Letters

Letters Archive
Spring 2001, Vol. 9, No. 2 (requires Adobe Acrobat)
  • Creating the Spanish American Literary Boom: The View From the U.S.
  • An Interview with Lucius Outlaw and Arnold Rampersad
  • William Styron's Robert Penn Warren Lecture on Southern Letters Rescheduled
  • Breakfast with José Ramos-Horta
  • John Clarke to Present Inaugural Goldberg Lecture
  • Religion and Public Life: Is America God's Country?
  • Creating the Spanish American Literary Boom: The View From the U.S.
    by Deborah N. Cohn

    In the 1960s and 1970s, authors such as Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, and Mario Vargas Llosa rose to prominence on an international stage and drew attention to the burgeoning field of Spanish American letters. Until that point, Spanish American literature had not really existed as such, for there was no consciousness shared by the different nations of any overriding construct such as "Spanish America." Authors reproduced this atomization in their works by writing in regionalist styles that focused on what was -- in the words of Chilean author José Donoso -- "unmistakably ours . . . all that which specifically makes us different [from] other countries of the continent."
    In the 1950s, however, and especially after the Cuban Revolution of 1959, the Spanish American nations came to see themselves as having a shared history of colonialism and exploitation, and facing similar postcolonial legacies of underdevelopment, as well as the common threat of the U.S. Gradually a collective consciousness began to emerge. The Cuban Revolution sparked the hope of change and self-determination throughout the region and ushered in a period of cultural effervescence.
    Authors who had already been experimenting with Euro-American modernism as part of an effort to break free of the realism that still dominated the region's literary production now felt that their goals formed part of a larger project, that they were working together as a group to assert Spanish America's cultural autonomy -- a project that also entailed surmounting the cultural nationalism of the recent past and creating a pan-Spanish American cultural identity. García Márquez neatly summed this up in 1967 when he declared that "The group is writing one great novel. We're writing the first great novel of Latin American man. Fuentes is showing one side of the new Mexican bourgeoisie; Vargas Llosa, social aspects of Peru; Cortázar likewise, and so on. What's interesting to me is that we're writing several novels, but the outcome, I hope, will be a total vision of Latin Americaƒ. It's the first attempt to integrate this world."
    The group further sought to become part of "world" literature and gain a Western audience. In Luis Harss's words, they both composed a "cultural unit" working towards "the true birth of a Latin American novel" and considered themselves to be "part of the universe," with Spanish America itself representing " the point of fusion where all trends meet." Out of this confluence of interests and aspirations arose the so-called "Boom," in which Spanish American literature essentially hit the international "mainstream," reaching international and non-Spanish speaking audiences throughout the West and beyond.
    The Boom was as much a literary movement as it was a marketing phenomenon characterized by a dramatic increase in the publication, distribution, and translation of Spanish American works; it was also a critical construct rooted in the authors' conception of themselves as a group and the concomitant promotion of their work in popular and academic media. Authors and critics alike engaged in the invention of their own tradition, working together to promote the movement in the critical and popular spheres, essentially consolidating its canonical status. While much work has been done on the Hispanic infrastructure supporting the Boom -- for example, the Catalan publishers who published many works, the high-visibility Spanish and Spanish American prizes that brought the movement tremendous prestige, and the journals such as Casa de las Américas (Cuba) and Mundo Nuevo (Paris) that disseminated new works -- less attention has been paid to the promotion of the Boom in the U.S. The project that I am undertaking this year as the William S. Vaughn Visiting Fellow at the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities explores the role of scholars at U.S. universities, critical trends permeating the North American academy as a whole, and the U.S. publishing industry in the construction of the Boom's image, reputation, and literary history. In particular, I focus on: 1) the infrastructure through which the Boom was promoted in the U.S. (such as presses, journals, such philanthropic organizations as the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, literary prizes, cultural centers, and the critical apparatus that grew up in the academy around the movement); and 2) the role of Cold War cultural politics in shaping the Boom in the U.S.
    The first part of my project entails elucidating the mechanisms by which the Boom secured its own place in literary history in the U.S., focusing on how the academy, authors, and publishers coordinated efforts in order to bring knowledge of the movement to an English-speaking, U.S. -- based reading public. While conversations with and between the authors were published in Spanish America, and authors such as Donoso and Fuentes wrote personal and literary histories of the period (all of which were quickly translated into English), in 1972, for example, Rita Guibert published a collection of interviews with prominent authors in English, in order "to give the American people a broader and deeper view of what's going on in Latin America." In other words, her work was designed to further promote knowledge of the Boom on the U.S. stage. Emir Rodríguez Monegal, a professor at Yale and one of the most prominent critics and Boom-supporters of this period, wrote the introduction to Guibert's work; this collaboration serves as a representative example of the joint efforts involved in crafting the Boom's reputation.
    I further contextualize these strategies within the burgeoning institutional framework of journals, cultural centers, and funding programs through which the self-promotion was channeled. During this period, organizations such as the Inter-American Foundation for the Arts ([IAFA] founded in 1962, which later became the Center for Inter-American Relations [CIAR] and, more recently, the Americas Society) proliferated. Such organizations opened doors for Spanish American literature in the U.S. by publishing journals on the subject, subsidizing translations so that publishers would be more willing to risk publishing these lesser-known authors, placing works with presses, and introducing Spanish American authors to one another and to U.S. writers, publishers, and agents through informal networking -- as well as sponsoring conferences at which many of these activities were carried out. The Rockefeller Foundation and family alike were actively involved in this process: family members founded and directed the IAFA and CIAR, while the Foundation also provided translation subsidies and other grants. The Ford Foundation likewise was instrumental in promoting Spanish American literature in the U.S. (as well as abroad: it was one of the later sponsors of Mundo Nuevo, the Paris-based journal edited by Rodríguez Monegal that was critical in disseminating Boom works and criticism from 1966 to 1968). It patronized journals, launched an Intercultural Publications Program, and funded professorships at prestigious universities. Literary competitions of the early 1960s such as the Premio Life en español and the William Faulkner Foundation's Ibero-American Novel Award were similarly designed to encourage the production, translation, and visibility of Spanish American fiction in the U.S.
    The interest of philanthropic foundations and other organizations was not, however, selfless in many cases: the Boom coincided with the height of the Cold War, when U.S. interest in Spanish America was heightened by the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro's increasing rapprochement with the former Soviet Union. The anti-communism that dominated the international political scene gave rise to a Cold War cultural politics that promoted the value(s) of Western civilization. While the Fulbright Act (1946) and the U.S. Information Agency (created in 1953) played a general role in disseminating U.S. culture abroad, philanthropic agencies (including but not limited to the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, whose vigilant anti-communism and ties to the cultural Cold War machinery in the U.S. and abroad have been documented by Lawrence Schwartz and Francis Saunders, among others) and the newly-founded Central Intelligence Agency (1947) were extremely active in their overt and covert sponsorship of entities such as the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which funded and founded the aforementioned Mundo Nuevo (and numerous other journals worldwide, including its flagship, Encounter) and had chapters throughout Latin America whose activities were devoted to the creation of an international intellectual community dedicated to the preservation of liberal democratic values. One of my goals, then, is to contextualize the Boom within these Cold War cultural politics and synthesize information on the efforts of the various U.S. government and philanthropic agencies in waging their battles.
    The focus on cultural politics, however, should not be allowed to detract from the Boom's literary and cultural significance throughout Spanish America and the West. While it is important for me to elucidate to what extent -- if any -- these politics influenced debates on Spanish American identity, such discussions are only meaningful within the broader context of constructions of Spanish American identity within the U.S. literary infrastructure in general, which must themselves be compared to those presented within the Spanish American media. Hence the question of identity politics -- of self-assertion and self-determination -- is at the heart of my study. In keeping with the theme of this year's seminar at the Warren Center, I hope that, through my research, I will be able to delineate new "lines of contact among the Americas and within the United States."

    Deborah N. Cohn is the William S. Vaughn Visiting Fellow at the Warren Center and visiting assistant professor of Spanish. She is assistant professor of Hispanic Studies at McGill University.



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