European Review

Research Article

What American Century?

Robert Darnton*

As the year 2000 approaches there is a seemingly irresistible tendency to attach a label to the century that is ending. We here everywhere of “The American Century”, as if a stretch of time could belong to a country. Behind that expression, one can detect a set of attitudes, some of them holdovers from the nationalist sentiments that first surfaced in the nineteenth century, others expressions of anti-Americanism: if you don't like something about contemporary culture, blame it on the Yanks. In fact, most of the phenomena currently associated with America are global in nature, and the notion of an American Century makes little sense, except at the level of collective mentalities. Still, if one must associate a century with America, the best candidate would be the eighteenth. During the age of Enlightenment and Revolution, America epitomized everything enlightened and revolutionary. And Americans in Paris could bask in the glory of being identified not with McDonald's nor with Hollywood but rather with republican virtue and the rights of man. The real American century came to an end two hundred years ago.

Robert Darnton is Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of European History at Princeton University. He is also President of the American Historical Association, a Foreign Member of the Academia Europaea and an Editor of this European Review.


* Department of History, Princeton University, 129 Dickinson Hall, Princeton NJ 08544–1017, USA. E-mail: