Inter-American Literary History

Six Critical Periods

by Earl E. Fitz (Author)
Monographs 436 Pages
Series: Interamericana, Volume 11


Inter-American literary study is an exciting and fast-growing area of comparative scholarship. The Americas are tied together by a common historical heritage and by a history of social, political, economic, and cultural interaction.
As a contribution to this field, this book brings together the literatures and literary histories of English and French Canada, the United States, Spanish America, the Caribbean, and Brazil. The periods focused on include the Colonial Period, the Nineteenth Century, Modernism and Modernity, the 1960s, and the Contemporary Moment. The author contrasts the different European heritages that were brought to the New World. In addition, the literature and culture of Native America is referred to in each of these sections that will be of use to the reader interested in this important topic, which we can rightly think of as the common denominator of all American literature.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgments
  • Dedications
  • Table of Contents
  • I. Introduction
  • II. The European Background
  • III. Colonial Literature in the Americas
  • IV. The Nineteenth Century
  • I. 1800–1850
  • Romanticism
  • Slavery
  • The Native American
  • Nature
  • II. 1850–1900
  • The Advent of American Realism
  • American Naturalism
  • V. Our Multiple American Modernisms
  • VI. The 1960s
  • VII. The Contemporary Era
  • VIII. Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Series Index

← X | 1 →

I.   Introduction

The purpose of this book is to examine five crucial periods in the development of inter-American literature: Our respective Colonial Eras; the Nineteenth Century; Modernism and Modernity; the 1960s; and the Contemporary Period. An additional, and preliminary, chapter deals with the key social, political, and historical differences that existed between the four European nations most involved in the conquest of the Americas (Spain, Portugal, France, and England) between 1492 and 1607 and how these differences would affect the manner in which the New World colonies of these same nations would take root and develop. My contention here is that we cannot understand what happens in colonial America (understood in its full hemispheric sense) until we first understand what is happening in Spain, Portugal, and France in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century as well as what is happening in early seventeenth century England, which, by this time, is acting largely in response to what its European competitors are doing. Indeed, the English approach to New World colonization was, in the beginning, “heavily influenced” by the Spanish model, which, in Europe, was everywhere regarded as very successful (Acemoglu and Robinson 20; see also 21; 22; 25). The Spanish experience in the New World, involving multiple encounters with indigenous civilizations of great sophistication and power, the exploration of vast (and vastly different) geographical areas, and the acquisition of astonishing quantities of gold and silver, was the prototype. Less productive of mineral wealth, the Portuguese model was not so closely scrutinized. Nor was the similarly impecunious French example. In all cases, however, the forces and conflicts that mark our respective colonial periods, and including our fraught relations with Native America, continue to influence all that comes afterwards.

Here in the Americas, our literary and cultural development never escapes its historical moorings, and, whether in Spanish America, Brazil, Canada, the Caribbean, or the United States, we have all been acutely conscious of having to invent ourselves as we went. This awareness has been central to our larger American experience. And, as I will show, our many and diverse stories of American self-invention have consistently involved our relationships with each other. To be “American” (here meaning a citizen of the United States) has always meant not being Canadian or Latin American, while, for the Brazilians, the latter designation has always meant not being Spanish American. And vice versa. Yet from the beginning all our American cultures were aware of each other. And they also understood that dealings with each other, literarily and ← 1 | 2 → otherwise, would be central to everyone’s process of self-invention. The kind of cultural and intellectual métissage that Stephen Greenblatt advocates in his call for a new kind of multi-national literary history thus epitomizes the evolution of inter-American literary history.

As a result, the focus here will not be on the literature of any single American nation but on “literary creativity” in the New World and on the “intersections” of its “multiple identities” (Greenblatt 59; 60; 61). While not minimizing the importance of specializing in individual American literatures, such as those of the United States, Mexico, Canada, or Brazil, I propose, with this hemispherically integrated literary history, to argue for a new and expanded understanding of “American” literature, one that shows what we, in the Americas, have in common but that scrupulously avoids homogenizing our very different national literatures. In making this argument, I most emphatically do not argue that this is the only way to study American literature; specialists in our various American literatures are always going to be needed. I mean only to suggest that, in addition to the close study of one or more of our various American literatures (and including all of our indigenous literatures and cultures), we also need to learn to think in a more inclusive, hemispherically comprehensive, and comparative manner about the nature and expression of American, or New World, literature. Though here in the New World we are all “Americans,” even as we are Cherokee, Canadians, Haitians, Guatemalans, Mexicans, Colombians, and Brazilians, we demonstrate our “Americanism” in very distinctive ways. The more one studies the literatures of the Americas, the more this point is driven home.

And when our several American literatures are read in the context of their inter-connected histories, with issues of influence and reception looming large here, another key point becomes obvious as well: We in the Americas have long been connected by a great diversity of issues, both literary and non-literary in nature. From the very beginning, in fact, we Americans have been tied together in ways we have hitherto not fully comprehended. A shared, but far from identical, historical experience binds us together, sometimes rancorously, sometimes not. While my study focuses primarily on our sundry literary connections, my sense of American literature, which I seek to demonstrate in the pages that follow, is that it cannot be separated from its historical context. Now, I believe, is the time to come to a better understanding of this long standing interconnectedness.

The current study thus seeks to situate American literary study in the context of these many historical, intellectual, and artistic ties that, not always amicably, connect us. As I will show, each of our quite distinctive American literatures deals with these ties (religion, for example, or race relations) in divergent ways. ← 2 | 3 → But before we were Americans, of our different stripes, we were all Europeans, and we were defined by our sundry European identities. This explains why the Spanish of 1492 and the Portuguese of 1500 understood the idea of “America” so differently. And it also explains why, one hundred and seven years later, the English Puritans would understand the notion of “America” in ways still different from either the Spanish Americans or the Luso-Brazilians, whose old colony (Brazil) was, already in 1607, well on its way to gaining a unique sense of national identity. I will also show that while the construction of national identity is a common bond for us here in the Americas, the ways we have gone about achieving it vary greatly. And before we can properly understand the true nature of colonial American literature (and all the literature that follows), we need to understand the nature of the social, political, and economic systems that the Spanish, the Portuguese, the French, and the English brought to the New World.

Without recognizing the existence of these historical similarities and their points of both cultural juncture and rupture, the reader interested in the inter-American project is faced with a welter of authors and titles that she is likely to have trouble making sense of. This is a problem we, as inter-Americanists, must overcome. But to do so, one must have some idea of where to begin. And it is here that my book seeks to make its contribution to our field. By learning the names of at least some of these other American authors and texts, we will know, with respect to any given topic, where to commence with our further readings in the literatures of our American neighbors. A student or scholar interested in the literature of the United States and the nineteenth century, for example, will thus find here references to texts from English and French Canada, the Caribbean, Spanish America, and Brazil that constitute valuable additional reading. The same can be said of our several American colonial experiences. While many issues will be broached in this literary history, none will be pursued extensively. To do so would require a tome of many thousands of pages. It is my hope that by discussing even briefly those New World writers from Canada, the United States, Spanish America, the Caribbean, and Brazil who are germane to a given topic, the current book will help readers interested in inter-American literary study to find here topics in which they are interested and which, by studying the authors and texts mentioned, they will become better able to pursue their own inter-American research agendas.

Miscegenation is, arguably, the prototypical example of a theme common to all our American cultures, though there are many others that could be so considered, including relations with Native Americans, immigration, the development of our respective American identities, attitudes about Nature, religion, and the ← 3 | 4 → State, the status of women as readers, writers, and citizens, genre development, literary periods, issues of influence and reception, and translation. It is important for the inter-Americanist to know, for example, how the Puritan valorization of literary activity differed so profoundly from that of the earlier Spanish and Portuguese, whose writers were inspired by the richly textured and both religious and surprisingly secular Iberian Baroque. It is also important to understand the inherently comparative and interrelated nature of the American nineteenth century, the inhibiting and distorting role played by prejudice in inter-American cultural exchanges (a problem that continues to the present time), the American response to the challenge of modernity, the interplay of politics and narrative theory in the emergence of the American “new novel” during the 1960s, and the importance of translation to the study of inter-American literature today. Working from this basic premise (that here in the Americas we must replace ignorance about each other with knowledge), my goal here is to trace the lines of historical, cultural, and intellectual activity that define and tie together inter-American literature through time and most especially so during these decisive periods of development.

Additionally, I also wish to argue for the special utility of Comparative Literature as the literary discipline most able to produce inter-American scholarship of the breadth and detail that we need. Although other approaches, such as that proposed by many advocates of American Studies and of a newly expanded International American Studies, have their arguments and their insightful practitioners (see Messmer and Frank, for example),1 it is my firm belief that Comparative Literature is the discipline that best trains our young scholars in ways that prepare them to discuss our several American literary traditions in serious, professional ways (see McClennen and Fitz, ix–xviii). This is a topic I will return to inasmuch as it relates directly not only to how inter-American literary study has so far evolved as a new field but to how it is developing at the present time and how it will develop in the future.

Still other ways of engaging the inter-American project, notably those encouraged by new, more progressive programs in Latin American Studies, are also producing outstanding inter-American work (see Fitz, “The Importance of Latin American Studies to the Inter-American Project,” 2013). These new Latin American Studies programs, such as the one I am proud to be a part of here at ← 4 | 5 → Vanderbilt University,2 are comparative and integrative in their methodologies, they are multi-lingual, multi-cultural, and multi-disciplinary in nature, and they are pioneering new social, political, and economic connections between our many and varied American nations. Requiring, as we do here at Vanderbilt University, expertise in both Portuguese and Spanish as well as English, and encouraging study involving French and French-speaking America along with training in one or more of our indigenous American languages, these innovative and forward-looking programs capitalize on the fast growing importance of Latin America to our hemispheric and global world. Forward-looking departments of Spanish and Portuguese are also well positioned to capitalize on the inter-American project, as are departments of French.

A third, and final, goal is to make the case for the critical importance of both Brazil, and its Portuguese heritage, and Canada, with its dual French and English heritage, to the inter-American project. The case of Brazil and its singularly rich and diverse national literature is unique, however, and merits special attention. To study inter-American literature without considering Brazil is tantamount to studying European literature without considering France. It is clear that, as the study of inter-American literature and culture has grown and evolved, Brazil and Canada have not been properly represented (see Fitz, “Then and Now”). Their critical importance to the inter-American project has so far been given short shrift, and this must change. In the pages that follow, I attempt to correct this conceptual and methodological error by showing all that Canada and Brazil bring to the inter-American table and how their literatures contribute to our more complete appreciation of the inter-American paradigm.

My hope is that by better understanding how our various American cultures came to be, vis-à-vis their differing European heritages and how, first as European colonies and then as sovereign New World nation states, they have come to relate to one another, the reader will be better able to pursue her own inter-American projects. As such, the study offered here engages the rapidly growing effort, carried forward largely by historians and literary scholars, to examine the Americas in an integrated, comparative, and fully hemispheric fashion and one that also takes into account the various European nations whose cultures were so critical to American colonial development (see, for example, Bolton, Bouchard, Rabassa, Lamonde, Morency, Messmer, Buchenau, Paatz, Lohse, Mueller-Vollmer, Pisarz-Ramirez, ← 5 | 6 → Heide, Toonder, van Dam, Stok, Cohn, Freyre, Pagden, Maxwell, Seed, Fitz, Barrenechea, Zamora and Spitta, Dash, Porter, Levander and Levine, Gruez, Brickhouse, Sadowski-Smith and Fox, Siermerling and Casteel, Chanady, Handley, and Imbert, Hazelton, Braz, Bahia, Newcomb, Hoyos, and Damrosch). This list of students and scholars, both young and old, who have an interest in the inter-American project grows every year. And while we all come to it from our particular disciplinary perspectives, we must not allow this new, interdisciplinary, and inherently comparative field to be dominated by any single nation or by a single national literature or culture.

The deeply democratic comparative method, which belongs to everyone, admits all languages and literatures as equals. Nevertheless, still unresolved questions of cultural hegemony and cultural ignorance continue to plague the study of inter-American letters, as do the too often skewed issues of influence and reception that result from them. I will seek, in this study, to show how these problems can be dealt with and overcome. If some American literary cultures have a history of being disdainful toward others, or if some are automatically regarded as marginal, minor, or insignificant, how, as Antonio Gramsci puts the question (in a more theoretical context), can their writers and texts ever gain a fair and unbiased reading in any culture that regards itself as central, essential, or hegemonic? To what extent, if any, does Gramsci’s concern with subaltern texts come into play when we seek to study hemispheric American literature? Does the study of inter-American literature, in fact, epitomize all that is good and useful in subaltern studies? Finally, do inter-Americanists need to form a new, less biased, and, above all, more knowledgeable “interpretive community,” to invoke a term made famous by Stanley Fish? If we do (as seems to be the case), how can we create that? How can we overcome the disciplinary, linguistic, and departmental walls that isolate and frustrate us in our efforts to work together in a common cause? As inter-American literary study progresses, these, and other, thorny questions must be confronted and resolved.

We need a comprehensive, integrated, and comparative history of New World, or inter-American, literature because such a study does not currently exist. Thus, the proper development of the field requires it. While we know the Americas are connected by a common and often interlocking history and that social, political, and economic relations between the nations of the Americas are increasing at an exponential rate, what we, as literary scholars in our various departments and programs, tend not to know is how our many national literatures relate to each other. Who are the influential, or “canonical,” authors and texts from English and French-Canada? Or from the United States, Spanish America, the Caribbean and ← 6 | 7 → Brazil? How do they compare and contrast to each other? Who are the new and emerging authors, and who especially are the scholars and writers, like Canada’s Amaryll Chanady, Guadeloupe’s Maryse Condé, Colombia’s Manuel Olivella Zapata, Chile’s Alberto Fuguet and Brazil’s Regina Rheda, who see their nations and the Americas generally as common ground and as contributing parts of a new global culture? What are the patterns of influence and reception that exist and how have these evolved over the centuries? What cultural biases and prejudices are involved, and how can these be resolved? What are the themes and forms that connect our American writers and what are the differences, historical and aesthetic, that distinguish them from each others while also allowing them to evolve as distinct and unique American literary cultures? What were our respective colonial periods like, and how do they differ? Why do they differ? What do they have in common? How do international literary movements, like Romanticism, Realism, Naturalism, and Modernism compare and contrast in the Americas? Clearly, the comparative method is critical to the inter-American project. As Canadian inter-Americanist, Patrick Imbert, writes, “De quelle manière,” in the second decade of the twenty-first century, when the Americas are drawing closer and closer together, “le développement de nouveaux réseaux inter-américains transforme-t-il les cultures des Amériques latines, du Canada et des États-Unis, et quel est l’état présent de leurs efforts pour protéger leurs valeurs culturelles et leur patrimoine historique?” (Les mondes des Amériques 5). These are the questions I hope to answer in this book.

As I have posited, the comparative approach is the most productive methodology for the study of inter-American literature, or for inter-American Studies generally. As it is informed by the discipline of Comparative Literature (with its insistence on the extended study, at the graduate level, of three or four different languages and their literatures), the comparative method allows us to see ourselves not in isolation but as a part of larger and more inclusive literary systems. Without the comparative method, we are all stuck on our respective American islands and unable, except for translated materials, to communicate with each other. Equally important, the discipline of Comparative Literature requires that its practitioners undergo extensive, multi-year training in the languages and literatures with which they are primarily concerned. This question of linguistic and literary fluency is of crucial importance to the inter-American project and, via the proper training of our graduate students, to its future as well. A crash course in intensive Spanish, Portuguese, French, or English, or in one or more of our ← 7 | 8 → many Native American languages, will not suffice. Much more is required. We need more language study, not less.3

Yet as critical as it is, language knowledge is not the only salient issue. We also need to know the literatures of Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English America as well. And this takes both time and effort. To know a few words of Spanish, Portuguese, or French is not the same as knowing, in depth, the American literatures that are written in these languages. This issue is, consequently, also one of disciplinary training, that is, the kind of training each of our literary disciplines requires of its doctoral students. The inter-Americanist trained in the discipline of Comparative Literature will have taken several years worth of graduate level seminars where all work is done in Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English, or some combination of these plus any indigenous language and culture that are pertinent to the student’s designated area of expertise. The Comparative Literature doctoral student is thus required not only to know three or four languages well enough to read, write, and speak them but to know their literatures as well. In terms of inter-American literary study, this kind of professional training means that each New World national literature (and not forgetting our many indigenous languages and literatures) is to be studied as a separate entity, but also as a player in the evolution of hemispheric American literature, and as part of global literature.

This is how professionally trained comparatists avoid being mere dilettantes, but it also explains why comparatists, trained in certain, selected languages well enough to teach them, are often hired by national literature departments, such as Spanish and Portuguese, French, and even English. Comparatists offer a national literature faculty a breadth that it might not otherwise be able to attain, though it must also be stressed that Comparative Literature itself cannot thrive without being surrounded by strong national literature departments, with which it must work closely and harmoniously. This relationship can – and should – be mutually beneficial. Comparatists are required to know their chosen national literatures as well as the more narrow specialists in those same fields know it, but they also bring a breadth of learning that helps connect the specific language department to larger and more global literary systems. In stressing the importance of this unique kind of professional training for would-be inter-Americanists, Zamora and Spitta argue, correctly, that this is the only way they can counteract ← 8 | 9 → the “dominance of Anglophone America” and “avoid paying lip service to a more inclusive vision of the Americas while reinscribing U.S. hegemony” (193). Though mitigated by the proper utilization of the comparative method (which, in theory, does not privilege any of the subjects it examines), this concern has been has been, and continues to be, an issue for Canadianists, Caribbeanists, and Latin Americanists. It must be recognized and dealt with honestly by all those interested in inter-American study. The serious student of our interconnected and hemispheric America “must,”Chevigny and Laguardia contend, “be a comparatist,” and, I would add, a properly trained one, that is, one who has true fluency in at least three, if not more, of our American languages and literatures (41).

“Comparative Literature,” as Canadian scholar, Ronald Sutherland, argues, “not only improves our understanding of other literatures but also of our own, perhaps especially of our own. For it is an approach which provides perspective, standards of judgement and tested norms” (4). The point Sutherland makes is crucial to the inter-American project, and it is the underlying motivation for this book. How can we ever understand the literatures of our New World neighbors if we do not know what books to read, what issues to consider, and how other American cultures have dealt with them? Some New World cultures have been cultivating this comparative and hemispheric perspective longer than others. Specialists in the literature and culture of Spanish America, for example, have long utilized the comparative method as an effective way of bringing their authors and texts to the attention of the rest of the world. As I will show, Brazilians and Brazilianists have also been long invested in this same methodology. Indeed, they have, in a formal sense, been advocating it longer than anyone else in the Americas. As Brazilian writer and critic, Silviano Santiago, avers, “There is no doubt that the finest vantage point for studying Latin American national literatures is to be found in Comparative Literature” (59).4 There is good reason for this position, which is itself sustained by long standing critical practice in both Spanish America and Brazil. Canadian scholars, too, have historically understood the value of the comparative method to the growth and development of Canadian literature, and many are now using it to make their own entry into the inter-American field (see, for example, Blodgett and Kröller; also Hazelton; ← 9 | 10 → Morency; Chanady, Handley, and Imbert; and Siermerling and Casteel). Speaking for the Brazilian case, and underscoring the vital importance of Brazil to both the inter-American project and to the discipline of Comparative Literature, David Jackson and Yvette Miller have this to say:

Brazilian writing is unique in the Americas for its background in Portuguese, African, and Asian contacts and the individual and experimental translation of these traditions into works marked by imagination and vitality. African, Asian, and Brazilian Indian cultures, as part of the complex geographic and ethnic composition of Brazilian civilization, have proved central to the flavor of what could be called an intriguing case of literary hybridization …. Expressive of a ‘fortunate tradition’ as the point of convergence of Portuguese, African, and Americanlanguage and literary traditions, Brazilian literature should be recognized for its original, vital, and creative position as a contributor to the international context of comparative literature” (“International Context,” 7–8).

Biographical notes

Earl E. Fitz (Author)

Earl E. Fitz is Professor of Portuguese, Spanish, and Comparative Literature at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, USA.


Title: Inter-American Literary History