This essay has been a little abbreviated. Otherwise it stands as a reflection poised, perhaps a bit unsatisfactorily between whimsicality and seriousness, upon the frequent recourse in American historical writing to the "watershed" metaphor. Apart from the universal human reliance upon handy figures of speech often verging on cliché, I do still think there has been an American national tendency to dramatize the finality of particular episodes.
In all countries we impose divisions upon the historical continuum, as a matter of practical necessity. The bulk of material and the demands of specialized scholarship compel us to define and delimit our own "fields" or "periods." We turn naturally enough to some particular area -- say the fourteenth century, or the eighteenth -- and in these instances do not need to ask ourselves whether the arbitrary division into centuries has more than a provisional validity. Reigns and presidencies, wars and revolutions usually prescribe our boundaries. If they match other, chronological divisions, so much the neater. How convenient that Queen Victoria should have died at almost the exact end of the nineteenth century: though it might have suited the students of Victorianism even better if her death could have coincided with the outbreak of World War I.
Underlying the practice of chopping the continuum into manageable chunks is a notion that certain dates or episodes are more crucial than others. We assume that this element of decisiveness is not simply a useful fiction, though our terminology to describe such historical moments is inexact. We speak, for example, of "turning points," as though history could be conceived of almost as a force, possessing direction and capable of being deflected from its previous