Thursday, June 08, 2006

Dropping the "literary" from Pan-American Studies

Literary critics and cultural historians have begun, recently, to make observations and arguments regarding the rift between their disciplines. This rift threatens to limit scholarly discourse if discussion of the American cannon continues to maintain a concept of disparate lines of inquiry between these disciplines. An understanding of these dangers led the fiery Amy Kaplan to discoverer a rare common ground with the bleak Leo Marx regarding the dearth of examinations of the United States government in American studies[1]. And now, as the field of Pan-American literary studies begins to coalesce, this rift becomes even more limiting: The scholar is not encouraged to account for the multitude of languages, histories, traditions and sovereign nations within the two continents. If Pan-American literary studies are to maintain any degree of relevancy, then an examination of the cannon must begin anew with a dual purpose. First, the examination must actively drop the term “literary” to create a more holistic “Pan-American studies,” which must then necessarily include other branches of study. And second, this examination must return to its primary texts using these various branches of study to create a chiaroscuro where, for example, a history is used to help contrast and bring forward aspects of a literary tradition.

Imagine a field of study where the literary works of 22 nations, with the word nation only referring to geographic areas of land divided by the political boundaries drawn on a map, being rolled into one course of study. It would be a Sisyphean task to attempt the untangling of a text; from the very first paper published within the field, scholars would be plagued with issues of representation, identity and history. This is what Pan-American literary studies does: It takes almost two dozen political divisions, each with their own governments, histories, origins and, quite often, languages and dialects and attempts to form them into a single academic field, which can only be described as chaotic. According to Octavio Paz, the first purpose of criticism is “to establish a relationship between [works]: to order them, to lay bare their relative position within the whole on the basis of their biases and tendencies.”[2] To attempt this, in the Pan-American sense, more is needed than just the literary works. There must be something that binds all of this literature together.

The creation of Orientalism, as envisioned by Edward Said, was faced with a similar situation where several regions and traditions, an entire hemisphere’s worth, were collected into one field of study. However, every nation and tradition shared a solitary common bond, even if the specifics were different. Each one, Said recognized, was an “integral part of European material [sic] civilization and culture.”[3] In this parallel one finds the common bond for Pan-American studies: regardless of the specific colonizing country, the specific geographic region colonized and various specific outcomes of the indigenous peoples/colonizer interactions, the Americas were an integral part of European civilization and culture. But, to do this one needs to move beyond the literature and must draw from a wider variety of sources in an attempt to begin to understand the effects of colonization and time on the literary works being examined. Again, Said provides a parallel from Orientalism: He defined Orientalism as an intricate web, a very tightly policed and complexly interwoven discourse made up of “supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, doctrines, even colonial bureaucracies and colonial styles.”[4] These are the very aspects of the Pan-American discourse that must be incorporated into the study. History, anthropology and political science must be researched; government documents from colonizing countries and native lifestyles and crafts must be considered in an attempt to place the literary work both in the larger context of Pan-American studies and o place it with in the specific context of the author’s experiences and narrative.

This more holistic approach also begins to solve another problem: a lack of Pan-American literature. Paz defines the second purpose of criticism as a function which “creates a literature (a perspective, an order) out of individual works.”[5] In the limited paradigm of Pan-American literary studies, there cannot be an order or a perspective defined – every text becomes random and individual when lacking the ability to place it in relation with other texts and its own context. Paz’s analysis of this problem in relation to Hispano-American literature left him with the realization that “there is no Hispano-American literature, even though there exists a whole body of important works.”[6] And the chaotic mess of this body of works led Paz to observe the futility of pondering the state of literature, “to answer this question would be to relate individual monoliths, not steles erected in a desert to commemorate a disaster, but a society: not a chorus but a dialogue of many contradictory voices.”[7] Further north, American scholars are starting to understand this also. John Carlos Rowe, in an essay looking at Said and American Studies, observed that “the comparatism Edward Said exemplified in his public persona and his distinguished career should be the work of many different scholars, coming from many, increasingly overlapping disciplines, such as American studies, Middle Eastern studies, comparative religions, history, comparative literature, philosophy, political science, anthropology, and foreign language departments.”[8]

With this more holistic approach to the study a process of chiaroscuro begins. Paz defined this contrast through a definition where the works are understood not as being “simply a reflection of social relations, neither is it an entity that has no connection with history. Literature is a social relation, but at the same time it is a relation that is irreducible to others.”[9] This relationship gives the text a place in time and space as well as a context. It can be held up against the governmental actions that took place before and concurrently with it’s creation. It gives a sense of identity to the author and the society examined in the work. Although this will be a simplification of the process, an examination of two specific texts can show how this contrasting works and provide an argument for the need of such a process.

The first text, Jean de Léry’s History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, has long been considered an important text, as it provides an ethnographers look at the Brazilian natives. But where does it fit in Pan-American studies? An argument can be made that the text, written by a French author about a crew comprised of his fellow country men[10], is more accurate as part of the European cannon. Its vivid details and constant of the indigenous Brazilians’ lifestyle and culture and the comparisons of this to the European home Léry left, make it an ethnographical and social study. The second text, Bernal Díaz’s The Conquest of New Spain, faces similar problems. The writer, a governor of a Spanish colony in modern day Guatemala,[11] writes not about the Mexicans but about Don Hernando Cortes and his conquering of the Aztecs. It becomes a history from the perspective of the Spaniards. But when both texts are examined in the context of criticism as defined by Paz, they help create a chiaroscuro, a contrast between different extremes that orders and places the works of authors from Mexico and Brazil.

In this way, for example, Hasta no verte Jesús mío, Here’s looking at you, Jesus, by Mexican author Elena Poniatowska[12] is anchored as part of the Pan-American discourse. In Politics, Gender, and the Mexican Novel, 1968 – 1988, by Cynthia Steele, Poniatowaska’s source for her main character is reported claiming the novel was fabricated until “she saw her patron saint… on the cover of the published book,” and then she asked for copies for her friends. [13] Steele’s rational for this behavior, that the woman “was willing to accept the veracity of the text once it was associated with a symbol of religious authority”[14], makes the woman seem quaint and antiquated. But, in Díaz’s narrative this pattern is seen when Cortes orders the destruction of idols and safe keeping of the symbols of the Christianity and the “Indians promised to obey him.”[15] The historical and political context Díaz places Poniatowaska’s source in a complex relationship with herself, the origins of modern Mexico and also the effects of the Spanish colonization of New Spain. The lack of this style of conversion in Léry’s text provides a chiaroscuro that helps to identify Poniatowaska’s work as being uniquely Mexican. Both of the European texts, in the sense of their authorship, provide an additional contrast, showing the shift in Mexican society from the authority figure changing from the Spanish colonizers to religious ideologies.

An inherent danger to this approach to Pan-American studies is the process of discrimination. Learning from the same way that Said was criticized for variety and weighting of his sources – an issue of representation[16], Pan-American studies will have to find a way to filter secondary and primary sources, contextual information used to create the chiaroscuro and what counts as literature. This discussion will not be ending anytime soon.

[1] Kaplan, Amy. “A Call for a Truce,” American Literary History 17, no. 1 (2005): 143.

[2] Paz, Octavio, Alternating Currents (New York: The Viking Press, 1967), 36.

[3] Said, Edward, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Press, 1979), 2.

[4] Said, 2.

[5] Paz, 36.

[6] Paz, 36.

[7] Paz, 37.

[8] Rowe, John Carlos, “Edward Said and American Studies,” American Quaterly 56, no. 1(2004): 45

[9] Paz, 38.

[10]Léry, Jean de, History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) xvi.

[11] Díaz, Bernal, The Conquest of New Spain (New York: Penguin Classics, 1963) 15.

[12] Poniatowska, Elena, Hasta no verte Jesús mío, trans. Magda Begin. (New York: Pantheon, 1986).

[13] Steele, Cynthia, Politics, Gender, and the Mexican Novel, 1968 – 1988 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992), 33.

[14] Steele, 33.

[15] Díaz, 62.

[16] Olson, Carl, “Politics, Power, Discourse and Representation: A Critical Look at Said and Some of His Children,” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 17, no. 4 (2005) 317.

For a complete bibliography and/or permission to use the above text beyond the terms of fair use, please contact the author, Joseph R. Thompson, by email

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