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American Literary History 17.1 (2005) 196-214

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The New, Newest Thing:

Have American Studies Gone Imperial?

War Games: Richard Harding Davis and the New Imperialism. By John Seelye. University of Massachusetts Press, 2002.
American Sensations: Class, Empire, and the Production of Popular Culture. By Shelley Streeby. University of California Press, 2002.
Nineteenth-Century Geographies: The Transformations of Space from the Victorian Age to the American Century. Edited by Helena Michie and Ronald Thomas. Rutgers University Press, 2002.

Reading these books on nineteenth-century US empire in the context of current world events makes for a strange combination of obsolescence and prescience. The authors are all answering a disciplinary call to arms that we've been hearing at least since the 1998 centennial of the Spanish-American War, when it became the mission of American studies to rectify the absence of empire in the study of US culture.1 Yet now, suddenly it seems, far from absent, the word empire is, instead, everywhere, on everyone's lips. The last few years have seen a spate of books appear, inside and outside of the academy, with empire in their titles. Is it the elephant in the room? We appear to be condemned repeatedly to discover and announce empire's presence, each time with the same shock of the new. What has produced the charged context this time? It's not so much any single moment dividing "before-and-after," not 9/11 per se, but rather the "war on terror" as a war without end, making the military occupation of Iraq appear increasingly, to defenders and detractors alike, as a new episode in the history of world empire. The critical question posed in virtually all of the new books and articles on the newest US imperial venture is: should it be applauded and urged onward or denounced? So, on the one hand, our academic books mark what appears to be the end of an era, the exhaustion of the imperial turn, currently conceived, in American studies. At the very same time, though, they signal new directions and possibilities that emerge from out of the wreckage. The empire is dead; long live the empire!

As an ensemble, the books under review map the main moves, terminologies, and innovations in US empire studies, post-1998. First, and most strikingly, the project has been conceived as an exposè. The story of empire in American studies is one of denials to be acknowledged and omissions to be redressed. Second, as a corrective to the paradigm of American exceptionalism, which, Amy [End Page 196] Kaplan argues, is structured by the refusal of empire, this new study of empire would rethink the divides, geographical and temporal, that have allowed territorial expansion to be separated from imperialism proper and, concomitantly, located the beginning of our overseas empire in the year 1898 with the Spanish-American War. Kaplan points out that even such an influential study as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire (2000), which is not identified with the field of American studies, reproduces the paradigm of exceptionalism, first by defining imperialism as a European phenomenon and, further, by separating nineteenth-century European imperialism from the contemporary, decentered "Empire" of globalization, epitomized by the US (Anarchy 14–15). Rather than denying, minimizing, or truncating the longstanding US role in that long world history, the study of empire would contribute to efforts to deprovincialize American studies, remapping (a term to which I'll return later) it from broader international and transnational perspectives.

Third, the project of rethinking the location and periodization of what counts as "imperialism" in US history has meant the emergence of a new sphere of cultural study. It is almost like watching a field imaginary materializing, complete with body parts close to full-grown, including the main events, dates, texts, and founding fathers that together define the field. So, for example, the Mexican War, what Shelley Streeby calls a "forgotten war" (6), is one of those key new events, just as 1848 is often offered as a counterpoint to 1898, if not...


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