ABSTRACT

As Paul De Man realised, America has always presented a great challenge to its inhabitants. Likewise, it is a great challenge to write an ‘American literary history’. Its three terms will not let themselves be taken for granted. Take the first term. The landmass did not receive that European name ‘America’ until the beginning of the sixteenth century. The nation created in 1776 out of thirteen states occupied a fraction of the territory that it would occupy in 1912, when New Mexico and Arizona became the forty-seventh and fortyeighth states. By that time the interchangeability of the terms ‘United States’ and ‘America,’ easily assumed by US nationals, had long been the despair of those Continentals living outside US borders. In the middle of the twentieth century questions of terrestrial definition became even more complex. In 1952 Puerto Rico became a self-governing commonwealth associated with the United States although, as the Puerto Ricans in Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story (1957) remarked, nobody seemed to know it. In 1959 Alaska became the first non-contiguous state to join the Union (it abuts Canada). Although it has the smallest population of any state, it occupies the largest space, more than twice the size of Texas although, again, Texans seem unaware of it. Also in 1959, Hawaii, a group of islands over two thousand miles west of San Francisco, complicated matters further by becoming the fiftieth state.