- The New Newest Thing, Redux
American Literary History is celebrating its 100th—issue, not year. This one follows on the heels of an earlier commemoration, ‘Twenty Years of American Literary History: The Anniversary Volume’ (ALH 20.1–2 ). These celebratory moments remind me of other anniversaries in recent years, especially, in chronological order (more on that phrase momentarily): the 1992 quincentenary of Columbus’s landing; in 1998 the 100-year anniversary of the war between Spain and the US; and in October 2001, the sesquicentennial of the publication of Moby-Dick. More or less public attention was paid to other literary anniversaries of that decade, including The Scarlet Letter (1850), Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), Walden (1854), and Leaves of Grass (1855), but the blockbuster of them all came in 2010 with Mark Twain’s 100th death-year. “Is he dead yet?” was my slogan for that yearlong celebration marketed as “Twain 2010” and featuring a “burial reenactment” at the gravesite in Elmira, New York. While the Mark Twain memorial is—characteristically, given his elaborately nurtured public persona—over the top, each of the commemorations left me initially skeptical about the Hallmark-card aspect of such manufactured moments—births, deaths, any event with a potential anniversary—and then drawn in by the underlying issues they raise so publicly, if not always explicitly, about history, historicism, and historiography.
The ALH 100th is itself only very generally thematized as such, a special issue on historical paradigms and writing literary history, in the hope that it will help to galvanize the ongoing discussion of the current value for history in our shared critical practice of American literary studies. To that end, several of the contributors zero in suggestively on the title, “American Literary History,” as a litmus test. Jennifer Fleissner comments that, of the three titular terms, history has gotten the least play to date, and Jordan Alexander Stein seconds [End Page 931] her, saying that as a term of art, history has had a less high-profile reexamination than either of the other two titular terms. Rodrigo Lazo reads Edmundo O’Gorman’s Invention of America (1972) as an indicator that the latest discovery of a hemispheric America is nothing new, that the turn to a comparative Americas is actually a return. For Walter Benn Michaels, the supposedly contested term American may turn out to be more of a red herring than a true hot potato, a distraction taking literary history down the garden path of the nation when we should be thinking of it in relation to a political economy (capitalism, neoliberalism, and so on). Just so, all the contributors to this ALH 100th would not agree on all the central propositions here. The essays part ways especially in their views of history, some arguing that the unexamined dominance of chronology has skewed the organizing principles of literary history, others pointing to alternative temporal modes, such as strategic anachronism, that may provide potential counterweights. As a commentator, my job is to help readers make sense of it all; to synthesize the sometimes competing and colliding issues as a statement, however inchoate, about the function of history in American literary history; and to develop a vision of where we’ve been and where we might still go.
The commemorative issues make a good starting point: every moment is a potential anniversary, whether measured in the value of 1, 10, 100 as a unit of years. What we call the commemorated event is also potentially protean. The aftereffects of 1992 and 1998 are visible in what appear to be permanent changes to both academic and public lexicons. Columbus no longer discovered America, but rather either encountered or conquered the Americas. What was once called the Spanish–American War is now, variously, the War of 1898, the Spanish–Cuban–American War, the Spanish–Cuban/American War, and the Spanish–American–Cuban–Filipino War. Some of these renamings predate the 1990s centenaries but have been more widely circulated and popularly discussed in the wake of those commemorations. Together they point to the ways that commemorations are collectively imagined histories, invented by what we might call translational thinking across the scales of...