Abstracts 2014

John Easterbrook  (NYU)

“The Atlantick rivers”: Westward Expansion and the Channels of Commerce

In the spring of 1791, a series of articles appeared in Philadelphia’s Federal Gazette. The author, Tench Coxe, offers a commentary on the dynamic relationship between the environment of Europe and the economy of the United States: he notes that “the quantity of grain raised in Europe in common years, is not more than equal to the ordinary consumption of its inhabitants; and that in the event of a failure of their crops a supply can only be expected from America.” Indeed, years of bad harvests and the exhaustion of the Baltic grain fields had left the continent unable to feed its rapidly growing population. Suggesting the way in which environmental influence extends beyond territorial borders, Coxe writes that “the influence of the late scarcity in France, not only pervaded all Europe but was extended to the most interior counties of these states.” “Influence” here is both economic, as grain prices in Europe and America rose sharply, and ecological, as the “interior counties” of the U.S. abandoned tobacco production and turned instead to wheat in response to European demand.

In this paper, I situate the writing of westward expansion into the “interior counties” – from Jonathan Carver’s Travels through the Interior (1778) to Gilbert Imlay’s A Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America (1797) – within the discourses of food scarcity that circulated throughout Europe and the new republic. As land became increasingly depleted and costly on the coast, writers looked to the continental interior as the site of cheap, fertile land to be incorporated into the international grain trade. Carver and Imlay, as well as Thomas Hutchins (1778) and Andrew Burnaby (1775), discursively map the trans-Mississippi west not within rigid geographic or territorial borders, but rather as one subset of an Atlantic ecology in which the circulation of staples and natural resources linked environments throughout the Atlantic world. Cox describes “[t]he Atlantick rivers, from the Mississippi to the Mohawk, which nature has formed as the channel of their trade,” as the means through which commodities will circulate out from the interior and on to Europe and the Caribbean. Imlay goes a step further when he puts forth a global vision of American empire revolving around the Mississippi and its tributaries. The North American continent is “extremely favourable to communication by water,” and the Mississippi, he argues, is the “centre of the earth”; thus the U.S. is “calculated to become at once the emporium and the protectors of the world.” Indeed, by this time the new republic had become the breadbasket of Europe. The seat of government, Imlay anticipates, will soon relocate to the Mississippi: through the rivers of the interior, “the federal government will act like the vital fluid which is propelled from the heart, and give motion and energy to every extremity of the empire.” Geographic distance becomes “immaterial” here, as the circulation of rivers and commodities enable Imlay to project the continental interior out into the Atlantic.

Suggesting a correspondence between the natural world and political institutions, Imlay and fellow eighteenth-century topographical writers imagine the Mississippi, Ohio, and Missouri Rivers as the circulatory system of the new republic, enabling the distribution of commodities, peoples, and republicanism within the territorial borders of the U.S. Even as they promote inland navigation to unite the new republic, however, they look to the river to articulate the new economic and environmental relationship between the interior and the Atlantic world. I argue that these writers produce a fluid, circulatory sense of space that enables the “communication” between the interior and the Atlantic. The river provides a model of economic and environmental integration, suggesting the ways in writers imagined expansion and nation-building as one subset of a broader geopolitics.

Liz Janssen (U of Washington)

Compensatory Practice: Recent Immigrant Fiction in U.S. Reviews

The reception of contemporary American immigrant literature reflects a self-conscious commitment to compensate for the nation’s past; in particular, those traditions of fetishizing and/or under-valuing minority literature. For example, laudatory book reviews in mainstream publications commonly emphasize the ways in which authors manage to defy essentializing stereotypes or symbolic representations of any national identity. This emphasis on stereotype avoidance seems to serve as its own particular discourse of legitimation—the critical establishment’s self-legitimation as no longer operating from a stance of ethnocentrism. The self-legitimation involves, consciously or not, the struggle to not only compensate but to demonstrate compensation for long traditions of reductive readings of minority and “ethnic” literature.

However, evaluative discourses in reviews still frequently turn on national and racial classifications. Value seems commonly ascribed based on pedagogical function, or the extent to which a text may “teach” something authentic about a nation or a culture too often under-represented to American readers. Immigrant authors and their texts seem to require endorsement as authoritative of two cultures at once (the foreign and the familiar). In the terms of scholar Y.D. Kalogeras, these endorsements construe authors and characters as “metacultural critics,” figures imbued with dual cultural authority. This dual legitimation is closely related to the ways in which some scholars have theorized the unique marketability of “exotic” experiences as they are represented in formally familiar, palatable terms. Graham Huggan, in his book The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins, argues that texts’ “exotic registers” are central to the ascription of value to works of historically marginalized authors, and are constructed by and for a particular market readership (predominately white, Western, “metropolitan” audiences). A function of the “exotic register” is its determination of the extent to which authors may be read as “mediators” of two cultures; in this way, critics may avoid categorically reductive descriptions—and disclaim a past characterized by such descriptionswhile still ascribing value according to cultural or national “authority” and otherness.

While critics’ legitimizing practices may capitalize on constructions of “metaculturalism,” texts themselves may be read for how they both engage and write self-consciously against these capitalizations. Recent works by two contemporary Nigerian immigrant authors—Teju Cole and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie—depict experiences of recent African immigrants to the U.S. and the complex interpellations and category crises they encounter as they are “read” by Americans. These texts seem deliberately constructed to work against reductive identity categorizations, and examination of their reception reveals the extent to which reviewers try to avoid explicitly ascribing these authors and texts “representative” status. However, discursive gestures toward compensation for histories of ethnocentric receptions may rely on productions of immigrant texts as “metaculturally” legitimate and, perhaps ironically, on consequent promotions of these works as pedagogically valuable to their presumed majority reading public.


Corey M. Johnson (Stanford U)

Material Effects: Queequeg as an Ethnographic Subject

This paper examines the material culture that underwrites Herman Melville’s canonical nineteenth-century novel of the Pacific, Moby-Dick, focusing on its indigenous Pacific Islander, Queequeg. Although Queequeg has been the subject of renewed interest in the last few years, I argue that by attending to the material culture represented in the novel—the things that Queequeg carries—we are able to gain a sense of Queequeg as a fully realized historical subject.  More broadly, I engage with the recent transnational turn by suggesting that what threatens to escape such figurations are sub- or proto-national spaces.

Material artifacts were heavily trafficked both in and out of the Pacific throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and yet scholarship on Melville has found it difficult to make sense of this archive. Along with his whaling harpoon, Queequeg carries with him a tomahawk, a peace pipe, an enormous tobacco wallet, and a “Congo Idol” named Yojo.  These “things” are integral to how a contemporary audience would have made sense of Melville’s novel.  They make up what Hans Robert Jauss calls the “already read” that a reader brings to the text, rendering the novel sensible through “announcements, overt and covert signals, familiar characteristics, or implicit allusions.” And yet, the lapse of two centuries between Melville’s time and our own has made this cultural memory difficult to access.  I trace what we do know about these things, relying on my own work in the museum and archive, as well as the scholarship of historical anthropologists.  By “reading” what Queequeg carries with him within its nineteenth-century context, we can understand how Queequeg was, as James Clifford puts it, a “literary figure…standing in for real historical experiences.”

This essay is both interdisciplinary and theoretical.  Perched at the borders of literary history and historical anthropology, I bring together recent work on the return to “things.” My approach is framed by Ian Hodder’s recent archaeological treatise on thing-human “entanglement,” alongside the “behavioral chain” approach pioneered by James Skibo and Michael Schiffer. By meshing these archaeological meditations with Jauss’s reception theory, I gesture to how they grapple with and critique Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of the field of cultural production. Finally, closer to home, I suggest affinities with what Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus have termed “surface reading.”


Stephan Kuhl (Goethe U, Frankfurt)

 “Beyond Savagery: Richard Wright on White America and West Africa”

Richard Wright’s Savage Holiday, published in 1954, which describes the genesis of a murder committed by its white American protestant middle-class protagonist, is the only novel by the author that does not feature any major black character. It seems to show few similarities with the other book Wright published in 1954, Black Power, the travelogue recounting his journey through the Gold Coast. However, Wright claimed that the writing of Savage Holiday took him precisely from Christmas Eve 1952 until Easter Sunday 1953, and these two dates also frame the critical period of the preparation for his travel to the British colony. This preparation included intense readings of historical and sociological treatises on the Gold Coast, readings that shaped his presuppositions about West African people and cultures. While Savage Holiday has been criticized for its allegedly orthodox and heavy-handed borrowings from Freudian psychoanalysis, Black Power has been criticized for reproducing, albeit unwittingly, a colonizer’s gaze at a supposedly savage colonial subject. Indeed, Black Power does attest to Wright’s estrangement from what he perceived as the irrationality of pagan religions and tribal cultures, and his prolonged descriptions of the nakedness of African people border on an ethnocentric condescension. However, the irrationality inherent in human actions and prolonged descriptions of nakedness are also central elements of Savage Holiday. My talk, tentatively titled “Beyond Savagery: Richard Wright on White America and West Africa,” will show that Wright’s simultaneous engagement in the psychology of white America and the history and society of the Gold Coast engendered equivalences in the themes, perspectives, and narrative strategies of Savage Holiday and Black Power. By exploring these equivalences I will reveal that, far from engaging in two antagonistic analytical principles and far from describing two antagonistic national geographies, Savage Holiday and Black Power establish an analytical discourse that bridges psychoanalysis and sociology and a transatlantic geography that bridges white America and West Africa.


Sarah Matherly (Princeton U)

The Art of Removal: Portraiture, History, and Reform in McKenney and Hall’s History of the Indian Tribes of North America

Literature in the early American context was a capacious category: Webster’s 1828 dictionary defined it simply as “knowledge of the world.” This paper takes that definition seriously, by focusing on a book that explicitly professed its goal to convey knowledge of the world, but which has since been denied status as literature. Thomas McKenney and James Hall’s History of the Indian Tribes of North America (3 vols., 1837, 1838, 1844) is a compilation of biographies and lithographic portraits of Indian delegations to Washington in the 1820s and 30s. It fits among the Indian Galleries of the early nineteenth century, a genre that used both images and written narratives to assert unique American aesthetic and historical qualities by preserving Indians on paper while perpetuating the expectation of their eventual extinction. These galleries asserted images as a vital part of the literary, and yet today the text of these galleries has been largely forgotten and the images are most often used alone, entirely divorced from the context in which they were produced. This paper will consider The History as a unified object, one that both observes and is shaped by the political inflection of its subject matter. It is a record of political conflict but also of how such conflicts shaped cultural artifacts. Specifically, this paper examines the interplay of image and text in the example of Cherokee Removal. The book was contemporaneous with the debate and fulfillment of Jacksonian removal policy. It contains an explicit critique of these policies, expressed both visually through the hybrid cultural aspects apparent in portraits, and verbally through the language of social reform. It incorporates Indian voices through quotations, interviews, and detailed descriptions. But it also silences its subjects by portraying and perpetuating common ideas of racial difference. It admits the possibility of racial amalgamation, but it foresees only a white future. Through a close reading of the portraits

and biographies of four Cherokee leaders, this paper shows how art and literature could be used to create pervasive and firm measures of difference, even in a text ostensibly sympathetic to the Indian plight in the era of Removal. Ultimately, this book removes its subject from the political realm of negotiation to an aesthetic museum-space that ignores the possibility of ongoing human consequences (even as it memorializes the struggles that led to the current situation). Literature becomes a tool to illuminate the bright future of the American nation, precisely by occluding its murkier past. The History wields this tool not simply to convey, but rather to shape knowledge of the world.


Kristin Moriah (CUNY)

Escaping to Onkel Toms Hütte: German Inversions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Although the relationship between African American performers and Germany receives relatively little critical attention today, Germany was an important stop on the vaudeville circuit for American entertainers. The presence of African American performers in Europe in the nineteenth century trained German viewers to conceptualize blackness and national identity. Orienting myself by way of Joseph Roach, I argue that Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) created a very specific “vortex” of performative behavior that was potentially lucrative and liberating for black performers while also providing a way for pervasive racist iconography to enter German culture. The German translation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or rather, Onkel Toms Hütte, provides us with a starting point for this inquiry. Onkel Toms Hütte was an instant hit in Germany. By 1853, less than two years after the publication of Stowe’s novel, there were 43 different German editions of Onkel Toms Hütte for adults and children.

Early editions of Onkel Toms Hütte and criticism of American minstrel shows that appeared in German newspapers by liberal critics like Ottillie Assing reveal both contiguities and tensions between stylized American depictions of race and German literary and theatrical tastes. As the various Tom Shows that were developed from Uncle Tom’s Cabin made their way to Germany from the United States, so did a troubling appetite for African American performers, negersongs and negertanz. African American acts inspired by Uncle Tom’s Cabin were so popular in Germany that black vaudeville performers there were often promoted as African Americans, no matter where they came from. And they were coming, from as far as Africa and Canada. Berlin, Hamburg, and Düsseldorf provided important venues for black performers who travelled to Europe. Riffing off of Miss Ophelia and Topsy, “Belle Davis and her Pickaninnies” were immensely popular in Germany; one of the only surviving recordings of Davis was made in Berlin. Groups like the “Georgia Piccaninnies of America”[sic] were relatively unknown in the United States, but they were able to make their living almost entirely in Europe, and well past their youth. There would be many other such groups. Indeed, Pickaninnies would remain an important motif in German graphic design and visual culture well into the twentieth century.

The actual space of Onkel Toms Hütte resonated deeply in Germany as phenomenological ideal in ways that it would be impossible to imagine on American soil. In Berlin, the “idyllische Wald-Restaurant” named for Onkel Toms Hütte was a popular entertainment site and provided a space for Germans to play out nationalist ideals in a bucolic setting, minus the Big House. In the 1920s, the Zehlendorf neighborhood in which the restaurant was located would become home to a stunning example of Bauhaus architecture, the Onkel Toms Hütte social housing development. While playing out and translating the lives and living spaces of enslaved people’s, guests and residents of Onkel Toms Hütte were shaping their own national identity. Their performances happened against the backdrop of the German colonization of Africa and a period of horrific racial violence in the United States. My transnational investigation of the Onkel Toms Hütte phenomenon attempts to provide a clearer understanding of these performative twists and turns and how they are linked to larger currents of racial hegemony at the dawn of globalization.


Alexei Nowak (UCLA)

The Transpacific Debate over Rural Modernity: Revisiting Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth

The term rural modernity was first used in sociological studies of the impact of technological and economic development on postcolonial societies, and Allison Carruth has recently extended its use to the industrialization of agriculture in the U.S. in the early twentieth century. In this presentation, I will argue that the U.S. and China were key reference points for each other in the development of competing visions of rural modernity, and that Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth was the most important contribution to these transnational debates before the success of Mao Zedong. Between 1898, when American military adventures sought greater access to the mythical China market, and the 1937 Japanese invasion of China, dozens of American agronomists traveled to China to study the countryside and make recommendations for how it could be modernized in the American image, to the mutual benefit of the two countries. Lossing Buck, Pearl’s husband, was the most influential of these, and his wife traveled with him as both his translator and editor. Through bilingual readings of The Good Earth and its reception by Chinese intellecturals, I will show that while Buck’s anti-industrial novel critiques this agronomical work, still it offers a competing vision of a joint U.S.-Chinese rural modernity. The transpacific exchange was thus important not only for Chinese modernization, but also to the ongoing debates over industrial agriculture in the U.S. itself, especially during the Depression and Dust Bowl decade of the 1930s. If Buck is read at all today, she is largely dismissed as one in a centuries-long line of Western Orientalists. While this may well be the case, her unprecedented literary success—one of the best-selling authors of the decade, the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature—is better understood as a part of this transpacific struggle in which U.S. rural modernization is directly intertwined with world rural modernization as a whole.

Nick Rinehart (Harvard)

Listening for Silence, Looking for Traces: The Works Progress Administration, French Slavery, and the Quest for the Francophone Equiano

Scholars of French colonial slavery in the Americas have frequently lamented the supposed absence of French-language equivalents to the antebellum slave narrative in English. As Christopher Miller writes in French Atlantic Triangle, “In the English-speaking world, and especially in the United States, the problem of silence [in the historical record] is significantly offset by testimonies and narratives, beginning with Equiano’s,” he explains. “But in French the problem is far more serious, for there are no real slave narratives in French–not as we know them in the Anglophone Atlantic, not that have yet been discovered. That absence, for now at least, haunts any inquiry into the history of slavery” (34).

These inquiries into the history of slavery in the “French Atlantic” have emphasized either the overseas colonial experience of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries or the imaginative evocation of this experience in works by later twentieth-century writers and filmmakers. More pointedly, the critical framework constructed around Olaudah Equiano privileges the long-eighteenth century and American antebellum period as sources for Francophone testimony. This chronological tunnel vision betrays an undeniable fact that the American slave narrative tradition is deeply fissured, comprising both antebellum autobiographies and twentieth-century ex-slave interviews. The two waves of slave narrative production arose from vastly different historical contexts–the abolition of slavery, and the Great Depression.

Yet those in search of authentic French slave narratives would have done well to turn their attention to this second group, the “other slave narratives”–the approximately 4,000 ex-slave interviews collected and compiled by the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), under the aegis of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), between roughly 1936 and 1938. The FWP narratives of Louisiana and its neighboring regions comprise Francophone texts of various forms: dictated accounts that were translated into English
from the original French or Creole (often referred to as Louisiana patois), that include entire passages or turns-of-phrase in French or Creole, or that shed new light on the history of French slavery in the United States. This Francophone material demonstrates how French slavery overlapped with its American counterpart to produce a Francophone testimonial literature that now exists as a highly compromised–linguistically and
contextually–shadow in the archive of slavery in the New World.

Jenn Shapland (U Texas, Austin)

Imagined Arctics: Writing the Faraway Nearby

In his National Book Award-winning Arctic Dreams (2001), Barry Lopez writes, “As temperate-zone people, we have long been ill-disposed toward deserts and expanses of tundra and ice. They have been wastelands for us; historically we have not cared at all what happened in them or to them.” And yet, the Arctic or glacial landscape has captured literary attention for some time—from Mary Shelley’s monster fleeing into the icy abyss in Frankenstein (1818) to Carson McCullers’ Frankie daydreaming constantly of Alaska from her Georgia home in The Member of the Wedding (1946). The Arctic, with its perceived extremity, hostility, vacancy, and isolation, along with its flat, impenetrable terrain, is especially captivating in the contemporary moment. Newspaper headlines greet American readers daily with word of the melting, receding, disappearing, dying Arctic landscape. Because most people will never visit the Arctic, the imagined version is our only access to it, making representations of it in literature that much more productive.

A group of living American writers, including nonfiction authors Barry Lopez and Rebecca Solnit, queer poet Eileen Myles, and experimental visual artist Roni Horn, has taken on the task of writing the Arctic for the contemporary American reader. By depicting daily life in the Arctic in detail in their writing—the weather, the patterns of light and seasons, dwellings, living creatures, terrain—these authors engage in a project that reappropriates an Arctic imaginary often construed as dead or dying and offers it new life, vitality, and value for the faraway reader. This recovery work, which I term repurposing, is increasingly crucial to the production of place in a globalized, postindustrial world. Melting ice caps serve as harbingers of climate change in Western media, and predominantly American energy is a major contributor to the shrinking Arctic region. While the authors I consider in this talk, Barry Lopez and Eileen Myles, do not always take an explicitly environmental polemic, they bestow literary attention to

transformative ends for the ever more significant American imaginary of the Arctic. To make my case, I combine innovative, transdisciplinary critical frameworks from environmental criticism and geocriticism. I argue that these contemporary writers practice detailed topographical description, ethnography, and immersion to render the imagined Arctic inhabitable, vulnerable, alive—and therefore worthy of consideration.


Stephanie Tsank (U of Iowa)

Authentic Cuisine and Global Citizenship in Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss (Working)

In her autobiographical piece “Fatherland,” published in a 2011 issue of the New Yorker, novelist Kiran Desai remembers her father’s insistence that she immigrate from India to America. From their Delhi rooftop, he laments: “‘Call yourselves global citizens. Global bastards, more like!’” (95). Later, Desai’s father again bursts out in response to the bland offerings in American supermarkets, instructing her to “Roast your spices! Brown your spices!” a mantra that expresses a similar level of disillusionment, frustration, and urgency. As Desai’s account suggests, there is—along with the ungraspable loss of one’s child (or the child’s loss of their parent) to a foreign land—a palpable anxiety of losing access to or interest in one’s cultural cuisine of origin. Becoming a “global bastard”—both in “Fatherland” and in her second novel The Inheritance of Loss—is positioned as necessary, yet often unsatisfying. Desai asks: is it possible to achieve a productive, fulfilling, and successful relationship to one’s culture of origin when global citizenship becomes obligatory?

Navigating within a web of authentic and adopted foodways that crisscross through India, the U.S., Britain, and East Africa, Desai’s characters highlight the potential triumphs and losses that accompany the pursuit of global citizenship. Desai’s novel presents us with a spectrum of relationships to food in which complete rejection of one’s culinary origins portends emotional ruin and stagnancy; whereas, a malleable relationship to one’s culinary origins can result in international mobility and success. For example: while the judge, as a young man, outright rejects his Hindu origins by throwing overboard his mother’s puris-wrapped pickle during his maiden voyage from Piphit to Liverpool, Saeed Saeed, an East African immigrant in America, consumes kingfish in both Zanzibar and Washington Heights with fluidity and tact. Both men’s stories constitute attempts at culinary citizenship—to borrow Anita Mannur’s term—or “that which grants the subjects the ability to claim and inhabit certain identitarian positions via their relationship to food” (Culinary Fictions 29).

While taking into consideration the realities of the global and transnational movement of food and bodies—which inevitably draws our attention to issues of the demarcation of spatial boundaries, various forms of imperialisms, and of course the question of what constitutes “authentic” cuisine—I will specifically consider the centrality of Euro-America in narratives of globalization, and read via Desai the ways in which emotional proximity to one’s origin-cuisine forecasts either an identification or rejection of this spatial-political formulation. The judge, I argue, completely accepts the validity of a Euro-centered world; whereas Biju, the young hero of the novel, though at first eager to buy into the myth of American cultural superiority via opportunities at Grey’s Papaya, Pinocchio’s Italian, Freddy’s Wok, and so forth, ultimately rejects this notion as the emotional poverty of immigrant life reveals itself. In this way The Inheritance of Loss inserts itself into a larger conversation about globalization and its effects on cultural origins and identities, and is therefore, arguably, an important contribution to the American “global” literary marketplace from which it speaks.


Daniel Valella and Christian Durán (UC Berkeley)

Daniel Venegas’s Early Transnationalism: Las Aventuras de Don Chipote and the Multiplicity of Chicano Identity

When the literary scholar Nicolás Kanellos discovered Daniel Venegas’s Las Aventuras de Don Chipote, o Cuando los Pericos Mamen in 1984, he hailed it “the first Chicano novel.” First published in 1928, the book examines “the labor conditions, culture and expressive forms of the braceros”—Mexicans allowed temporary entry into the U.S. to work, usually in the agricultural industry. Because Venegas’s picaresque novel features “incisive socio-political analysis of the precarious existence of Mexican laborers,” it has been read in the past three decades primarily as an early literary validation of the lives and experiences of Mexican immigrant workers in the U.S.—as a work of “Chicano literature” that precedes César Chávez’s famous uniting of farm workers and the rise of the Chicano Movement in the 1960s.

The book becomes much more complex, though, once one gets a sense of Venegas’s biography. His personal narrative is not so much like that of his protagonist (a rogue who abandons his idyllic home in Mexico for what he thinks will be a better life in the U.S., only to find himself starved and mistreated by all who surround him in “the land of opportunity”). In stark contrast, Venegas himself appeared to live the “American dream,” experiencing a speedy rise from his humble origins as a cobbler in Mexico to a successful career as a journalist and novelist who socialized with Hollywood starlets and other Los Angeles elites. His novel, then, is not a testimonial but a carefully wrought, politically charged reworking of Don Quixote that depicts many of the abuses experienced by Mexican immigrants who were not as lucky as he was. Written in the U.S. in a highly idiomatic provincial Spanish, Las Aventuras de Don Chipote was originally intended as a cautionary tale for Mexican readers who might have considered crossing the border; now that it exists in English translation, in a moment of great interest in Chicano literature, Venegas’s book enjoys a much wider audience.

It is our contention that—by examining at once the bilingual, transnational, and split biographical/fictive engagements of Venegas’s novel, in all of its forms—we get a far better sense of the transhistorical multiplicity of Chicano identity. The book’s pessimism, its particular kind of Spanish, and the vast differences between the life of its protagonist and the life of its author might once have been difficult to place within a Chicano literary tradition that emerged in the 1960s to emphasize self-determination, an ability to master the English language, and a harrowing yet proud self-positioning in the U.S. nation-state. Amid the current scholarly turn to questions of transnational engagement and fragmented minority discourses, though, it makes sense to revisit “the first Chicano novel” in its great complexity, as it reveals the ways in which Chicano identity and Chicano literature have always transcended national, linguistic, and socioeconomic borders.


Jordan Wingate (UCLA)

Washington Irving and the Columbian Americas

We need only remember that “the United States of America” appears primarily as a plural noun in American print until the 1860s in order to recognize the ideological tensions encoded within the nation’s name. Indeed, “the United States of America” is a vague political declaration attached to a complex metaphor, a metaphor that predated and was in every way necessary to the political durability of those “States” that claimed, without much qualification, to be together “United.” The fact that “Americans” in the United States – not, in any case, “United Statesians” – have appropriated for themselves what is properly a continental moniker points to a longer historical dialectic between “the United States” and “America” in which the two terms are made to serve different eschatological, natural-philosophical, geopolitical, and rhetorical purposes for the citizens and inhabitants of a single nation. Unlike “the United States,” as my paper will show, the rhetorical power of “America” demanded a more hemispheric and transnational history to be constructed for the “American” peoples who, in several prominent ways (Winthrop’s “city on a hill” being only the most memorable example), attributed global import to their federal experiment.

Washington Irving, who was the U.S. Ambassador to Spain between 1842 and 1846, and who spent almost two decades of his literary career abroad in England and Continental Europe, provides an instructive example of the multiple ways that the first wave of professional American authors engaged the expectation that they generate a national literature while nonetheless remembering, as Irving puts it, “how vast a globe I inhabited.” The satire of his first book-length publication, A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker (New York, 1809), derives from the insularity and jingoism of Knickerbocker’s local, ancient history; the eponymous narrator of his highly popular Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon (New York, 1819) describes his “pilgrimage” to England precisely as a search for “the bustle and novelties of another [viz. European] world.” My paper, however, will focus on Irving’s A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (London, 1828), composed in Madrid, where Irving had obtained access to older Spanish histories and primary documents to provide his source material. As I will demonstrate, Irving’s historiography recasts the political histories of multiple nations as a matrix of contributing factors in the development of an “American” nation with a distinct geopolitical destiny. By applying an analysis of the necessarily international project of promoting an “American” – again, not a “United Statesian” – exceptionalism to Irving’s historiographical methods, my essay will describe the “world” that, in fact, finds voice and import within his antebellum “American” literary productions.

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