Letters

Letters Archive
Fall 2000, Vol. 9, No. 1 (requires Adobe Acrobat)
  • Rediscovering the New World
  • Holocaust Seminar Produces Curriculum
  • Arnold Rampersad to Present Harry C. Howard Jr. Lecture
  • Third Annual Robert Penn Warren Lecture on Southern Letters: William Styron
  • 2001/2002 Fellows Program
  • 2000/2001 Fellows
  • Nobel Laureate José Ramos-Horta to Speak at Vanderbilt
  • Rediscovering the New World

    The 2000/2001 Fellows Program at the Warren Center, "Rediscovering the New World: Exploring Lines of Contact among the Americas and within the United States," will consider the various ways in which the cultures of North, Central, and South America have been defined, particularly since the beginning of the nineteenth century. Starting from the realization that the Americas' division into nation-states often does not reflect the Western Hemisphere's diversity of peoples and cultural interactions accurately, the seminar will consider the Americas as a single whole, identifying different cultural formations that have taken shape and considering their social and political implications for the present and future. The seminar's participants include scholars from Vanderbilt's departments of anthropology, communication studies, history, and Spanish and Portuguese, as well as a visiting professor of Hispanic studies. The program's co-directors are Earl E. Fitz, professor of Portuguese and Spanish and director of the program in comparative literature; Cathy L. Jrade, professor and chair of Spanish; and William Luis, professor of Spanish. Professors Fitz, Jrade, and Luis met recently with Letters to discuss their hopes and plans for the program.

    Letters: How did this program come about?

    Cathy Jrade: The idea for the program came about shortly after a routine review of the department of Spanish and Portuguese. The department had been reviewed with the program in comparative literature, the department of French and Italian, and the department of Germanic and Slavic languages. What became clear from the review was that we, all the departments, had tended to work in isolation from one another. It also became clear that there was a great deal of knowledge and expertise that could be pooled to build a stronger Vanderbilt. I therefore suggested to Earl and Willy that we think about constructing a program that would place our work at the center of a larger, interdisciplinary project. Willy works with Caribbean literature and the culture of Hispanics within the United States, and Earl has been active in inter-American studies for many years. My expertise is in the field of Spanish American literature, particularly poetry. This program will allow us to draw on our particular strengths while raising issues that are not limited to Spanish America and Brazil, not limited to literature and literary studies.

    William Luis: And given the important role that the Warren Center plays here at Vanderbilt, we thought that this would be an appropriate venue for this project -- a place to establish dialogue with scholars outside our department.

    Earl Fitz: My interest in these issues goes back a long time. Starting in the spring of 1979, I built up, at Pennsylvania State University, a program of six courses that dealt with the literature of the Americas. These courses ran the gamut from the pre-Columbian era up to the twentieth century. Their sequence takes as its premise the idea that Willy and Cathy have been outlining -- that one can focus on the Americas as a whole, considering historical, literary, and cultural texts with a view toward both differences and similarities.

    Letters: Why has there not been much work in this area thus far?

    Jrade: One reason has to do with the nature of the American university. We are products of graduate programs; the traditions that we are trained in are those of national literatures. Most of us become experts in the literature and culture of a single nation. Spanish American literature, however, cannot be so easily confined -- it places less emphasis on the nation-state and distinguishes itself primarily from literature of Spain. Latin American literature extends even farther, encompassing Brazil and other countries in the region whose first language is not Spanish. We are therefore well positioned to undertake this kind of work on a larger scale.

    Fitz: I would say that the history of the American university has made it almost impossible to pursue these kinds of studies. Another problem is linguistic -- people trained in individual language areas are often simply not prepared to work with texts written in other languages. Their only recourse is either to remain completely ignorant or to read the texts in translation -- which presents additional difficulties. Then there is the political dimension. People who study inter-American literature have been disturbed by the perception that the United States acts like the proverbial big pig at the trough, while everyone else plays second fiddle. In one sense, this is the classic problem of comparative literature: whoever becomes established as the model achieves hegemony, but the others have to struggle to be heard. The fact that many countries in the Americas have a troubled historical relationship with the United States also plays a role here.
    I do think, though, that the tables began to turn decisively in the 1960s toward a more comparative approach to these literatures. In that decade, the new novelists of Latin America began to influence younger writers in the United States through the translations of their novels. The influence of Gabriel García Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges on John Barth, for example, is now well established. One result of this influence is that comparative study between Anglo and Latin American literatures has become more accepted.

    Luis: As Cathy suggested, those of us who specialize in Latin American or Spanish American literature are in a good position to question the concept of the nation. After all, we have had to know the literatures and cultures of more than one country from the outset. But the rise of this interdisciplinary, transnational approach also coincides with a period in the history of literary criticism -- the period in which Jacques Derrida and others began deconstructing traditional notions of the center, of the sign. The elements that a Derridean approach uncovers are often transnational in nature. Moreover, the theory of postcoloniality, which is widely read at the moment, allows us to place these ideas in a larger context. Even as we talk specifically about Latin American, intra- and inter-American literature, we are really talking about questioning the discipline. Universities themselves are reconsidering their role in the twenty-first century, and our perspectives can speak to these issues in a unique way.

    Letters: How might postcolonial studies shed light on the project that you are pursuing?

    Luis: Postcolonial studies first emerged in reference to the European countries and their Asian and African colonies, but some of its ideas need to be modified in a Latin American context because the model does not fit exactly. Some postcolonial concepts might illuminate the old relationship between Spain and Latin America. Others might reflect on the double role of the United States, which began as a colony but became a colonizer. Of course, the traditional model of postcolonial theory assumes a geographic distance between colonizer and colonized -- whereas in the Americas, colonizer and colonized usually occupied the same space. In other words, the frame of reference in Latin America is different -- and this difference allows for a different but enriching reading of postcolonial theory.

    Letters: So would one goal of the project be to emphasize that this intermingling of cultures is nothing new, but a phenomenon that extends back to the original European settlement, if not before?

    Jrade: The roots do indeed go back very far, and we are interested in the full spread of historical development. My sense, however, is that these issues have become more urgent, and that we need to project forward as much as we look back. The presence, cultural influence, and political clout of Hispanics within the United States, for example, carries many implications for the future.

    Fitz: I would agree. The three of us envisioned a project that will focus primarily on the nineteenth century through the present. The colonial and pre-Columbian periods are important, to be sure, and they do draw attention to a number of volatile political issues. Many Native Americans, for instance, want nothing to do with this kind of work. They object to being called Americans at all. Others counter that the choice not to engage in these debates proves isolating and self-defeating in the long run.
    The struggles between the European powers in the colonial period also have had long-term effects on the history of these countries and their cultures. The Spanish and the Portuguese, for example, were disputing who owned what territory in the New World as early as the fifteenth century. Later, in colonial New England, Samuel Sewall and Cotton Mather were much concerned about the Spanish in the New World, very covetous of their wealth, and at least for a while contemplating an invasion of Mexico. In real human terms these cultural interactions and conflicts begin thousands of years ago; in more textbook terms they begin with what we think of as the pre-Columbian period. In any case, there are long standing, deeply rooted cultural and historical conflicts that shed light on what begins to happen in the nineteenth century.

    Luis: We chose the nineteenth century as our starting point because at that historical moment the nations of Latin America emerged as independent countries. In considering the origin of these nations, we have an opportunity to question the visions of nationhood that the different founding fathers established. Often, these visions are hegemonic discourses meant to promote the interests of a particular class, rather than ideas representative of the whole population. But if identity is constructed with reference to one's nationality, then how does identity change if we interrogate the model of nation that undergirds it?
    The nineteenth century is also crucial to the identity of the United States, which emerged as a dominant power in the hemisphere, took over a huge portion of Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and began to extend its influence into the Caribbean. Though Americans have not often considered these events in this light, they have implications for the historical development of North American identity.

    Letters: Could you perhaps talk a little about specific moments in culture or literature that you might see the concerns of this project engaging?

    Fitz: Back in October of 1963 I was reading a famous Spanish American epic poem, La Arrucana, by Alonso de Ercilla y Zúñisa. I could not understand why it seemed so familiar to me, because it was the first time I had read the poem. I finally realized that language differences aside, the poem was essentially dealing with the same issues familiar to students of United States history -- the arrival of European adventurers who slaughter Native Americans and take over whatever they possess. This experience showed me that these texts can be viewed not just from a strictly local, but also from a hemispheric, perspective.
    Around the same time, John Barth began speaking about the influence of Latin American writers on his work. His first novel, The Floating Opera, is indebted not just to Márquez and Borges, but also to the Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis. With these two experiences in mind, I began to accumulate notes, to uncover an extraordinary number of patterns and relationships that already existed.

    Luis: I became interested in this subject while working on my most recent book, Dance Between Two Cultures. That book explores how the Hispanic population in the United States both interacts with and maintains a distance from the dominant Anglo culture. I came to see, however, that the Hispanic population was itself not monolithic. Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, Afro-Hispanic, and Chicano experiences within the United States are distinct. With these differences in mind, I could reconsider the history of Latin America and the presence of marginal groups within those cultures as well. Rather than looking simply at the literature of the dominant class or entertaining the idea of a single nationalist discourse, I have come to look for a multiplicity of voices, dominant and marginal, and to ask how those voices contribute to national discourses and the construction of identity. So whether we are talking about Spanish America, Portuguese Brazil, the United States, or the Francophone and Anglophone Caribbean, there is the possibility of reading one particular experience in terms of another that enriches and deepens our work on each of the various countries.

    Jrade: My own background in this area emerges from my work on Modernismo, the twentieth-century literary movement that extended beyond national boundaries in Latin America. I wanted to know how literary and cultural discourses, writers and intellectuals responded to social and political change in their individual countries even as they embodied a perspective that transcended regional concerns. Many of this movement's writers traveled a great deal and lived for extended periods outside their native countries. How do their migrations play into the issue of national or transnational identity? Did these writers, like many intellectuals today, consider themselves members of a world community? How does the imaginative dissolution of borders affect cultural identifications? How do we define ourselves, to what do we belong? I think that these are some of the issues that we should explore; they are issues that extend beyond the Americas, to Europe, Africa, and Asia. The problems of national and transnational affiliations are ultimately global.

    Letters: You mentioned before that this kind of work has taken on a particular urgency since the 1960s. Why have older cultural histories begun to lose their explanatory power? What political or cultural forces are at work in this transition?

    Fitz: Technology is certainly one factor. Things simply happen more quickly, and the rate of change will almost certainly continue to accelerate. Technological innovations will probably erode many of the disciplinary boundaries that graduate programs and universities have erected, placing many faculty and students in awkward positions. People will have to learn to read texts in radically different ways. We will have to come to grips with the fact that the process of literary and cultural influence and reception -- which constitutes a cornerstone of comparative literature as a discipline -- has assumed an unprecedented importance. In some ways, this ever widening circle of influences highlights the classic weakness of comparative literature, which is the danger of homogenization. The more one loses a sense of the particularity of a nation, a culture, a text, an author, the more one concedes to influence -- and everything begins to look more or less the same. This problem exists in my mind much more as a theoretical issue than as a practical problem. Real authors write real texts, and they still have to be dealt with as texts. In theory, however, the danger of homogenization is worth pondering.

    Luis: I would agree, but I also think that the 1960s are important because of that decade's political conflicts. There was a refocusing of world attention on Latin America, particularly because of the Cuban Revolution and the possibility that nuclear war would erupt as a result of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ever since then, there has been a more political interest in Latin America -- consider, for example, John Kennedy's Alliance for Progress, which sought to eliminate poverty but also to diminish Cuban or Communist influence in Latin America. The 1960s also saw the establishment of Latin American studies programs in U.S. universities, the questioning of U.S. foreign policy, and large migrations of peoples from Latin America. The Puerto Rican presence, of course, had been evident since the Jones Act of 1917, which granted Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship, but in particular after Operation Bootstrap in the late 1940s. After the Cuban Revolution, Cubans began arriving in large numbers; after the death of Trujillo in 1961, Dominicans; and of course in California many Mexicans moved across the border to look for work with increasing frequency in the twentieth century, as they had done before the United States imposed a political border in 1848 -- a border which they do not recognize. Later, in the 1970s and 1980s, more people arrived fleeing from dictatorships and military regimes in Argentina, Chile, and Central America. Finally, in the literary world, during the 1960s Latin American writers received world attention: Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Guillermo Cabera Infante, Gabriel García Márquez, and many other writers of the so-called "Boom" period really came into their own.

    Jrade: But I would also say that this urgency is, in its crassest terms, political. We are now recognizing the Hispanic population within the United States as an important political factor. I often recount to my classes that when I was growing up, Hispanics had a very bad reputation. The image of the Mexican lying under a cactus with his sombrero over his head, sleeping, lazy, unproductive -- this and other erroneous stereotypes had considerable cultural currency. Now suddenly -- almost overnight, it seems -- Hispanic culture has become positive. There is a new recognition of a very strong, valuable, family-oriented culture that has wonderful things to offer. Cultural features of the Hispanic world are being incorporated into the dominant North American culture quickly at this point -- something that has never happened before. One can see this appreciation even in popular culture. Salsa, for instance, which has existed for many years, was ignored. Political and cultural factors are causing students, here at Vanderbilt and elsewhere, to recognize that it pays to study Spanish and Portuguese, that a knowledge of these languages will prove useful not just for people who pursue careers in international relations or trade, but for people in the United States. At the same time, these rapid changes put pressure on the academy to devise new frameworks for cultural analysis.

    Letters: What about the danger of homogenization that you mentioned before? If we consider the Americas as a cultural and historical whole, then how does one distinguish nuances within that whole, or determine where one influence begins and another ends?

    Fitz: My own work tends to wrestle less with beginnings and ends than with movements and patterns. I suppose it could be argued that, by doing so, it avoids the whole problem. But I am inclined to believe that the concepts of real beginnings and real ends are fallacious -- they are mental constructs without much bearing in real life. I think that the most workable approach may be the one devised by Herbert Bolton, a historian at the University of California, who argued in the first decade of the twentieth century that the Americas have a common history in relation to Europe. Within that larger pattern, one could look for differences, but there was a common frame of reference that encompassed all of these variations, all of these attempts to define the nation. This is as true of Canada as of the United States and Latin America -- there is a joke among inter-Americanists that the Canadians are the most obsessed by the concept of the nation. I find it more productive to look at these large patterns of interaction, to treat cultural systems and ideas as a continuum. Of course, this remains a bitterly divisive issue -- many Spanish American historians and sociologists as far back as the 1930s have held that this kind of study cannot be done, because the differences between countries and cultures are simply too great. Here again is the fear of homogenization. Yet as I said, I think that this danger does not really materialize when one confronts actual texts, actual phenomena. Instead, people end up doing what other people claim to be impossible. The proof is in the pudding.

    Luis: It might be, though, that looking at Latin America from this point of view both reinforces and questions the concept of homogenization. Take a country such as Peru, for example, which was constructed as a nation on the basis of nineteenth-century European concepts, but whose population today contains diverse elements, including not just the descendants of the Spanish but also Chinese, Japanese, and Africans. In other words, even as we pay attention to the large frame of reference that includes all the Americas, we see that within individual countries there are particular differences that complicate any simple understanding of that country's discourses. The same could be said of Guatemala, where Rigoberta Menchú has played an important role in bringing issues to the forefront that had almost disappeared with the nineteenth century. On the one hand, we understand that the Ladinos' exploitation of Native Americans continues a particular pattern that goes back to the moment the Europeans arrived there. Yet Menchú's voice allows for a different reading of that experience and reminds us that the discourses within particular countries, particular groups remain contested.

    Jrade: When we talk about national literatures, we are dealing in broad generalizations and abstractions. For instance, I teach courses on "Spanish American civilization" -- a rubric that suggests that Spanish America is unitary. In fact, it is not even multiple -- it is more than multiple, as anyone who has visited Latin America can confirm. I remember that when I went to Colombia for the first time, I was amazed at how culturally distinct even very small adjacent regions were. Differences in pronunciation, in food preparation, in folklore, in popular songs could be considerable from one region to the next. So when we discuss the push toward homogenization, and then the shove back toward diversity, our position often depends on what level we are looking at and on how much we abstract from that level. We can easily see that with regard to certain issues, it makes more sense to focus on the differences; with others, the similarities are more important. But I am not so worried about homogenization when I see the degree of diversity that is maintained even within the United States. Hispanics who come to the United States preserve a great deal of their national and cultural differences. Perhaps Anglos tend to lump them all together, but they themselves do not.

    Luis: These differences also exist within the groups themselves. There are differences not just between Cubans who left Cuba prior to 1959 and those who left as a result of the Cuban Revolution, but also between those who left then and those who came in the 1980s -- who are in turn different from the most recent immigrants. Likewise, Puerto Ricans who came at the beginning of the twentieth century differ from those who came because of Operation Bootstrap. Furthermore, regional distinctions within United States Hispanic communities have developed. There is more commonality among Puerto Ricans and Cubans who live in New York than among the different waves of Cuban immigrants because the region demands a particular conformity or at least a particular understanding of cultures. These observations ultimately help us theorize and envision culture in new ways.

    Jrade: Then you have a writer such as Rosario Ferré, who writes for and about Puerto Ricans who have never lived in Puerto Rico; she deals with the nuances that emerge when one's identity is not defined by living in a certain geographic space.

    Fitz: The differences among Native American peoples are also a significant factor.

    Luis: Yes, the Native American situation adds another layer of complexity. Many Chicanos associate themselves with Aztlán, the original Native Americans of Mexico, but when Native Americans from Central America move to the Southwest, no immediate identification with them occurs, because they do not represent this mythical past. So these distinctions often have little to do with Native Americans per se, but with cultural constructs of what Native Americans represent. Sometimes the historical record and the cultural constructs exist in tension.

    Letters: It strikes me that the U.S. South offers an example of some of the ideas you have been discussing. How might a regional identity within the United States be examined in terms of a hemispheric perspective, and what are the implications for politics based on that identity?

    Luis: That is an interesting test case. Is Miami part of the South? Is a writer like Gustavo Perez Firmat a Southern writer? What about Gloria Anzaldúa? Or Judith Ortiz Cofer, a Puerto Rican writer who lives in Georgia? What about the case of Rosario Ferré's novel, The House in the Lagoon, which shows the influence of Faulkner? The South may be a geographic space, but when you see the influence of the South in the literatures of other writers, do those writers also become incorporated into Southern literature? Or, conversely, does Southern literature become a part of Latin American literature?

    Fitz: Gabriel García Márquez has called Faulkner one of the greatest Latin American writers.

    Jrade: Deborah Cohn, our seminar's William S. Vaughn Visiting Fellow from McGill University, takes up this question in her book History and Memory in the Two Souths. I hope that our seminar will explore this topic at length.

    Luis: I think that English and American studies departments also need to question why these categories exist. Once you begin to deconstruct the boundaries between, say, Southern literature and Latin American literature, then you see that other kinds of boundaries can be formed. What are the implications of this questioning for globalization? Do we also need to rethink the boundaries between the business sector and the university, between the government and the university? These are the challenges that we face.

    Fitz: I agree. I find it astonishing that the concept of inter-American literature is considered new and radical in the United States. For Canadians and Latin Americans, it is an old story. No doubt this is in part because of the hegemony that the United States has achieved. We do the exporting of literature and culture, and expect other countries to evaluate themselves according to our standards. Naturally this has been a source of tremendous irritation to our neighbors. And that is one reason why the whole concept of inter-American literature is so politically explosive. Many people want nothing to do with it because they worry about not being able to measure up -- it is an old problem of comparative methodology. But the times really are changing, and if there were ever a culture that needs to recognize these changing times, it is the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century. This project has great political importance.

    Jrade: At the beginning of his novel The General and His Labyrinth, García Márquez thanks people who have facilitated communication through such innovations as faxes and the Internet. Though the book is about the nineteenth century, it is also about knowing the nineteenth century from a twentieth century perspective, from a point at which you can be in another country with a couple of clicks on the computer. The appropriate word, as Willy suggested, is globalization. Above all, our seminar needs to reflect the complexity of the world created by these forces.



    Letters Archive Index

    For more information, contact the Center's executive director, Mona C. Frederick.


    [ RPW Center for the Humanities | About the Center | Visiting Fellowship Information | Howard Lecture Series | Seminars and Programs | Programs since 1987 ]

    [ Vanderbilt University | Site Index | | Help ]


    Created by Vanderbilt University Publications & Design.
    Photo credits: Gerald Holly and Vanderbilt University Publications & Design.

    Copyright © 2000, Vanderbilt University
    URL: http://www.vanderbilt.edu/rpw_center/
    Last Modified: Wednesday, 6 December 2000
    For more information: rpw.center@vanderbilt.edu