's enduring contributions to world literature seeks to claim the present—our present, any present—as a direct lineal descendent whose (in)hospitableness to individual political and subjective self-realization has been, as it were, genetically predetermined. In its most programmatically future-oriented moments, which are in a counterintuitive sense also its most conservative ones, this literature takes up the conventions of progressive historiography and discourages us from understanding the past as defined by a series of breaks and ruptures; it also discounts the view that any given present (or past) portends a variety of different futures. It asks us to lose sight of our own moment as the potential site of origin for many possible future presents and so forbids the sort of "utopian realism" Anthony Giddens has encouraged. It encourages us to ignore the disaggregating force of literature in modernity and encourages instead the sense of "false necessity" that Roberto Unger has described.
I pursue my interest in this literature's unclosed openings onto the future by way of extended engagements with the novels known as historical romances, the regional writing called Southwestern humor, and the autobiographies categorized as African American life writing. As my second, third, and fourth chapters outline in more detail, it is a curious and significant fact of American literary history that these (and other) categories of genre have been so firmly and so often tied to the project of nationalism and to racial formation. Most of the credit for the recent resurgence of a paradigmatic approach linking genre to nation and race, as well as for the limited view of literature's relationship to time that this approach reflects, goes to Benedict Anderson's work on what he calls print capitalism—a category he associates specifically with the realist novel and the daily newspaper. In particular, his account of the realist novel's production of an experience of simultaneity and homogenous empty time continues to be taken for granted in many quarters. Yet early and more recent responses to Anderson's imagined communities thesis, as well as Anderson's more recent writings, have indicated the extent to which correlating genre with temporal or social homogeneity ignores one of the most salient facts about the history of literary form, and in particular the theory of genre. As genres take shape over the course of one or several centuries, they cannibalize and adapt previous genres. Along the way, they accrete a range of different and competing temporalities. As Wai Chee Dimock has recently argued, this trait not only defines the novel, as Bakhtin suggested, but also applies equally to any genre. All genres are "[b]orn of the local circumstances that shape them," but they also "ech[o] other forms shaped by circumstances more or less alike." For this and other reasons, postcolonial literary studies early on redirected our understanding of time in the realist novel away from the Andersonian account of simultaneity. Homi Bhabha and Partha Chatterjee, in particular, identified Anderson's seemingly social scientific account of nation formation as resting on the bedrock of an imperfect theory of genre, and they reversed Anderson's account of nationalism by way of a refigured account of the realist novel. Where Anderson proposed that the novel articulates homogeneous empty time, postcolonial studies showed how the realist novel articulates competing orders of time. Dimock has summarized, for example, the challenge that Bhabha's work posed to the Andersonian account of the novel: "For Bhabha, then, the breakdown of a single, enforceable chronology stands as one of the most powerful challenges to the sovereignty of the state. It directly contradicts the regime of 'simultaneity' adduced by Benedict Anderson as the hallmark of the nation. Against that regime—against Anderson's account of national time as 'homogeneous empty time . . . measured by clock and calendar'—Bhabha calls attention to many alternate temporalities: 'disjunctive' narratives, written at the margins of the nation and challenging its ability to standardize, to impose an official ordering of events." By reinhabiting the literary genre of the novel in the way that Dimock describes, postcolonial theory effectively rewrote our understanding of the sociopolitical genre called the nation. When it destabilized standing accounts of the temporality of the realist novel, postcolonial theory also destabilized received notions about the nation across a range of intellectual fields. It dissolved the coherence of the nation as a category of belonging by dissolving the coherence of one of the nation's most recognizable imputed sources: the genre of the novel. And it made analysis of literary form a full partner in the interdisciplinary enterprise of postcolonial studies.
This revised account of the temporality of the novel genre, and of genre more generally, broke with an intellectual tradition dating to late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Germany, a tradition that viewed literature and its genres as expressive of what Bhabha calls "social totalities." We see this view of literature as socially expressive represented in the influential nineteenth-century editor Rufus Griswold's introduction to The Prose Writers of America of 1845: "Literature, the condensed and clearly expressed thought of the country, will keep pace with its civilization; and without any straining after originality, without any tricks of diction, without any aim but to press the truth directly, earnestly and courageously upon the popular heart, under the inspiration of an enlightened love of country, and the guidance of a high cultivation, our authors will be sufficiently distinctive and national, in both manner and matter." Hegel had earlier extended this view of national literatures specifically to the issue of genre. For him and for others, the three "natural" genres—epic, lyric, and drama—track the progressive development of individuals and of nations. Similarly, as George Dekker explains in his discussion of the American historical romance, "the Enlightenment philosophical historians who shaped the social thought of Goethe, Scott, and Cooper believed that peoples with the same basic mode of subsistence were bound to have the same or at least very similar political institutions, military practices, and artistic forms." As Pascale Casanova has recently argued, and as the contributors to recent PMLA (2007) and New Literary History (2003) special issues on genre and world literature confirm, Hegel and other influential thinkers from this and later periods reformulated classical genre theory, laboring to align particular genres with social totalities such as the nation. Stephen Owen demonstrates, for example, how a "nineteenth-century evolutionary account of genres seems to have been so thoroughly internalized that it survives as unreflective assumptions by scholars who would reject such claims on a theoretical level." According to Owen, moreover, "Hegel's genre scheme, popularized, has been so well digested that it has become the very tissue of the educated mind." As this recent scholarship on genre indicates, modern genre criticism emerged alongside and in collaboration with the nation form. This kind of criticism has often provided the nation with an air of coherence in the era of modernity by introducing abstract aesthetic categories that appear to unify unruly literatures and, in turn, the peoples that produced them. Of course, Anderson and those who followed him reversed this model's order of determination. If for Hegel (and later for Lukács) genres express historical change, then for the Andersonians they produce it. However, neither Anderson nor the school of criticism he inspired broke the mutually occlusive bind linking genre to nation.
Extending the postcolonial critique into the current critical conjuncture, Casanova, Dimock, and Gayatri Spivak, among others, have soundly rejected this habituated assertion of the coherence of social totalities vis-à-vis literary genres and their imputed organization of time. These critics dispute the idea that either genres or the social totalities they have been said to "express" (or to create) are clearly bounded, internally coherent, or temporally homogeneous. They argue instead for a renewed attention to the category of genre that (implicitly) reworks postcolonial theory for the broadest possible context. For these critics, reexamining the category of genre in general, specific genres in particular, and the temporalities of both, dissolves the boundary separating the formerly national literatures from one another and from the world, past and present. This renewed interest in genre's relationship to time recalls how postcolonial critique led British literary and cultural studies to acknowledge the presence of the colony in the imperial center and its literature. In Chapter 1, I address in more detail the objection that the nineteenth-century United States was not, properly speaking, a postcolonial nation and that therefore the extension of the postcolonial critique to the U.S. context is inapt. For now, it is enough to recall Edward Said's classic account of the contrapuntal nature of empire, as well as Amy Kaplan's "Left Alone with America," which together indicate the extent to which the postcolonial critique of nation was not simply, or even primarily, an argument about the postcolonial nations of the second half of the twentieth century. This critique aimed to change our view of the imperial metropole as much as it attended to the experience of the former colonies. The world literature critique calls for a similar refashioning of literary study in part through the lens of genre. It asks us to acknowledge how any individual genre, as well as any individual instance of a genre, imports the formal, thematic, and chronotypical concerns of several different national contexts and chronological moments into what can only heuristically be called the present tense of a single national tradition. As even Rufus Griswold acknowledged in 1845, "[T]here never was and never can be an exclusively national literature. All nations are indebted to each other and to preceding ages for the means of advancement; and our own, which from our various origins may be said to be at the confluence of the rivers of time which have swept through every country, can with less justice than any other be looked to for mere novelties in art and fancy." What seems to be exceptional about America here is its utter lack of exceptionality. Like any national literature, American writing has no single time to call its own. Instead, it stands at the conjunction of the rivers—plural—of time.
Yet the literary genres that this book attends to have in fact been characterized as either expressively or productively "American" ones. These genres are also distinctly concerned with documenting and commenting upon the new orders of time that modernity introduced. My attention to genre here will therefore attempt to participate in the broader effort just described of questioning how certain implicit notions of literary genre function to stabilize against all odds the national literary studies model. Over the past two decades, the field of American literary studies has increasingly turned away from the nation as an organizing principle. Indeed, most critics now working in this field would instinctively reject an unselfconsciously nation-based account of American literature. As early as 2001, Bruce Burgett titled an American Literary History review essay "American Nationalism—R.I.P." Clearly the idea that literature self-evidently relates to an internally coherent national culture has receded in significance. To name just two of the more influential examples of how this critique has flowered, the recent spatial turn in literary studies has reframed American literature as a hemispheric, transnational, global, diasporic, and oceanic enterprise. Although I contend in my epilogue that certain versions of the spatial turn have the potential to elide a temporal logic that reproduces the nation form in code, the spatial turn has in a practical sense effectively redirected literary and cultural studies toward thinking in new ways about humanistic scholarship. Its focus on contact zones, extranational territories, and supralocal systems has given us an "American" literary studies designed to trouble that comfortable designation. The most compelling recent contributions to the history of the book, such as Meredith McGill's American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting, 1834-1853; Matthew P. Brown's The Pilgrim and the Bee; Leon Jackson's The Business of Letters; and A History of the Book in America, volume 3, The Industrial Book, 1840-80, also reshape our view of how industrial bookmaking, the book trades, periodical culture, authorship, copyright, and reading actually worked during this period. Rather than describing a single national literary culture or print capitalism writ large, these and other studies recount a fractured literary marketplace that is articulated at the global and the local scales but that does not begin to look distinctively national until at least the middle of the nineteenth century—and perhaps not even then. As the history of the book increasingly tells the story, early national and antebellum American literature was not unified in any obvious way, nor was it self-evidently unifying.
I propose here that in order to realize the full transformative potential of the postcolonial critique, the spatial turn, and the history of the book—all in relation to the long history of American literary study—Americanists will need to reinhabit and trouble the distinctions of genre and the attendant arguments about time that have helped to organize American literary practice, American literary studies, and the teaching of American literature since their inception. With the notable exception of the sentimental novel and perhaps the lyric, the productive scrutiny that postcolonial studies brought to bear on the stabilizing influence of an implicit idea of literary genre—its organization of time, its relationship to nationalism—has not been present in the field of nineteenth-century American literary studies. This absence is noteworthy in the context of a period preoccupied, as I endeavor to show later, with reorganizing time so as to service the expansionist designs of what Louis O'Sullivan called "the great nation of futurity" while developing a distinctively national literature. As I have suggested, the strength of the postcolonial critique of genre followed from the fact that it collapsed the idea of a nationally expressive or nationally productive (European or postcolonial) literature from within by addressing that idea's oversimplification of time in the realist novel. This critique first reinhabited the suppositions about genre that had given life and form to current dogma about the relationship between genre, time, and nation; then rejected those suppositions; and finally rewrote our understanding of the novel genre, time, and the nation. The fact that Americanists have done somewhat less to contest how calcified ideas about genre and its relationship to time have organized writing and instruction in this field means that genre is one of this field's few remaining stabilizing touchstones. This relative indifference to rethinking genre as a mechanism of time means that genre classification's proven capacity to overwrite nuance and the unresolved—its power to coalesce the fantasy of a stable present tense, an internally coherent nation form, or a consolidated social identity of some other kind—has gone largely unaddressed. The recent Cambridge Introduction to the Nineteenth-Century American Novel opens, "Defining the novel is easy." Gregg Crane goes on to provide a careful and well-researched account of the nineteenth-century American novel that belies this opening statement—a statement admittedly made in the context of an introduction to the nineteenth-century novel rather than a close analysis of it. However, the initial ease of definition here recalls the extent to which genre can emerge as the totem where the nation once stood. One might also point to the proliferation of new undergraduate curricula designed to acknowledge the perceived bankruptcy of the national literatures model, but that do so by turning to categories of genre for a new sense of coherency.
In this context, my usage of the categories of genre will be unfamiliar. If American literary criticism has sometimes displayed a taste for neat taxonomies of genre traceable to the nineteenth century, I focus more on the internal incoherencies of genres than on cleanly divisible categories. I use genre primarily as a heuristic principle that allows us to see both how the field of nineteenth-century American literary studies has come to be organized and how close attention to conventionally exemplary as well as marginalized instances of a given genre speak to the layered temporalities of American modernity. In this latter respect, I follow Wai Chee Dimock's suggestive prospect for a new model of genre criticism in Through Other Continents. In her chapter on "genre as world system," Dimock begins by acknowledging those critiques, from Benedetto Croce to Jacques Derrida, that suggest the inability of any account of genre to provide a full measure of the thing it claims to describe. These critiques lead Dimock to "invoke genre less as a law, a rigid taxonomic landscape, and more as a self-obsoleting system, a provisional set that will always be bent and pulled and stretched by its many subsets." By a "self-obsoleting system," Dimock means one whose constituent components are always in motion. Where John Frow emphasizes that in order to make meaning one must inhabit a recognizable genre, Dimock charges us to recognize more of what any individual genre has to offer by way of habitation and meaning making. For Dimock, genres are dissolving and constantly reassembling conjunctures of literary forms drawn from the longue durée of literary history. In taking this position, Dimock adverts to a view articulated in Fredric Jameson's classic discussion of the romance genre in The Political Unconscious: "[P]roperly used, genre theory must always in one way or another project a model of the coexistence or tension between several generic modes or strands: and with this methodological axiom the typologizing abuses of traditional genre criticism are definitely laid to rest." For Dimock, this "scattering and mixing of genres [makes] literary history an exemplary instance of human history, which is to say, multipath, multiloci, multilingual." If Dimock is right, moreover, then literary history does not exemplify what it has often been made out to signify: the selfsame integrity of a single people.
With Dimock's provocative outline in mind, I reframe the literary genres I address as complex archival forms and as actors in the realization of America's modernity. In The Consequences of Modernity, Anthony Giddens has convincingly argued that modernity is intensively self-reflexive. I suggest that nineteenth-century American literature was a crucial part of this self-reflexivity. Focusing on the social sciences, Giddens rejects the notion that modern knowledge-work provides a cumulative empirical account of a stable object called society. Instead, the social scientist participates in a feedback loop that destabilizes the object of study. The knowledge of society produced by social scientists provides members of modern society with a mode of self-understanding that restructures society itself. We can think of nineteenth-century literature in similar terms, especially regarding its relationship to time. This literature routinely positions itself as providing a diagnostic account of the society it describes, and it takes particular care to diagram the temporal conditions that obtain in that society. What Stuart Sherman says of eighteenth-century British literature applies here too: this literature provides a "reading" of the temporalities of modern life. In so doing, it refracts its readers' understanding of time. In this respect, this period's literature participates in the mutually constituting double hermeneutic that Giddens identifies as a primary characteristic of modernity. Although Giddens associates that double hermeneutic specifically with sociological knowledge, it should not be too much of a stretch for those familiar with nineteenth-century American literature—especially the historical romances, Southwestern humor, and African American life writing examined here—to accept that this literature also aims to produce a diagnostic account of modernity and modern time. Importantly, however, this literature not only archives (in the transitive sense) the temporalities of its era, comments on them, and feeds them back to its readers—reconstituting those readers' understanding of time in the process. The anachronistic formal precedents that inhere in any genre guarantee that this literature also functions as an archive of temporalities drawn from moments other than its own—temporalities that it returns to the present. In other words, this literature's reflexivity works not only to reflect and comment upon the moment of its composition. This literature comprises a strangely reflexive archive of times drawn not strictly from its own present tense and that are in no way conducive to the constitution of a selfsame "American" subject. This literature restructures its readers' understanding of time, as Anderson has argued, but it does so in more ways than one. The temporality of modernity that this literature articulates is cross-cut with different orders of time, and not all of them "belong" to the present tense of its composition.
Considering nineteenth-century American writing in terms of its recourse to and deformation of particular literary genres, as well as its diagnostic interest in modern time, reveals the extent to which nineteenth-century American literature, notwithstanding the desire of many writers and editors to create a national literature, is more properly thought of as a literature of modernity. Its concerns are those that distinguish the era of modernity—the distanciation of time-space relationships, in particular, but also the reordering of social relations more generally. By attending to issues of literary genre and literary figures—by attending to this literature as such rather than as, say, a more generalized form of print culture—we gain a more refined sense of the exact role that these materials played in constituting modernity. When Anderson focused on one particular aspect of modernity, the emergence of the nation form, his approach proved particularly attractive to a field long interested in the specifically national qualities of this period's writing. His argument also brought questions of literary form to bear in the context of a broadening interest in the wider social significance and socially constituting force of literature. Yet I demonstrate later that an even closer attention to issues of literary form yields a different sense of this literature and, consequently, a different sense of American modernity. To be sure, literature played a role in the making of American modernity, but that role included the drawing of improper temporalities from other historical moments into the present tense. In that sense, this literature articulates a modernity of unequal but coeval orders of time that encourage simultaneous identifications across and within the naturalized boundaries separating colony from postcolonial nation, south from north, future from past.
For a specific example of the approach to literature, genre, and modernity I propose here we can return to the Budget Society epistolarian's letter to the future—that peculiar instance of nineteenth-century nostalgia for the present. This letter opens with a problem of genre. As I have indicated, its conceit is that of a twentieth-century descendant of Nantucket who lives at the mouth of the Columbia River and who is corresponding with a contemporary about the customs of his ancestors. This correspondent begins, "Dear Madam, In looking over some old manuscripts in my possession a few evenings since, I came to a detached piece of writing, which, in these days, I know not how to class. The author is one unknown, and as no allusions are made to him by contemporary writers, which throw any light upon the subject, I must leave you, as I am myself in conjecture. This much, however is certain, that up to the time of his writing the piece above alluded to, no production of his excepting a small piece of poetry, had been published." The letter continues, "By the old manuscript above mentioned, it appears that our ancestors were possessed of means and devices by which they blended amusement with instruction." Over the course of the letter, the author details the "conduct" of the Budget Society. However, the problem the author introduces in the first line—"I know not how to class" this writing—is never resolved. The source of the writer's knowledge of his ancestors is first described as a "detached piece of writing" and an "old manuscript"; the author shifts halfway through the letter by referring to "these manuscripts" and "compositions." At the conclusion of the letter, its author refers to "compositions, humorous and nondescript, in rhyme and in prose, which were contributed by the members male and female."
If we think of this society in terms of the culture of emulation that Leon Jackson has identified with this period, the letter writer's interrupted desire to classify this "detached piece of writing" is both significant and unsurprising. As Jackson explains, "Between the 1780s . . . and the 1850s, literary competitions flourished in America." These widely advertised and influential competitions encouraged aspiring writers to complete compositions that met the requirements of specific literary forms. They "offered premiums for genres as different as poems, plays, prologues, essays, articles, analyses, disputations, dissertations, tracts, treatises, short stories, novels, and even conundrums." Although Jackson does not pursue this point, it is worth acknowledging that these contests and the emulation they sought to engender were organized around the reproduction of literary genres. Although originality had its place in the increasingly Romantic aesthetic of nineteenth-century America, the real imperative was to demonstrate knowledge of and facility with the conventions of known and admired forms. At this early stage of American literary history, in other words, convention as much as a capacity for novelty set expectations for what qualified as literature. Such expectations were also clearly at play in the activities of the Budget Society. The compositions recorded in the society's logbook were original only in the moderate sense that any particular iteration of a genre differs from those that precede it. With the possible exception of the letter itself (an issue I will turn to in just a moment), these compositions obey the precedents of genre set for (among others) the lyric, the inaugural address, and the it-narrative—this last witnessed in a composition titled "Diary of a Quill."
Of all the genres Jackson names, however, the novel seems to have played an especially significant role in the lives, if not the labors, of the Budget Society's members. Here is the letter's description of a typical Budget Society meeting:
The society appears to have been established by women. They met one evening out of seven during the winter season, and were usually all convened by 7 o'clock. Each one of them brought a kind of work called "knitting work" that is to say, a slow and mechanical physical method of making stockings by hand! Why I should have as soon thought of making coats and pantaloons by hand! These women were employed a fortnight in making a single pair of stockings, and no doubt would have pronounced any one crazy who should assert that in the year 2000 a little girl would make a hundred pair of long hose daily . . . . It was customary in the aforesaid "Budget Society" for some of the women to read from some book, for the benefit of the whole, until the men (generally their husbands) arrived, which was commonly from half past eight to nine o'clock. Concerning the books they read we have no knowledge further than that they were usually novels which are now extinct, with a few exceptions.In this account, the society operates like clockwork. The punctual regularity of their practice recalls the advent of modern regimes of the clock and the calendar. A first reading discloses a community participating in the rituals of homogeneous empty time associated with modernity and with the novels that they read aloud. They "met one evening out of seven" at a regularly established time. When they arrived, the firstcomers (i.e., the women) participated in a knitting circle. Although the letter writer comments on the "now"-anachronistic nature of their knitting, its proximity to the reading of novels encourages us to think of the novel genre not only as a women's form but also as a genre tied to the punctual regularity of the "knitting work" undertaken at these meetings. The regularity of the stitch recalls the page-by-page unfolding of linear time that we have been taught to expect from the realist novel. Moreover, this image is first and foremost that of a community brought together through a shared sense of time facilitated by the popularity of the novel.
However, the full story of this letter is more complex than this initial reading would allow, and it runs against conventional accounts of genre's relationship to time and its socializing force. To produce this more complex story, one would want first to focus on how the specific practice of reading described in this letter complicates the assumption that literature works to articulate social totalities. It is obvious but no less important for being so that the society's novel reading is gendered. Whatever collectivizing force is at play here, that force impacts only a portion of the society's members. The women and the men of the Budget Society do not experience time in common: the rhythms of the stitch and of the page collaborate to exclude the society's male members. Yet this focus on gender aggregation can end up distracting from a more profoundly disaggregating force revealed in this short letter to the future. That force begins to appear when we return to the anxious question in the letter's first line: How is one to "class" the writing that provides our epistolarian with his knowledge of the past, especially given that this letter functions as its own source? We can first class this letter in relationship to the novel. Literary historians have long argued for the epistolary form's centrality to the novel genre. Here the letter writer's description of the reading of novels at the Budget Society confirms some standard assumptions about the novel's contribution to the time consciousness of modernity. The inscription at the top of the letter suggests that in the context of the Budget Society, the letter articulates a sense of synchronic simultaneity often associated with the advent of modernity and routinely identified with the realist novel. However, the writer of this letter also achieves a kind of diachronic simultaneity—or a simultaneity-along-time—usually reserved for premodern societies in relationship to ancestors. He does so by figuring a coeval relationship not only between "Madam," the letter's addressee, and "Any name but the right one," its signatory, but also between the Budget Society writer and his or her descendants. The difficulty of determining the genre of this "detached piece of writing" stems at least in part from the tension it sustains between diachronic and synchronic simultaneity. The future-oriented simultaneity of the letter does not trump or displace the synchronic simultaneity implied in the letter form—or vice versa. Instead, the two are constant adjuncts.
A restrictive approach to genre might alternatively classify this letter as protonovelistic writing, utopia, epistle, or progressive historiography, but this letter in fact includes features of all four of these genres. In particular, it draws the temporalities customarily identified as the exclusive property of one or the other of these genres into a single framework. Obeying epistolary conventions, this letter imagines a shared sense of time linking addressee to signatory, while implicitly acknowledging the lag time separating these two. (If the epistolary genre assumes that sender and receiver inhabit the same global nexus of time, it also acknowledges any letter's latecomer status. Epistolary form aspires to the coeval while never really participating in it.) As epistolary form finds its way into the novel, it is stripped of some of its commonsense associations with delay and disjuncture. Through the artifice of the novelistic universe, the letter is refigured to signify the simultaneity of characters living at a geographic distance—the "meanwhile." But the letter never completely sheds its association with delay—indeed, plots often turn on epistolary delay—and so the epistolary novel is much less about simultaneity than would first appear to be the case: think Clarissa and Charlotte Temple. This particular letter is also a form of utopian writing in that its author adopts a mode of anticipatory consciousness that projects the author and the Budget Society's members into the future. Finally, in its synoptic view of the past as directly related to the present as figure to the later period's fulfillment, this letter adopts the new conventions of progressive historiography. The competing relationships between past, present, and future entailed in these several genres might appear to be mutually exclusive, but this letter provides a concentrated example of their capacity to coexist. This modest composition includes a utopian impulse inherited from Francis Bacon sharing the page with the epistolary time consciousness of Samuel Richardson. The conventions of nineteenth-century progressive historiography can also be glimpsed in the early stages of their formation.
My claim is that an equally complex universe of time defines any individual work of writing if we are willing to recognize it there. The majority of this book is therefore devoted to focused discussions of the genres of the historical romance, Southwestern humor, and African American life writing. Outlining the fine details of a given genre's internal overlays (as I have just done with the Budget Society letter) will concern me sometimes more and sometimes less in my discussion of these forms of writing. However, the fundamental approach to genre just outlined constitutes the enabling background of the entire study. Why these three genres in particular? The answer concerns their relationship to what Jürgen Habermas calls the "philosophical discourse of modernity," as well as to the foundational assumptions of nineteenth-century American literary studies. Each one of these forms assigns itself the task of narrating some of the key shifts in social organization that social theorists and historians identify with modernity: the emergence of market culture, the depopulation of the rural backwoods, the imperial European colonization of North America, the economic entrenchment of racial slavery, and the construction of national communication and transportation networks. They are also acutely interested in the apparent reorganization of time taking place in America as a result of these key shifts. In this respect, each of these genres anticipates the way that later social theory and historiography would narrate this moment. The historical romance addresses the evolution of the nation form, Southwestern humor recounts the death of local culture and the emergence of the region, and African American life writing describes the formation of modern categories of race. In other words, each of these genres offers an account of modernity that focuses on its restructuring of time and how that restructuring relates to the consolidation of national, regional, and racial identity in turn. If these genres identify and diagnose the condition(s) of modernity, however, they also operate as literary genres not strictly mimetic in nature. They contribute to modernity by engaging readers in conceptualizations and formal enactments of time that are not exclusively "modern" in cast but that go into the making of an American modernity rather different from that which has been imagined.
Beyond the issues of how this literature narrates the character of modernity, these genres have also had a particularly important role to play in the discipline of American literary studies. Indeed, work on this writing can be said to constitute the disciplinary unconscious of nineteenth-century American literary studies. As the following chapters demonstrate, these genres have had a peculiar staying power in the long history of intellectual work on American literature. In the early nineteenth century, as the sentimental novel was being castigated for (among other things) its transatlantic origins, the historical romance seemed, to some critics at least, to be one of the few novel forms worth reading. Its interest in the fortunes of early white settlers and its attempt to reconcile the destruction of Indians with the progress of the nation secured it a seat at the table of acceptably American forms of writing. Although the genre's debts to Scott did not go unacknowledged, it managed to transcend these suspect origins even among ardent cultural nationalists. Not only in the United States but also abroad, Southwestern humor was one of several species of literary regionalism deemed worthy of the designation "American." In the earliest anthologies of American literature, Southwestern humor was classed as "humor of the backwoods" or as "comedy" aboriginal to its site of origin. From early descriptions of the slave narrative as the first (and only) truly American form, such as those of Theodore Parker, African American life writing has persistently claimed the right to be classed as a national production. The early views of these three genres as "the condensed and clearly expressed thought of the country," to borrow from Rufus Griswold, found confirmation in the work of Cold War Americanists; in more recent decades, this body of literature has been scrutinized for its role in America's virulent racial ideology. In important ways, these genres have been central stabilizing influences and touchstones of this field in moments of transition and consolidation. If they are not the keystone in the arch of American literature, then they are among its most important voussoirs.
In my first chapter, "Figures of Print, Orders of Time, and the Character of American Modernity," I identify this period's notion of a national common time as one articulation of a broader transatlantic discourse about modernity. The familiar contours of Washington Irving's "Rip Van Winkle" serve here to exemplify the way in which eighteenth- and nineteenth-century thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic came to identify modernity with a new experience of time as rapid change and linear unfolding that they named progress—a modern time destined to supplant all local temporalities. In addition to sketching the history of this transatlantic approach to thinking about time, this chapter also identifies the especially viral millennial variant of it that characterized writing in the United States through a discussion of the journalism of Manifest Destiny. This first chapter closes with a reading of period paintings based on "Rip Van Winkle" and of Irving's turn to the formal figure of ekphrasis. This discussion reconceives the history of American modernity as the story of modernity's failure to produce the generic individual—a failure tied to the appearance of literature as a modern incarnation of the premodern storyteller.
Chapter 2, "'A Magnificent Fragment': Dialects of Time and the American Historical Romance," addresses a literary genre often identified as the first specifically American novelistic form of writing. From the 1820s through the 1850s, historical romancers characterized this genre as the keystone of a national historical consciousness crucial to stabilizing U.S. national identity. Yet the romance also articulates at the level of form a nonsimultaneous present, one torn by competing temporalities and unsuited to function in the way that many of its authors envisioned. The figure of dialect writing, which unexpectedly characterizes this genre, captures precisely its quality of a divided present tense. In the romance, moreover, characters have as much in common with their ancestors and descendents as they do with their contemporaries. In that sense, this genre traces the copresence of synchronic and diachronic simultaneity. This genre also encourages identification across political divides that are customarily marked as chronological ones—colony versus postcolonial nation; premodern versus modern culture; European versus (North) American; slavocracy versus democracy—when it recounts a revolutionary messianic temporality that draws past, present, and future into the same tense moment. Here there is no uniform and empty present tense that the nation can share.
Chapter 3, "Local Time: Southwestern Humor and Nineteenth-Century Literary Regionalism," turns to literary regionalists writing retrospectively in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s about the early nineteenth-century Southwestern frontier. Southwestern humor offers nostalgic portraits of rough-and-ready, dialect-speaking poor whites supposedly drawn from memories of a time before these people were assimilated to national cultural norms. This genre also differentiates its largely middle-class, white male readership from the poor country folks it describes by suggesting that, in the Old Southwest, time worked differently from the way it did elsewhere in the nation. This gesture appears to acknowledge the local character of time. In practice, however, such binary comparisons of local time to a national standard temporality always figure local time as an anachronistic remnant of a premodern past that has been or will be overcome. This chapter attempts to disable this binary by demonstrating how Southwestern humor registers not one but several deeply localized temporalities developing out of new travel technologies such as the steam engine. Although travel technology is typically thought to dissolve local time, Southwestern humor shows how it can fissure time into acutely circumscribed temporal microclimates. Southwestern humor also reintroduces the storytelling figure from Irving's "Rip Van Winkle," suggesting that he too is a force for deep locality.
Chapter 4, "The Deprivation of Time in African American Life Writing," investigates fictionalized biographies, spiritual autobiographies, and fugitive slave narratives from African America, which characteristically argue that European Americans dehumanized and disenfranchised African Americans by manipulating time. The classic example of this argument is the slave narrative's opening line, "I was born," and its attendant condemnation of the way slaveholders refused to record the birth and death dates of their slaves. African American literature and its critics describe this European American manipulation of birth and death records as a strategic withholding of time. Yet the very same scenes associated with this deprivation of time actually disclose and reproduce more than one temporality. Laboring time and revolutionary messianic time frequently overlap here; often they must compete with linear progress. Although this conflict of time foreclosed any holistic experience of African American belonging, it also produced a radically sustaining relationship to the future that European America often sought to prohibit.
I close with an epilogue on Gilded Age artist William Lamson Henry's historical genre paintings and the recent spatial turn among Americanists. Known for their nostalgic backward glances at scenes of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century U.S. history, Henry's late nineteenth-century paintings long for a moment when the arrow of time flew in only one direction. Yet these paintings fail to convincingly represent that moment as having ever occurred, especially when they turn to iconic American images such as those of the nation's early trains. Instead these paintings articulate in visually spatialized terms the nature of the temporal conjuncture. If Henry's approach to the past demonstrates how a rhetoric of American modernity permeates late nineteenth-century culture, the recent spatial turn in American literary studies signals its migration into the present moment. Here I suggest how an undertheorized embrace of global and transatlantic studies can mask the spread of nineteenth-century America's manifest destinarian impulses into the present.
If my arguments in the following chapters depart from some of the historicist protocols that currently dominate American literary study, this is because to adhere to those protocols too closely would be to betray this book's central claim. The historicism that currently predominates in this field tends to follow the principle that a unified present tense organizes the past, present, and future. I take a different view of things. I also adopt the standpoint that a reconstructed literary criticism has something significant to offer to interdisciplinarity. As others have before me, I endeavor to imagine what it would mean to include the study of literature—its forms, its problems—as a full voting member in the congress of scholarly opinion.