A Republic in Time: Temporality and Social Imagination in Nineteenth-Century America

By Barnhill, John | Material Culture, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

A Republic in Time: Temporality and Social Imagination in Nineteenth-Century America


Barnhill, John, Material Culture


A Republic In Time: Temporality and Social Imagination in Nineteenth-Century America By Thomas M. Alien Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008. 292 pp. Notes, bibliography, index, and illustrations. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-3179-3, $22.95 (paper), ISBN: 978-0-8078-5865-3.

The author argues that time, rather than geographic space, defines American expansion. Accordingly, to understand the evolving debate over the nature of the nation, it is imperative to understand the various ways in which Americans have viewed time and the various types of time that have come into play during America's history. The author's particular emphasis is on the antebellum era.

Time is an arbitrary construct of a human mind seeking order in a disordered world. Historically humanity has tied time to planetary and stellar cycles less as an absolute than as a tool of convenience. Time has meant different things to different people at different times, as it always has and probably always will. The author's focus is on development through time rather than through space. The nation being an equally artificial human construct, national time requires a defense, particularly against Fernand Braudel and the Annalists, who find history relevant only in spans of time that transcend nations, that find history in the continuities on which nations are merely an overlay.

Despite Braudel, time mattered to Americans in the early 19th century, as did the nation. But time was not unitary, with a single meaning for all. Standardization through railroad time was an event of late in the century. Before then, the meaning and measure of time was an individual matter.

There were, however, constituencies for various types of time, constituencies that influenced the national time. Alien's argument is that the United States from the founders, Thomas Jefferson in particular, was a work in progress, a growing phenomenon defined by its possibilities m the future rather than the continent on which it stood.

The discussion of time has two elements, the philosophical and the material. Ideas receive treatment in chapters on the ideas of Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and others of the founders and thinkers of the era. The more tangible material expressions of time are the subject of the interesting and well-illustrated chapters on clock styles and clocks in literature and art. Rather than showing a historical progression, these chapters approach the mystical as the author reads closely such things as the type of clock ìn a painting of home life and where in the work the artist elects to place it. Alien also finds deep significance m the elements of the clock, the hiding or revealing of the works, the presence or absence of a second or minute hand, the inclusion of national symbols, the direction m which Washington or other icon casts his eyes. This is material time.

Deep time, the geological measurement of the earth's age, became widespread at the time, creating all sorts of differences beyond its upsetting unseating of the traditional Biblical time frame. Deep time records the rising and falling of mountains, the age of rocks, and it measures on a scale far greater than the decades, centuries, even millennia that Americans and Europeans of the time took as the ultimate measure. …

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