Edited By Marietta Messmer and Armin Paul Frank
Inter-American Literary Studies in the Early Twenty-First Century: The View from the United States
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In the United States, the study of Inter-American literature has changed dramatically during the past ten to fifteen years. Before the 1990s, this field was practised only by a handful of scholars, mostly comparatists and Latin Americanists, and working mostly in isolation. Inter-American literary study did not yet exist as a widely recognized or officially sanctioned academic field. Indeed, it was looked at askance by many who felt that the vastness and diversity of the project made it impossible to do, or to do well.1 For its advocates and practitioners, however, the Inter-American paradigm made perfect sense and was, in fact, the natural and predictable result of several historical factors, including the disgraceful treatment of Native Americans, slavery, and the drive for independence, already at work in the Americas and inter-connecting them. And, thanks to the very democratic and non-hierarchical methodology provided by Comparative Literature, it was, and is, entirely “doable” (see Fitz, 1991). Although there are still some pockets of resistance, by 2014 it is clear that those holding this latter, more forward-looking position, have carried the day. Though it is sometimes known now by other, sometimes differentiating names (“transnational studies,” “hemispheric studies,” “International American Studies,” or the “Literatures of the Americas”), Inter-American study has firmly established itself as an accepted field of research and study in the American academy. It is now part of our twenty first century hemispheric consciousness.
During the last two decades especially, the Inter-American project has grown to include students and scholars working in a number of different fields, from literature to law, from environmental studies, music, and the plastic arts, and from bio-medical studies to engineering, sociology, economics, political science, ← 103 | 104 → and history.2 With respect to questions of literature and culture, the result of this steady growth is that now, in the midst of the second decade of the twenty-first century, we can see that the field of Inter-American literary study is dominated by scholars in three academic units: departments and programs of Comparative Literature, comparative Latin American Studies (a term I use judiciously to apply to those who are fluent in both Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese and who have studied the literatures and cultures of both Spanish America and Brazil)3, and American Studies. Four other groups, Native Americanists, Canadianists, Caribbeanists, and those scholars who, housed in departments of English, view the ken of “American” literature as being naturally transnational in nature,4 are also integrally involved in the Inter-American project. The approaches, outlooks, assumptions, and methodologies of these groups are quite different, however, as have been the results of the studies they have so far produced. These differences in professional expectations and outcomes, along with a few comments on what this may mean for the future development of our common field, are the topics I will be discussing in the remainder of my essay.
As we can see from the scholarship thus far produced, each approach brings with it certain advantages and disadvantages. To appreciate both the richness and the complexity of Inter-American literary study, and its potential for future development, it is perhaps worthwhile to examine what each approach brings to the field. ← 104 | 105 →
1. Comparative Literature
The great strength that the Comparative Literature approach brings to the study of Inter-American literature is its disciplinary insistence that the doctoral student prepare herself or himself in at least three of the languages and literatures germane to the field (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and any Native American language the student wishes to present). For the professionally trained comparatist, this means extensive graduate seminar level course work done in at least three of these language with legitimate “reading knowledge” of a fourth or fifth highly recommended. The Comparative Literature doctoral student has thus read, discussed, and written about the literature of English-speaking North America, Spanish America, Brazil, and both Québec and the Francophone Caribbean in its original language and could, if necessary, teach this literature in the original language. This kind of serious linguistic, literary, and cultural expertise makes the person trained in Comparative Literature highly desirable as a potential hire not only for Comparative Literature programs per se but for the several national literature departments that are involved in the Inter-American project.5
The second outstanding strength of the Comparative Literature approach is its solid and objective methodological training, which does not depend on the alleged “exceptionalism” of any particular national literature for its efficacy. Trained in the application of such fully transnational questions as genre and form, theme6 and motif, period and movement, the relationship of literature to other humanistic disciplines (such as art, music, film, and history); patterns of influence and reception, literary history and theory, and translation, the comparatist understands the full range of possible approaches to Inter-American literary study and, thanks to ← 105 | 106 → her extensive training in at least three of our American languages and literatures, is fully prepared to carry these approaches to a successful conclusion, one that does not privilege any specific nation, language, or culture. For the professionally trained comparatist, the question of nation hardly obtains. In practical terms, this means that a scholar thus prepared can speak of such topics as: the development of the novel in the Americas (see Fitz, “The First Inter-American Novels”); the theme of the New World as Utopia; our various American Modernisms; American literature and film; the influence of Gabriel García Márquez in both French and English-speaking Canada, the United States, and Brazil; the concept of “post-coloniality” as this pertains to our several, and differing, New World cultures; and the role translation has played in the evolution of Inter-American literary study (Lowe and Fitz 1–24; 135–162). The range of possibilities under these same rubrics is virtually limitless. Even more so are the possible studies that merge these categories, such as the role played by theater, or theatrical performance, during the European conquests of the Americas, the political ramifications of such movements as Romanticism and Modernism in the New World, border studies,7 or the question of personal identity and one’s relationship to language, culture, and the American nation-state8 in the twenty first century. By virtue of having studied in several graduate seminars conducted in the languages of the American literatures presented for the degree (typically, Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English), the professionally trained comparatist is prepared to focus on certain New World texts and authors, and not others, and how to organize them into a coherent, productive comparative study. Thanks to her training in multiple languages and literatures, the comparatist is able to avoid a narrow focus on a single national literature and, among those three or four literatures selected for specialization, to apply a well honed rationale for knowing which texts to single our for close, comparative readings. Thus, what for other scholars might seem a hopeless welter of unfamiliar ← 106 | 107 → names and titles, is, for the properly trained comparatist, a logically constructed list of known texts that, though written in different American languages, deal with a common American theme, form, period, or some other comparative topic (see Fitz, Inter-American Literature: A Concise History).
Finally, it is worth pointing out that comparatists have long recognized the validity and richness of the Inter-American field. In 1982, for example, the International Comparative Literature Association made Inter-American literary study the primary focus of its Xth Congress (see Balakian). Scholars from both Anglophone and Francophone Canada, the United States and Brazil convened with Native Americanists, Caribbeanists, and Spanish Americanists to hear presentations, to assess the field as it had already developed and to discuss how it might evolve in the future. The value of the comparative methodology was clearly evident as a way of avoiding the hegemony of any single nation or national literature. At present, the Inter-American project is hindered by the fact that we are all essentially products of – one might say prisoners of – our respective disciplines. Too often, we see what we are trained to see. In reference to the Inter-American project, students and scholars of a U.S.-based Americanism simply do not know which authors and texts from our New World neighbors to read or, in some logical form, how to learn about what literary riches they offer. This is where linguistically, literarily, and culturally polyglot comparatists have a clear and significant advantage over scholars trained in the literature of a single language.
The weakness of the Comparative Literature approach to the study of Inter-American literary study is numerical. Relative to the number of departments of, for example, English, or Spanish-Portuguese (that also feature Brazilian literature, history, and culture), the number of Comparative Literature programs and departments is quite small. So while the professional training afforded by Comparative Literature best prepares the student to do Inter-American work, the number of young Inter-Americanists produced by this discipline tends to be rather small. But while their numbers are relatively low, in comparison to the numbers of doctoral students produced by the related national literature programs, professionally trained comparatists are the young scholars best prepared, linguistically, culturally, and literarily, to do the kind of at least three-sided work that needs to be done for the field of Inter-American literature to develop as felicitously as it should.
2. Comparative Latin American Studies
Having much in common, in terms of their professional training, with those who enroll in formal Comparative Literature programs, doctoral students in departments of Spanish and Portuguese, or in progressive Latin American Studies programs ← 107 | 108 → (that is, which stress the importance of both Spanish America and Brazil as well as French-speaking America), are the other group of young scholars who are well prepared to conduct Inter-American research in three or more American languages. As even a cursory survey of the extant bibliography on Inter-American literature clearly shows, comparative Latin Americanists are leading the development of this deeply inter-disciplinary new field. This is a big change from the 1960s when, from his post at Yale, Emir Rodríguez Monegal could rightly bemoan the “blind literary prejudice” shown by critics here in the United States against literature written in Spanish and Portuguese9 even when the “literarily revolutionary” writers of the “Boom” period were, at the very same time, being hailed and feted in Europe (3; 13) as innovative artists who offered exciting new ideas about the nature of language and literature and about the relationship between literature, identity, and social progress. This disinclination to take the cultures of Canada, the Caribbean, Spanish America, and Brazil seriously, coupled with the deliberate concentration of American Studies on American English and on the United States alone, have played major roles in exacerbating the sense of hemispheric isolation that today plagues U.S.-based Americanists who desire to engage the field of hemispheric studies in a comprehensive way. Until very recently, we here in the United States have been a profoundly parochial and provincial culture (see Saldívar, 1990, 63), one not much interested in foreign cultures, in reading foreign literature,10 or in studying foreign languages. Perhaps this explains why the study of Comparative Literature here, in contrast to places like Germany, France, Canada, Mexico, or Brazil,11 has never been a popular or widely encouraged form of intellectual training. Emphasizing the crucial importance of precisely this kind of thorough and extended language and literary training to the Inter-American project, Lois Parkinson Zamora and Silvia Spitta argue, in fact, that, ← 108 | 109 →
Comparative Americas studies require a deep familiarity with several languages and cultures, gained from myriad forms of practice that allows us to think and know otherwise. Linguistic and cultural contacts have always been the basis of our discipline, but there are now scholars and students who work solely in English and yet claim to engage the Americas as a whole, a claim that inevitably absorbs and neutralizes alterity. The onus is on faculty members to assure that students experience American cultures other than their own and that they learn Spanish or French or Portuguese, not to mention the more difficult and urgent claims for Nahuatl or Quechua or Guaraní [sic]. Comparatists, along with our colleagues in U.S.-American Studies who are working to expand the standard U.S. definition of “America,” must travel widely in the hemisphere, work across institutional boundaries, learn languages or add to those they already speak – in short, form relations with others elsewhere. (193)
Because Latin Americanists typically know both English and French, they are, even as they are specializing in either Spanish America or Brazil, or in some comparative framework that engages both, linguistically prepared to take graduate level seminars in both English and French, along with those in Spanish and Portuguese. This is a common feature of Ph.D. students in Latin American or Inter-American literature, and it is of immense value to them.12 Especially now, in the early twenty first century, Ph.D. programs in the United States that integrate, via the comparative method, the language and literatures of both Spanish America and Brazil, along with those of English and French-speaking America, are proliferating at a rate never before seen. This trend can be clearly seen in the recent, and rapid, growth of literary, cultural, and commercial relations between Canada, and most specifically Québec, and both Brazil and Spanish America.
The reason, of course, is the rapid rise of Brazil as a hemispheric and global economic, political, and cultural power. Although the ascendancy and importance of Brazil have passed almost unnoticed here in the United States, they have not been missed in Canada (see Braz; Bahia; and Hazleton) and in Spanish America. Throughout the Americas, Latin Americanists are acutely aware of this new type of Inter-American development (one in which Brazil plays a key role) and, in the second decade of the twenty first century, are scrambling to create doctoral programs wherein both Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese can (along with English and French) be studied in depth and in which advanced literary study in both languages can be pursued. To be sure, the rise of Brazil is also changing the nature of progressive departments of Spanish and Portuguese here in the United States, as well as how these progressive, forward-looking departments will relate ← 109 | 110 → to their sister academic departments and administrative units and to their sister New World cultures. Although not all colleges and universities have caught on to this exciting change, those who have clearly understand that comparatively inclined departments of Spanish and Portuguese are now more important to the Inter-American project than they have ever been.
And who, after all, is better situated, historically, culturally, and literarily, to understand the American experience, defined in its larger, hemispheric sense (that is, the good, the bad, and the ugly of it), than young scholars who know the language, history, and culture of the United States but who concentrate on Spanish America and Brazil? If one is in doubt about this, one has only to ask the Cubans, the Mexicans, the Guatemalans, the Salvadorans, the Panamanians, the Dominicans, the Chileans, the Argentines, and the Brazilians what they think about the history of the United States and its too often painful relationship with Latin America. And right behind them are the Canadianists, who have their own view of the United States and their own, distinctive version of the “American experience” as well. It is no accident that, here in the United States, the impetus for Inter-American study has long been a function of departments of Spanish and Portuguese.
As in the case of departments and programs in Comparative Literature, the weakness of the comparative Latin American studies approach is that, relative to the number of Ph.D.s produced by English and “American” literature departments and by American Studies programs in any given year, the number of doctoral students produced by departments that offer degrees in comparative Latin American Studies is still quite small. The problem, in other words, is not quality but quantity. And when one considers that, historically speaking, the United States has always held itself to be a stubbornly monolingual, Anglophone (and Anglophile) nation that is deeply skeptical of what at least its conservative element has regarded as the supposedly corrupting nature of foreign influences, it is not difficult to see why the influence within the United States of small numbers of comparatively trained Latin Americanists with an Inter-American bent is going to remain relatively marginal. And yet, and in spite of all this, the times are changing, as more and more young people throughout the Americas perceive Spanish America and, increasingly, Brazil and Canada, as becoming major players in the fast-evolving New World and global experience.
3. American Studies
As an academic discipline, American Studies finds itself, in 2014, in a moment of profound and contentious transition. Originally set up in 1951 as an academic unit that would, as an instrument of the Cold War era, encourage U.S. college students ← 110 | 111 → to concentrate on the history, culture, and “exceptionalism” of the United States of America alone, American Studies today has, in an irony of history, become something of a cultural and intellectual straightjacket. Its insularity has rendered it a discipline that, for some scholars, at least, is now struggling to divest itself of its founding principles (which tethered it to the study of a single American nation) and adopt a more hemispheric, or transnational, approach to its new and different place in our evolving Inter-American relationships. And to do so without being, or without seeming to be, appropriative, hegemonic, or imperialistic (see Gillman 196–214; see also Levander and Levine 399–400 and Siermerling and Casteel 9). In the post-World War II world, as our old thinking about the supposedly monolithic and stable nation-state began to change, and as new, non-WASPish voices began to enter the ken of U.S. literature, the United States took an inward turn. Stressed externally by the pressures and demands of an increasingly internationalized and interconnected new world and internally by the emergence of hitherto ignored sectors of American culture (Jews, Blacks, Southerners, and women, for example), writers and critics in the United States responded by concentrating on an “intra-American cultural pluralism and heterogeneity, emphasizing America’s internal cultural and ethnic diversity and difference” (Messmer 50). Yet while this post-war inward turn, and the recognition of writers from new and different backgrounds that characterized it, successfully revised and broadened the canon of U.S. literature, it also contributed to the “silencing of historiographical interest in America’s transnational or global interliterary and intercultural relations” (Messmer 51). Now, in 2014, Americanists who concentrate on the history and culture of the United States are seeking once again to redefine their discipline, this time, however, along more comparative, hemispheric, and transnational lines. This same conceptual upheaval within U.S.-based American Studies has also been closely monitored by colleagues throughout the hemisphere and elsewhere. As Canadian critics Winfried Siemerling and Sarah Phillips Casteel, write, for example:
If such questions trouble United States Americanists, they become of particular concern to scholars located outside the United States, who may note with some alarm that “America” tacitly continues to signify “United States” in a surprising number of avowedly hemispheric academic treatises. Indeed, it often appears to be taken for granted that the United States will remain at the centre of this academic enterprise and that the aim of hemispheric American studies is to rehabilitate United States studies as American studies rather than to decentre it. (10)
When one extends this same concern (that the current move toward hemispheric American Studies is little more than the latest fad and a new imperializing effort by U.S.-based Americanists) to Latin America and the Caribbean, it is easy to understand why the entire project is viewed with suspicion. Except for hard core ← 111 | 112 → traditionalists, who still wish to view the United States as the only true “America” and as the center of the American universe, the very idea of inter-americanité/inter-americanidad/inter-americanidade is, for Americanists here in the United States, both exciting and disconcerting.
This uncertainty as to how to proceed within our changing paradigm of Americanidade (as the Brazilians see it) is quite clear in the American Studies bibliography that we have seen since the late 1980s and, especially, from the 1990s. Even Carolyn Porter’s landmark 1994 essay, “What We Know that We Don’t Know: Remapping American Literary Studies,” suffers from the problem Siemerling and Casteel note above. When, chastising her cohorts in the United States for failing to grasp the full scope of the issue in question, she writes that U.S.-based American Studies have traditionally stemmed from “an idealized cultural nationalism now set in relief by its own failures” (470), she can only be referring to the United States alone. Yet those of us who have long studied the Americas in toto know that many New World nations have struggled, in one form or another, with this problem of an “idealized cultural nationalism.” The Brazilians and Argentines, to cite two well known cases, have long agonized over precisely this same question, though their reasons for doing so, and their responses to it, have been quite different from those at issue in the United States. The Brazilians in particular and the Spanish Americans in general have long cultivated a much more international approach in their efforts to define themselves. Something similar could be said of Québec and its historical development. Or of Canada’s in general. Porter’s statement, then, is not incorrect, but it does imply that in this process of disciplinary transformation the primary American nation state is, and will remain, the United States, even as its scholars are urged to consider “cultural, political, and economic relations between and among the Americas” (510). Thus, while Porter laudably argues for a more open approach to hemispheric American studies, her language seems to keep the United States at the heart of the undertaking, the model against which the “other” Americas will have to be judged.
This same hesitation about how to enter the Inter-American game, prodded by a growing realization that this new and expanded sense of what it means to be an “American” and an “Americanist” in the twenty first century is entirely justified and exacerbated by a realization that this is an old topic for many other New World scholars, continues on into the present time. In a nutshell, the problem for Americanists who specialize in the United States and who have attained their degrees here is that while they now in the main understand the legitimacy of the Inter-American, hemispheric, or transnational project, they are, because of their too limited linguistic, literary, cultural, and historical training, unprepared to write cohesive comparative studies that can get beyond the merely (and, by now, repetitiously) ← 112 | 113 → “theoretical” and actually engage authors, texts, and issues from Canada, Spanish America, Brazil or from the non-English-speaking Caribbean. The complication, then, is not a function of good intentions, which are warmly welcomed; the question has to do with how prepared one is, professionally speaking, to compare and contrast specific texts, literary or critical, from English and French Canada, the French (and Créole)-speaking Caribbean, Spanish America, and Brazil. When Porter wrote her essay, “What We Know That We Don’t Know,” she was, perhaps more than she realized, getting at the heart of the issue. This question about how much U.S.-based Americanists really know about Canadian, Caribbean, Spanish American, and Brazilian literature, is essential and cannot be taken lightly, brushed aside, or discounted. It must be faced. The support that U.S.-based Americanists are now showing the Inter-American project is admirable, if (from the perspective of students and scholars in the rest of the Americas) long overdue. But until they can move from what now, in 2014, seem endless reiterations about why the larger, more hemispheric approach to things American is justified and valuable (we all know this and many in the Americas have known it for a long time; see Levander and Levine) to actually performing close comparative readings of disparate texts from the rest of the Americas, U.S.-based Americanists will struggle to participate in the on-going Inter-American dialogue as seriously as they should – and as seriously as they are needed to be.
Ten years after Porter’s call for a more hemispheric understanding of American Studies, Claudia Sadowski-Smith and Claire Fox published an essay that also illuminates the obstacles that U.S.-based Americanists face in undertaking this disciplinary reformulation. Writing in the journal Comparative American Studies they point out, quite correctly, in my judgement, that:
If Americanists are to internationalize their field without becoming unwitting ambassadors of a US-inspired “world without boundaries” … they need to travel abroad, engage in scholarly dialogue in languages other than English, and interest themselves in scholarship produced outside the United States and outside their own field. Until they do so, we fear that an Americanist-led hemispherism will only promote a vision of the Americas in which all academic disciplinary configurations are subordinate to those of the United States and in which every region outside of the United States is collapsed into a monolithic other. (23)
This is precisely the problem, and it will not be quickly or easily solved.
Although there are highly respected and influential voices within American Studies here in the United States who believe that American Studies is the most propitious academic home, the “optimal site,” for our new hemispheric or transnational view of the Americas (Nelson 390), I respectfully disagree. In my opinion, both Comparative Literature, with its insistence that the Inter-American ← 113 | 114 → doctoral student have an in depth knowledge of the languages and literatures of at least three or four of our American cultures, and the discipline of comparative Latin American Studies, which makes similar demands on its doctoral students, are, now and in the future, in a better position to produce more sophisticated and more thoroughly trained scholars for the Inter-American project. With respect to things “American,” moreover, both these disciplines have had checkered relationships with the discipline of American Studies as it was originally conceived and practised. The tension American Studies has had with Comparative Literature is particularly odd, since its conception of literature has always been decidedly international in nature. While Americanists who specialize in the United States are already making important contributions to our better understanding of Inter-American literature (as the Canadianists, Caribbeanists, and Latin Americanists have long been doing), it is clear from contemplating the nature of the field that many, if not most, of the most fundamental connections that link the Americas “fall with the scope of comparative literature, which has historically been seen – at least within U.S. studies – as a footnote to the more pressing issue of the national imagination. To the extent that these two frames differ … both are essential components of a cultural history of the Americas” (Gruesz 4). Although I agree with this assessment, I do not see the still overwhelmingly monolingual (or, at best, bi-lingual in Spanish and English) discipline of American Studies, as it is practised here in the United States, at least, as ever demanding the same high level of linguistic fluency or the same extent of graduate seminar level literary study done in the several languages involved that is demanded of students in Comparative Literature and comparative Latin American Studies. And a very similar argument can be made for the strength of the Canadian Studies perspective on the study of American literature in a hemispheric context (see Chanady, 1999; Lamonde and Bouchard; Hazelton; and Imbert). I fear the discipline of American Studies is, in the main, still too closely tied to the United States of America, to that nation’s “national imagination,” and to the privileging of U.S. English, culture, and history. It is largely because of this that I am also dubious as to whether even well intended efforts to internationalize it will result in more extensive and serious attempts to make it truly multi-lingual to the degree necessary to study the literatures of the Americas and in a professionally well prepared sense (see, also, Messmer 53). Perhaps I am wrong. Time will tell. For the present, however, we know that requirements in “Reading Proficiency,” even if they are taken seriously (which is rare enough), are no substitute for taking four or five graduate level seminars conducted in French, Spanish, or Portuguese on the literatures of Québec and the Francophone Caribbean, Spanish America, and Brazil. ← 114 | 115 →
There will always be differences between these types of professional preparation and competency. At the same time, we must all recognize that these crucial differences in professional training are not going to stop individuals from engaging, however they can, in the Inter-American project. Academics will do what they wish to do, and scholars who are not fluent in any language but English will have important and useful things to say. And we will learn much from them. But differences between those who must work only in translation and those who work in a text’s original language, or between those who know a particular American literary tradition by having studied it in a number of graduate seminars and in its original language and those who read only a text or two from it, are real and they must be recognized. This means that while the future of Inter-American Studies does not depend in any way on the participation of scholars from the United States, its future as an inter-disciplinary field will be affected, positively or adversely, by how upcoming generations of U.S.-based (Inter-)Americanists respond to the preparatory challenge that confronts them. To paraphrase (textually and thematically) what Orwell tells us in Animal Farm (1945), while all Inter-American pigs are equal, some will find it all too easy to regard themselves as being more equal than others.
4. Native American Studies
In very real ways, Native American Studies form the foundation of the entire Inter-American project (Fitz, “Native American” 124). These “First Peoples” inhabited the lands later to be called “America” for thousands of years before the first Europeans arrived, and they had developed a great diversity of cultures rich in myth, music, dance, storytelling, and poetry. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of different languages were spoken by at least twenty million people and vastly different kinds of civilizations were erected. Some of these, such as those of the mound builders in central North America, the Aztecs in Mexico, the Mayas in the Yucatan and Guatemala, and the Incas in Peru and Ecuador, could boast of having developed brilliant cultures and, in the cases of the Aztecs, the Maya, and the Incas, of having erected fabulous cities as well. Other tribes, like the Iroquois, had developed social and political systems so sophisticated that they would influence such thinkers as Karl Marx and Benjamin Franklin. Although what we ordinarily think of as “literature” was, for these First Peoples, oral in nature, and although there is much we do not know about it, we are surely safe in assuming that it was robust, imaginative, and widely dispersed throughout the New World (which was, of course, an already ancient world for the millions of people inhabiting the Americas at the time of the European conquest). Many ← 115 | 116 → of these original “American” cultures endure today and exert strong presences in many of our twenty- first century American national literatures. Although their presences are more flourishing in some nations than in others, every American nation and region can boast of having a Native American component to its national history and culture. Guarani, for example, is, along with Spanish, one of Paraguay’s two official languages, while Quechua, Nahuatl, and Maya-Quiché are all alive and well in their respective cultures and countries. Spanish America and Canada, especially, enjoy a special strength in terms of their native cultures and literatures, and many of their greatest writers work, directly or indirectly, with themes and motifs germane to their Native American experiences. Commenting on the Aztec-infused poetry of the great Mexican author and diplomat, Octavio Paz, for example, critic Brian Swann has written that he considers Paz’s homeland to be both deeply Spanish and deeply Indian (xv–xvi), something that might also be said of such nations as Peru, Bolivia, and Guatemala, in addition to several others. Swann, like Paz before him, also contrasts the vitality of Native American culture in places like Mexico, Peru, and Canada to the situation in the United States, where, even today, the Native American presence is problematic (xv–xvi). Canada, too, has long celebrated its indigenous heritages and made space for them in the construction of its sense of national identity. In a striking New World contrast, the dominant culture of the United States has never found this sort of acceptance easy to countenance. Brazil, as always, is different still in that it never had indigenous civilizations as advanced and as sophisticated as the Aztecs, the Maya, and the Inca. Yet even there, the idea of the Indian has been fundamental to Brazil’s development as a modern nation. As indicated earlier, and as we can see in our various New World literary histories, the tragic fate of these First Peoples after the arrival of the Europeans constitutes both one of the most shameful of our common American historical experiences and one of the great, foundational themes of Inter-American literature.
5. Canadian Studies
Like scholars in Comparative Literature and Comparative Brazilian, Spanish American, and Latin American Studies, Canadian scholars have long been concerned with the “parochialism of United States studies (conducted under the name ‘American studies’)” (Siemerling and Casteel 6; see also Williams 5) and with the appropriation of the label “America” itself. It is partly for this reason that, having struggled for so long to achieve a coherent sense of what it means to speak, even nationalistically, about Canadian literature, Canadian scholars have been understandably cautious about entering into the field of hemispheric American literature. ← 116 | 117 → Because of its dual European heritage (France and England), Canadian literature has benefitted from smart, productive applications of the comparative method. It was not until the 1960s, though, that both Anglophone Canadian literature and “la littérature québécoise” were able to gain a solid sense of identity, by themselves and in relation to each other and the world (Siemerling and Casteel 10). Since that time, the writers, artists, and intellectuals of Québec and Montréal have embraced a more comparative and hemispheric perspective as well. English-speaking Canada, perhaps less secure in its own sense of identity, has been more reluctant to take this same step into the Inter-American fray, though by the second decade of the twenty first century it, too, is moving in this direction (see Bahia; Chanady, Handley, and Imbert; and Siemerling and Casteel). Indeed, a spate of excellent new studies, including Québécois et Américains: La culture québébecoise aux XIX et XX siècles (Yvan Lamonde and Gérard Bouchard, eds., 1995), Amaryll Chanady’s Entre inclusion et exclusion: La symbolisation de l’autre dans les Amériques (1999), Patrick Imbert’s Trajectoires Culturelles Transaméricaines: Médias, Publicité, Littérature et Mondialisation (2004), America’s Worlds and the World’s Americas/Les mondes des Amériques et les Amériques du monde (Amaryll Chanady, George Handley, and Patrick Imbert, eds., 2006), Hugh Hazelton’s Latinocanadá: A Critical Study of Ten Latin American Writers of Canada (2007), and Canada and Its Americas: Transnational Navigations (Winfried Siemerling and Sarah Phillips Casteel, eds., 2010), are demonstrating how productively Canada can participate in the Inter-American dialogue and how it can do so without losing its sense of identity as a national literature (see Fitz, 2011).
French literature, after all, is no less French for also being European, and the same is true for our New World nations as well, including Canada, which, comparatively speaking, is no less Canadian for also being American. Long accustomed, in fact, as Brazilianists and Spanish Americanists are, to wielding the comparative method and to studying their texts in the context of other hemispheric, and world literatures, the Canadians bring a wealth of outstanding authors, texts, and critical issues to the Inter-American banquet (see Fitz, “Canadian Literature”). And there is no dearth of commentary on this very question from Canadian quarters or from the Canadian perspective. Sadowski-Smith and Fox, for example, have observed that “[b]ecause of its complex relationship to questions of state-sponsored nationalism and the nation-state as well as its long history of US domination, Canada constitutes an important location from which inter-Americas scholars in Canada, the United States, and other locations could rethink the role of the nation within theories of globalization” (19–20). Much the same could be said of Brazil.
Experienced Inter-Americanists know full well that, even now in 2014, when the field is finally catching hold in the American academy, “Canadian culture ← 117 | 118 → and criticism are frequently marginalized in hemispheric comparative work, in borderlands criticism, and even in North American studies” (Siemerling and Casteel 8; see also Bahia). As Canadian scholar Albert Braz puts it, “Canada is barely acknowledged in inter-American discourse,” which, he points out, is largely because “hemispheric studies have become increasingly oriented along a United States-Hispanic America axis” (119), one that also elides Brazil (120) from what is fast becoming a distortingly binary approach to Inter-American thinking. Another prominent Canadian scholar and Inter-Americanist, Hugh Hazelton, comes to much the same conclusion, adding that, in fact, “Canada and Latin America have a long and complex literary relationship that includes both parallel historic, artistic, and cultural currents and a remarkable number of authors who have written about their mutual regions” (2010; 219). Pointing out that the “earliest known anthology of Canadian writing published in Brazil … was a selection of Quebec [sic] poetry edited by Jean Désy, a Canadian diplomat, and published in French in São Paulo in 1943” (2010; 219), Hazelton also notes that the “first major Canadian novel to have an impact in Latin America was Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano” (2010; 220). Programs in Canadian Studies have proliferated in Brazil and Spanish America over the past twenty-five years or so and have helped to foment a great many “cultural and literary exchanges” as well as the development of a “comparativist dynamic and framework” (2010; 221).13 One particularly notable outcome of this Canada/Latin America connection is Confluences littéraires Brésil/Québec: Les bases d’une comparaison (1992), “a collection of essays compiled by Michel Peterson and Zilá Bernd” (Hazelton 221) that explores what has been the fascinating and fast growing relationship between Brazil and Québec (and Canada generally) as still marginalized American cultures.
6. Caribbean Studies
Encompassing “the first American lands to be explored, conquered, and colonized by Europe” (Benítez-Rojo 85), the Caribbean region, a “meta-archipelago” possessed of “neither a boundary nor a center” and “saturated with messages sent out in five European languages (Spanish, English, French, Dutch, and Portuguese)” plus several “aboriginal languages” and “different Créole tongues,” functions in the Inter-American project as an “island bridge” that connects, “in ‘another way,’ ← 118 | 119 → North to South America” (86). Both influenced by Martí and his “anticolonialist” stance in the face of “North American imperialism” (Dash 10), J. Michael Dash and Edouard Glissant envision a Caribbean identity that, in theoretical terms, embraces “an otherness that cannot be contained or appropriated” and that, like the Caribbean sea itself, is based on ceaseless “fluidity and movement” (Dash 11) as opposed to stasis. Dash also argues that for Glissant, the celebrated Martiniquean critic, Martí’s 1891 essay, “Nuestra América,” “is an early articulation of what Glissant would later call l’autre Amerique” (53). For Glissant and Dash, the crucial concept of “Créolité” (a term that evokes both creole and criollo) rests, then, not on the idea they feel lies behind “mestizaje,” which both scholars understand as speaking to a static state of being, a “halfway” point “between two pure extremes” (Dash 12), but a process of “becoming” rather than a state of “being” (Dash 11). Although the concept of “métissage” is discussed throughout, there is no referencing of either the experience of the Canadian Métis or with the still more complicated concept of “mestiçagem” as it is known in Brazil. Once again, the Spanish presence in the Caribbean is the point of reference, though the French terms, “Créolité” and “métissage,” are put forth as the more accurate terms for describing what Dash and Glissant contend is the unique biological, linguistic, and cultural mix of the Caribbean. In discussing his theory of the Caribbean as representing the “Other America,” Dash also cites Glissant as praising the work of Alejo Carpentier, Gabriel García Márquez, and William Faulkner for sharing a sense of “unregimented and relational” space and time similar to his own and for writing texts that exemplify the kind of fluid, open writing he feels is characteristically Caribbean, and therefore “Other,” in nature (13).
7. American Literature as a Transnational Concept
By way of concluding this essay, let me reiterate one critical point: In undertaking Inter-American literary studies, we must, except under special circumstances, reject the binary, two-sided study. It is simply inadequate to the task. By focusing on only two of our several American languages and literatures (English and Spanish, for example), we neglect the others and, in so doing, distort the entire project by making it more limited than it really is. This is the problem, as I see it, in three recently published studies: Kirsten Silva Gruesz’s Ambassadors of Culture: The Transamerican Origins of Latino Writing (2002), Anna Brickhouse’s Transamerican Literary Relations and the Nineteetnth-Century Public Sphere (2004), and José David Saldívar’s Trans-Americanity: Subaltern Modernities, Global Coloniality, and the Cultures of Greater Mexico. All of these works, excellent though they are, concentrate on Spanish and English and demonstrate what Braz has aptly identified ← 119 | 120 → as the emergent “United States-Hispanic America axis” (119) in Inter-American scholarship. In doing this, these studies all but leave out both Canada and Brazil, as if these nations and cultures did not exist and as if they were not important enough to the Inter-American project to be taken into account.14
We need to guard against this tendency. While it is true that Spanish is now the second language of the United States,15 and while it is also true that Spanish and Latina/o culture are transforming how U.S.-based Americanists envision their nation, this does not mean that Spanish and English alone define the parameters of Inter-American literary study. They do not. And we must not assume that just because a person has a Spanish name and can read and write some Spanish she or he is knowledgeable in the literature of Spanish America or in its literary history. To know a language is not the same thing as having spent years studying literary texts written in it. There is no doubt that Spanish and English are now ushering U.S.-based American Studies into a new era, but they represent only a small part of the larger hemispheric picture. The danger, as we have seen, is that even the leaders in the trend to internationalize American Studies will, by virtue of their lack of training in the languages and literatures of the rest of the Americas, end up once again enshrining the literature and culture of the United States as the sine qua non of the entire Inter-American project,16 which it is not. Although it does ← 120 | 121 → have its place in Inter-American scholarship (specific instances of authorial or textual influence and reception, for example, or questions of literary history, as in Canada or Latin America), the dyadic model should therefore never form our basic, conceptual thinking about the Inter-American paradigm. The two-sided approach cannot ever fully encapsulate the diversity of the Inter-American project. Instead, we should always be reading and expanding our New World literary horizons, preparing ourselves intellectually to think more and more in terms of three, four, and even five-sided studies. And Canada and Brazil must not be left out. Such studies, more inclusive in nature, reflect more accurately the complexity and diversity of our common American experience.
And, it must be said, examples of this type of multi-sided approach to American literature are appearing, too. Some very recent examples include the following texts: Monique-Adelle Callahan’s Between the Lines: Literary Transnationalism and African American Poetics (2011), Paulo Moreira’s Modernismo Localista das Américas: Os Contos de Faulkner, Guimarães Rosa e Rulfo (2012), and Ignacio Infante’s After Translation: The Transfer and Circulation of Modern Poetics across the Atlantic (2013). In contrast to so many U.S.-based studies on hemispheric or hemispherically transnational literature, these latter texts, done by professional comparatists schooled in the languages and literatures involved, concern themselves not with “theory” but close, comparative readings of specific New World authors and texts. Callahan’s book, for example, focuses on three American poets, Frances Harper, Cristina Ayala, and Auta de Sousa and represents three very distinctive New World cultures (the United States, Cuba, and Brazil). The writers in question are cited in their original languages and, importantly, the texts are all discussed as they live and breathe in their original languages, with English language translations provided for Ayala and Sousa. Infante, another professionally trained comparatist, does much the same thing, except in an expanded and trans-Atlantic sense. Engaging with the venerable comparative question of influence and reception, he compares and contrasts specific poems (all cited in their original languages) and New World authors, including Vicente Huidobro (from Chile), Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, and Robin Blaser (all three from the United States), Kamau Brathwaite (from Barbados), and the brothers Haroldo and Augusto de Campos (from Brazil). The great Portuguese modernist, Fernando Pessoa, is also discussed as is Spain’s Federico García Lorca. Devoting his study to regionalist narrative in the United States, Spanish America, and Brazil, Moreira does much the same thing, closely comparing and contrasting short stories by Faulkner, Mexico’s Juan Rulfo, and Brazil’s Guimarães Rosa as exemplifying a certain, unique kind of New World modernity. Callahan, Infante, and Moreira spend very little time theorizing about their respective Inter-American projects, ← 121 | 122 → though they do offer some cogent comments about the value of the comparative method as it applies to the study of American literature in a multi-lingual and multi-cultural context.
By 2014, then, we can see that in the United States the field of Inter-American literary study finds itself characterized by three basic features: One, while American Studies scholars continue to struggle with the concept of hemispheric study and to ruminate about the importance of the Inter-American project to their hitherto exclusively nationalistic discipline, professional comparatists, comparative Latin Americanists (led by the Brazilianists), and now Canadianists, too, are actually undertaking the close, comparative readings of New World texts that we need to have more of; two, Brazil and Canada are still being routinely left out of these U.S.-based studies and theoretical expositions or given short shrift in them; and, three, the Inter-American project, here in the United States, at least, is fast becoming a function of only two languages (English and Spanish) and of two cultures, the Spanish-speaking United States and the English-speaking United States, with a few desultory references (too often involving only José Martí and “Nuestra América,” a text that ignores both Brazil and Canada; see Newcomb) to an only vaguely understood entity called “Latin America” (meaning nearly always Spanish America alone) seemingly thrown in for good measure. There is, in short, a serious imbalance, or disconnect, between the type of work being done right now by even well intended U.S.-based American Studies scholars, for whom the question of hemispheric “transnationality” remains one of theoretical debate, and experienced, polyglot, and history-savvy Inter-American comparatists, Canadianists, and comparative Latin Americanists, for whom the question is a matter not of “theory” but of lived experience, fluency in the languages, literatures, and cultures involved, and long standing professional practice.
These same scholars, the comparative Inter-Americanists, the Canadianists, and the comparative Latin Americanists, have long been acutely conscious of the larger context of American history (a term which, for them, is understood as referring not only to the story of the United States but to what the United States has done to their nations as well). This is a serious point of difference between the American Studies approach to hemispheric relations, which, for many still seems appropriative and imperialistic (see Gillman), and that of the comparatists, Latin Americanists, and Canadianists. It also dramatizes why the threat, perceived or real, of being subsumed by the United States, of being relegated yet once again to second class status, or, even more insulting, to move from decades of being roundly ignored to now being patronized, is so sensitive a topic. To study Inter-American literature in its full hemispheric context is to enter into a highly charged political arena with deep historical roots, and if one is naive or ignorant of the many, ← 122 | 123 → often ugly realities and conflicts involved, then one is going to be in for a rude awakening. For a truly Inter-American perspective to flourish here in the United States in the upcoming decades of the twenty first century, U.S.-based American Studies scholars in particular are going to have to recognize that there are more languages and literatures and critical voices in the Americas than those working in just Spanish and English and that these, too, these long dismissed “others,” have to be studied, read, and considered seriously in their studies. For these historically disparaged “others” have been studying the Americas for a long time and they have a great deal of value to say on the matter. By dint of their academic training and historical experience, comparatists, Canadianists, and comparative Latin Americanists have already engaged, at the level of textual analysis, many of the key similarities and differences that link the Americas together. As a result, it is no surprise that, in 2014, the field of Inter-American literary and cultural study is being led by them and their work and by scholars based “outside the Americas” entirely, such as the “Göttingen Research Group on Inter-American Literary Studies,” directed by Armin Paul Frank, “as well as its predecessor, the Center for Advanced Study in the Internationality of National Literatures” (Messmer 42).
This is not to say the American Studies approach is not valid; it is, and indubitably so. But its practitioners have a lot of reading, thinking, and catching up to do. Its many years of concentrating on the United States alone have produced some wonderfully enlightening studies, but they have also hindered the ability of scholars concentrating on the United States alone to know what has been going on in the rest of the Americas, and this lacuna is, in 2014, coming to the fore as a serious handicap. With respect, for example, to a comparison between the by definition broadly transnational discipline of Latin American Studies and the, again by definition, narrowly nationalistic discipline of American Studies, Gruesz observed, in 2002, that the “modern discipline of Latin American literature originated in consciously transnational paradigms and in this respect has much to teach its U.S. counterpart, which consistently ignores comparative studies to pursue the white whale of the national character” (214 n. 5). More recent evidence, however, suggests that this situation is changing, and that good, solid comparative studies, embracing difference but based on the similarities that allow them to proceed, are making their marks.
And though it is often overlooked in discussions about our new hemispheric, transnational, and comparative approaches to American Studies and American literature, we here in the United States also need to pay much more attention to what our colleagues in Europe, in Canada, in Spanish America, in the Caribbean, and in Brazil have to say. The view of American Studies from London, Amsterdam, Paris, Göttingen, Edmonton, Toronto, Montréal, Kingston, Martinique, Buenos ← 123 | 124 → Aires, Mexico City, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro will be of immense value as we seek to deal with our rapidly changing discipline of American Studies. We who live and work here in the United States need to learn to see ourselves as others see us and not just to obsess over ourselves and our nation, as, thanks to the old myth of U.S. “exceptionalism,” we are prone to doing. As Latin Americanists are painfully aware, something Samuel Putnam, a pioneering Inter-Americanist, said back in 1948 is still largely true today. Writing of how “English-speaking North Americans” have historically shown an “astonishing lack” of interest in Brazil and Spanish America, Putnam wonders if this disdainful attitude has to do with “a cultural isolationism that has led us to look more or less exclusively to the Old World for our importations and … to look down upon our hemispheric neighbors and their intellectual productions” (vii; see also Williams 5–6; and Monegal 3–13). Although the deplorable situation Putnam describes has gotten better, it has not by any means withered away, not even in the academy. This simple fact explains why Inter-Americanists who are linguistically and culturally trained in the diversity of the New World remain skeptical about how effectively U.S.-based Americanists and American Studies scholars can participate in the discussion if they are limited to English (plus, possibly, some Spanish) and know little or nothing of the rich literatures and cultures of Spanish America, Brazil, French and English-speaking Canada, and the Caribbean and of our many Native American cultures in North, Central, and South America.
Still and all, many good people and excellent scholars are involved in the internationalization of American Studies, and they sincerely want to know more about their hemispheric neighbors. This is a positive trend and one in which we can all rejoice, even as “we must at the same time avoid paying lip service to a more inclusive vision of the Americas while reinscribing U.S. hegemony” (Zamora and Spitta 193). So, in spite of the obstacles that confront us, I believe we who are genuinely interested in a more unified and egalitarian (but not homogenized17) America are on the cusp of a bright future. We can look forward with optimism to being able to work together in the development of Inter-American study as a new and positive force in twenty first century American relations. Imagined as an endlessly inter-relating heptagon, one encompassing the cultures of Anglophone and Francophone Canada, the United States, the Caribbean, Spanish America, and Brazil, along with our many Native American cultures as well, we can more ← 124 | 125 → easily understand why Inter-American study ranks as such an important project and why it needs to be done and done well. And it needs to be done as a communal effort, one undertaken by all Americanists, here in the New World, in Europe, in Central and South America, and in other parts of the world, working together, sharing information, and learning from each other. There will be differences, to be sure, between our methods and approaches, but the recognition and embracing of difference, after all, is the life blood of comparative work.
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1 This was the gist of Edmundo O’Gorman’s original objection to Bolton’s vision of a transnational but historically interrelated America (see Bolton).
2 History was, in fact, the discipline that, in the Americas, first enunciated the viability of the Inter-American perspective. See Bolton; also, Barrenechea.
3 For many scholars, the question of whether Brazil should, or should not, be considered a Latin American nation is moot. For reasons of clarity, I suggest that we should use the term “Latin American” only when we wish to refer to both Spanish America and Brazil. Otherwise, we should speak of Brazil and Spanish America as separate traditions, much as “la littérature québécoise” and English Canadian literature are (though these have a stronger tradition of being studied comparatively). We must also recognize, however, that the designation “Spanish America” refers not to some monolithic entity but to a clutch of Spanish-speaking nations of greatly differing histories, cultures, and literatures (to say nothing of the very different kinds of Spanish spoken in them). For an excellent discussion of the Brazil-Spanish America-Latin America question, see Newcomb.
4 I am thinking here of such figures as Roland Greene, Renata R. Mautner Wasserman, Vera Kutzinski, and Antonio Barrenechea.
5 Many national literature departments are now hiring formally trained comparatists for this very reason.
6 The theme of racial mixing, for example, is endemic to the Americas (as it is, of course, to the rest of the world as well), though it receives very different treatments depending on which American culture it appears in. In Brazil, for example, miscegenation, the subject of many foundational Brazilian texts, has long been considered normative. The situation in Spanish America (which is a term we use to refer to a large group of nations with very different histories and cultures and speaking very distinctive kinds of Spanish) is generally similar, though with some notable exceptions. “In Canadian literature,” however, to illustrate how this most basic of American themes can be contrasted, “miscegenation is generally represented in a negative manner” (Chanady, 2010, 99; see also 101), as it has been, historically speaking, in the United States. The theme of miscegenation in the literatures of the Americas could easily become the focus of an excellent course, at both the undergraduate and graduate level (see Fitz, “From Blood to Culture”).
7 The question of border studies, so important to U.S.-based American Studies scholars who, in recent years, have been coming to grips, particularly in the Southwest, with Hispanic culture in the United States, is, of course, no less important to the many other borders, linguistic, cultural, and political, that exist throughout the Americas and that tie us together even more than they keep us apart (see Stavins 2).
8 Although recent critical discussions have changed our concept of the nation-state, I see no evidence that nation states are withering away or that their influence is waning. I conclude, therefore, that the influence of nation-states on literary production will continue to be substantial, and most especially so with respect to questions of language use and identity, both private and public. Canadian and Brazilian scholars in particular have much to contribute to this discussion.
9 According to Monegal, Edmund Wilson, for example, “has steadfastly refused to learn Spanish, because he was and still is convinced that nothing has been written in the language that would justify his exertions” (3). And, of Lionel Trilling, Monegal writes that Trilling once told one of his students that “he had read Latin American literature, and that in his judgement it had only an anthropological value” (3).
10 Statistics kept by international publishers routinely show that of the books published every year in the United States, only around 3% are in translation. This figure contrasts sharply with many other countries, including Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Canada, England, France, Germany, and Italy, where the percentage of books published in translation is consistently much higher.
11 Canadian literary study has long embraced the comparative method while Brazil boasts the “most powerful comparative literature association in the hemisphere” (Zamora and Spitta 204).
12 Vanderbilt University’s Ph.D. track in “Inter-American Literature,” housed in its department of Spanish and Portuguese, is of this type.
13 The Brazilian association of Canadian Studies programs publishes the highly respected journal Interfaces Brasil/Canadá which encourages comparative studies, while in Mexico the Revista Mexicana de Estudios Canadienses promotes the same kind of Inter-American work.
14 Gruesz’s study, though, has the advantage of openly noting that she does not include Brazil in her discussion “for the simple reason” that she is “limited here to bilingual contexts of Spanish and English” (213). Neither does she discuss Canada, except insofar as it relates incidentally to one of the authors she discusses. By proceeding in this fashion, Gruesz makes it clear that she knows Brazil and Canada are major players in the Inter-American game but that she is not equipped to deal with them here.
15 That this would eventually be the case was obvious to comparatists and Latin Americanists as early as the 1960s, when this very point was being widely and openly discussed.
16 This is true, to a degree, even of Gruesz’s study, which, according to its author, seeks “to imagine a new form of U.S. cultural history in general: one that would unseat the fiction of American literature’s monolingual and Anglocentric roots and question the imperial conflation of the United States with America” (4). Comparative Inter-Americanists and Latin Americanists have known for generations that the literature of the United States has never been “monolingual” and that (other than its indigenous peoples) its deepest roots are Hispanic, not English. Moreover, by placing the history, literature, and culture of the United States at the heart of the study, instead of coming at the question of Inter-American, or “transamerican,” literary study from the less hierarchical perspective of the comparatist (that is, as a function not of nation but of such transnational categories as theme, period, genre, influence and reception, or translation), it is almost impossible to really dislodge it from what many still regard as its undeservedly hegemonic position in the Americas.
17 The literatures and cultures of the Americas are far from being the same, and we must not allow our comparative hemispheric studies to suggest that they are. As professionally trained comparatists know, the crucial element in the comparative method is not similarity but difference, the uniqueness of each text and culture under consideration.