Archives of American Time: Literature and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century

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9780812242089: Archives of American Time: Literature and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century
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Archives of American Time examines American literature's figures and forms to disclose the competing temporalities that forestalled the consolidation of national and racial identity in the nineteenth century. Pratt shows how the fine details of literary genres tell against the notion that they helped to create national, racial, or regional communities. 

"Pratt seeks to reanimate time as plural, fragmented, and rich with multiple narrative possibilities, which the notion of a singular, national time forecloses. This is an ambitious goal, and Pratt does a persuasive job of reorienting the reader's sightlines; his research is impeccable--all in all a fine book."--American Literature


"Lloyd Pratt's Archives of American Time is an ambitious, erudite, and important book that . . . astutely engages with central problems in the history of modernity and nineteenth-century American print culture."--Novel

"Archives of American Time examines the pluralization of temporalities in a series of chapters each of which contributes to the study of a distinct literary genre: the historical romance, Southwestern humor, and African-American life writing. . . . Scrupulously examining Nathaniel Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables, Catharine Maria Sedgwick's Hope Leslie, and Joseph C. Hart's Miriam Coffin, he teases out how the eruption of premodern temporalities, especially the 'persistence of the past in the present,' disturbs those texts' narratives of linear progression and encourages forms of affiliation that cut across those favored by the centripetal forces of nationalism."--American Literary History

"A highly readable, accessible study of the way in which certain literary genres incorporated conceptions of time into forms of language. . . . [Archives of American Time] illuminates the way in which the concept of nation serves as a crucial term in the vexed relation between time and modernity."--Nineteenth-Century Literature

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About the Author:

Lloyd Pratt is University Lecturer in American Literature and Associate Professor of English at the University of Oxford.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction
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...

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