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

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

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

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


American historians have typically argued that a shared experience of time worked to bind the antebellum nation together. Trains, technology, and expanding market forces catapulted the United States into the future on a straight line of progressive time. The nation's exceedingly diverse population could cluster around this common temporality as one forward-looking people.

In a bold revision of this narrative, Archives of American Time examines American literature's figures and forms to disclose the competing temporalities that in fact defined the antebellum period. Through discussions that link literature's essential qualities to social theories of modernity, Lloyd Pratt asserts that the competition between these varied temporalities forestalled the consolidation of national and racial identity. Paying close attention to the relationship between literary genre and theories of nationalism, race, and regionalism, Archives of American Time shows how the fine details of literary genres tell against the notion that they helped to create national, racial, or regional communities. Its chapters focus on images of invasive forms of print culture, the American historical romance, African American life writing, and Southwestern humor. Each in turn revises our sense of how these images and genres work in such a way as to reconnect them to a broad literary and social history of modernity. At precisely the moment when American authors began self-consciously to quest after a future in which national and racial identity would reign triumphant over all, their writing turned out to restructure time in a way that began foreclosing on that particular future.


[I]t is the present’s responsibility for its own self-definition of its own mis
sion that makes it into a historical period in its own right and that re
quires 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 . . .

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