After Destiny: Conquest Narratives and the Closed Frontier

Goldblatt, Laura, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Lott, Eric, English, CUNY, Graduate Center

After Destiny: Conquest Narratives and the Closed Frontier examines literary and televisual texts of the long 20th century that in their obsessive return to foundational scenes of European arrival in the New World give expression to the American Dream only as failure. From surprisingly melancholy replicas of Columbus’s letters sold as souvenirs at the 1893 World’s Fair to Jay Gatsby’s disappointing discovery of a “brave new world” in the moments before his death, After Destiny provides new insight into U.S. global dominance in the 20th century as a formation undergirded by loss. Examining a media-diverse archive that stretches from the end of the 19th century through the war in Vietnam and includes television programs, popular print culture, and state-funded reprints of high modernist texts, the project tracks the modern tendency to respond to the apparent achievement of Manifest Destiny with a compulsive pathos that locates its origins in the early modern conquest of the Americas. In its focus upon nostalgic conquest narratives rife with the language of loss, the project contends that anxieties about the sustainability of imperial expansion obtain throughout the century in the precise moments when the nation most asserts itself as a world power. After Destiny places cultural events and archives that return to scenes of European settler-colonialism such as Frederick Jackson Turner’s delivery of his frontier thesis at the Columbian Quadricentennial, Cold War reprints of In the American Grain, and televised representations of interplanetary travel during the 1960s in conversation with social tensions brought on by immigration, war, and the changing status of indigenous lands and peoples. In doing so, the project argues that these romantic returns to American occupation bite back. Rather than offering a resolution to fluctuations in the body politic, these prelapsarian retreats to the settler-colonial past give way to a version of U.S. state power forever dogged by the violences and valences that occurred at foundational moments of first contact.

By focusing upon the nagging presence of disappointment and loss in texts and ephemera now seen as canonical demonstrations of U.S. might, After Destiny’s contrapuntal gaze builds on the aesthetic aspects of failure discussed by José Esteban Muñoz and J. Halberstam; economic accounts of fiscal panics by Scott Sandage; and Gavin Jones’ pairing of failure with cultural critique. By turning to previously forgotten or eclipsed works and narratives that find fame in new contexts, the project investigates why certain art objects persist across time and audience, and contributes to postcolonial and black studies’ disruptions of linear understandings of temporal experience. After Destiny shows that the ennui accompanying compulsive rehashings of settler-colonialist narratives and artifacts obfuscates and justifies the construction of a U.S. empire. By focusing upon iconic, often tragic figures such as the American underdog or the self-made man whose fate is tethered to conquest as a national origin point, these melancholy tales naturalize pathos such that the production of an imperial nation comes to seem continuous with principles of U.S. democracy and nationhood. Failure in these instances proves multi-faceted: it registers persistent doubts about the foundations and future of the American experiment even as it provides a rallying call to recuperate that very experiment itself. Simultaneously utopian and fatalistic, sublime and banal, failure suggests itself both as the source and resolution to crisis in the works that comprise my archive.

In each chapter, After Destiny shows that the multivalent and widespread appeal of narratives of settler-colonialism in the 20th century is articulated through their flaws. Chapter one, “The Republication of Letters: Consumer Nationalism in 1893,” examines the first use of facsimile-reprinting technology for a mass audience in souvenir copies of conquest narratives produced for the 1893 World’s Fair. As “exact” reproductions of materials owned by figures like J. Pierpont Morgan, the pamphlets maintain an aura that belies their mechanically reproduced nature. This first case study contends that the facsimiles and Turner’s frontier thesis promote a version of U.S. nationalism grounded in the physical land of the United States that individuals could participate in by purchasing commodities. Yet the artifacts’ mournful register as well as the participatory nature of consumer culture produces a double-edged democratic ethos. The documents task an increasingly diverse and distanced population with resolving the lapses of iconic explorers, positing collectivity as a solution to atomized failure. This stake in failure as an opportunity for cooperation, though, risks non-canonical reinterpretations and uses. Failure thereby becomes both the justification for revisiting these foundational scenes and the greatest challenge to their continued consequence.

Continuing the theme of reprinting and failure, the following three chapters ask why, at the precise moment when the United States had solidified its status as the world’s last democratic superpower, did readers curl up with origin stories of defeat, displacement, and loss? The chapters draw upon the growing body of work investigating the covert CIA promotion of artistic culture during the Cold War to take up the state-sponsored republication of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, and the essays collected in In The American Grain by William Carlos Williams. Chapter 2, “‘Can’t Repeat the Past?’: Gatsby and the American Dream at Mid-Century” uses Ernst Bloch’s theory of hope as a formation that depends upon crisis to analyze The Great Gatsby’s republication alongside the historical emergence of the term “American Dream” during the Great Depression. Within this context, the ideological concept of the American Dream responded to a sense of collective national failure that could be traced back to the conquest of the Americas. Arguing that Cold War audiences frequently conflated this postlapsarian interpretation of the American Dream with the text itself, the chapter demonstrates that a version of the American Dream that embeds a sense of doubt catalyzed the novel’s fame. As in the first chapter, that Gatsby’s fatal end hastens the novel towards its recursive climax casts loss as egress, recuperation, and curse. Chapters 3 and 4 turn more definitively to issues of subterfuge by considering the covert CIA support of In the American Grain and Absalom, Absalom! during the Cold War. The chapters adopt the idea of literary ambassadorship to argue that the works’ framing in the second half of the 20th century creates a homology between cultural and economic imperialism that provided a literary corollary to CIA initiatives abroad. Yet the failures that haunt the texts disrupt these institutional aims even as the works’ pathos solidified their place in the canon. If the texts’ remediation successfully blurred the programmatic aspects of the CIA’s aims, it also amplified their melancholic tenor to such a degree that they became unreliable American ambassadors.

The final chapter provides a punctuation mark, at least temporarily, on the question of failure and imperialist nationalism. “We Come in Peace” pairs the footage and documentation of the Apollo 11 mission with the original Star Trek series (1966-1969) to suggest that the programs cast space flight, commonly read as triumphant, in bathetic terms. Despite claims that space exploration represents the ascendancy of American verve and intrepid machismo, the broadcasts sardonically duplicate the gestures of conquest established by Spanish conquistadors in the 15th and 16th centuries. In both cases, travel to the final frontier only yields what has already been discovered. Though pathos here presents American settler-colonialism and its future extensions as inevitably compulsive and sometimes buffoonish, the haunting presence of insuperable losses augments the programs’ emotional salience even if it interrupts state ambitions.

Beginning with the re-animation of the figure of the conqueror for nationalist purposes in 1893, After Destiny ends with the collapse of the possibilities for this figure in 1969. In its conclusion, the project proposes a more intertwined view of success and failure, allegiance and disallegiance, in the rise and fall of the so-called American century.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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