Hispanicism and Early US Literature: Spain, Mexico, Cuba, and the Origins of US National Identity.
The president of the United States is an avowed nationalist who constructs his position as such most consistently through xenophobic screeds against (im)migrants from Latin America. In such a political moment it is vital that we both produce and attend to scholarship that explores the US's relationship to the Americas. John C. Havard's Hispanicism and Early US Literature: Spain, Mexico, Cuba, and the Origins of US National Identity undertakes this task by tracking how the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century US defined itself through and against depictions of Spain's imperial presence in the Americas.
Havard posits the Hispanicism of his title as a counterpart to Edward W. Said's and Toni Morrison's more familiar formulations of Orientalism and Africanism. His use of Hispanicism builds on Ed White's earlier coining of the term as a hemispheric parallel to the exoticism of Orientalism, and his argument more generally builds on developments in transamerican studies that highlight the necessity of nuancing nationalist and transatlantic framings of US literary traditions. In particular, he emphasizes Hispanicism's "political dimension," arguing that it "had a special role" in developing "the idea that Anglo-Americans were racially fitted for liberal-democratic self-government," an idea that he insists goes beyond Africanism's "constructi[on of] whiteness as a prerequisite for freedom and agency" (15). He thus asserts, "It is no coincidence that US representations of Hispanic difference focus on what is construed as the metaphysical aversion to liberty of the Spanish and their New World descendants in a period in which US expansionists turned their eyes toward Spanish Louisiana, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America" (18). Hispanicism and Early US Literature covers the aftermath of the American Revolution through the late nineteenth century, working to explain how the nation arrived at 1898 and the Spanish-American War, so often seen as a turning point in the development of US imperialism, with a discourse fully prepared to promote US intervention in Spanish America.
In tracing Hispanicism across the long nineteenth century, Havard engages an array of canonical and noncanonical authors and texts--at times crossing these categories by, for instance, working with lesser-known novels by authors such as James Fenimore Cooper. The study includes poetry, novels, novellas, and essays, thereby demonstrating Hispanicism's breadth, depth, and duration. Havard's argument balances its formal, temporal, and geographic range with a focus on literature's relation to US political discourses, particularly liberalism. Each chapter of Hispanicism and Early US Literature close reads its central text(s) while questioning how Hispanicism related to developments within liberalism. Havard notes that Hispanicism and liberalism were not, as we might presume today, opposed in the nineteenth century: "For many early national and antebellum whites, it seemed obvious that the capacity to establish liberal institutions was a specifically Anglo-American faculty. Liberalism and racialism were not at odds for these US Americans" (17). By locating Hispanicism within liberal political discourse, Havard illustrates not only the literary but also the cultural, social, commercial, and governmental impact of US tendencies to paint the Spanish (Americas) with a broad brush.
The book is organized into an introduction, conclusion, and five chapters divided in two parts. The introduction offers an historical and critical framework for Hispanicism. Part I of the book examines "The Black Legend, Hispanicism, and the Emergence of National Identity in the Early United States." The three chapters that compose this section cover ways US authors positioned the nation in relation to ideas, perceptions, and images of Spain, Mexico, and Spanish(-American)ness from the 1780s through the years preceding the US Civil War. The first chapter reads Joel Barlow's epic poems The Vision of Columbus (1787) and The Columbiad (1807) as establishing an Hispanicist ideology by juxtaposing a rising, cosmopolitan, commercial US against a greed-driven, tradition-bound Spain. The poems enable Barlow to depict "US identity as not only liberal but also imperial" (53), justifying incursions against Spanish sovereignty by depicting "the Spanish as timelessly inimical to... progressive history" (47). The second chapter offers Cooper's Mercedes of Castile (1840) and Jack Tier (1848) as counterpoints to such understandings of Spanish character. The novels, Havard writes, emphasize Spanish and Mexican difference as cultural and political rather than "exhibitions of a transhistorical Spanish depravity" (76). The final chapter of Part I analyzes how Melville's "Benito Cereno" (1855) aestheticizes Hispanicism to explore "how stories told about political issues are structured by assumptions about identity" (109). Rather than revealing "a US American author fretting over whether US imperialism is sufficiently exceptional," Melville's story, Havard argues, "critique[s...] US imperial attitudes per se" (113-14). And thus this first part traces an array of, rather than a transformation in, Hispanicist attitudes, from Barlow's justification of US exceptionalism against an unchanging Spanish tyranny to Melville's critique of such stances.
Part II, "Hispanicism and the Case of Cuba," uses authors less familiar within US literary studies to explore how recurrent nineteenth-century debates over the possibility of annexing Cuba further shaped Hispanicism in the years leading to the Spanish-American War. This section of Hispanicism and Early US Literature juxtaposes two chapters, reading Mary Peabody Mann's Cuban-based antislavery novel, Juanita (1887), against anti-annexationist essays by Cuban intellectual Jose Antonio Saco (1830s-1850s). In each chapter Havard examines how the author constructs national identity--for Mann, US; for Saco, Cuban. The fourth chapter explores the extended composition of Mann's novel (1830s-1880s) to map Juanita's US-Cuban divide onto sectional divides within the US. Tracing the novel's anxiety over Northern US economic investments in slavery, Havard argues that Mann's concern is less abolition than Southern and Caribbean influence on Northern values: "If illiberal interests can thrive in the North, then the North's more beneficent environment is no sure safeguard against the introduction and cultivation of the illiberal character [the novel asserts is] prominent in Cuba" (144). If Mann's concern is Cuba's impact on US national character, Saco's is the US's effect on Cuba. The fifth chapter tracks Saco's anti-annexationist arguments and concern that "annexation... would prove fatal to Cuba's nacionalidad ('nationality')" (155). While an interesting counterpoint to Mann and reading of Saco, this chapter is a slightly odd fit for the book. The only chapter on a non-US author (indeed, the only detailed treatment of any such writer), the argument is at pains to place Saco's political views in relation to those of the US authors already discussed; the move requires continual re-orientation, as nineteenth-century US and Cuban liberalism and conservatism do not easily align.
The study concludes with a brief examination of 1898 as "a maturation" of Hispanicism (166), a moment that brings together the varied strains of Hispanicist discourse detailed throughout the book's chapters. Havard's Hispanicism and Early US Literature offers a nuanced study of Hispanicism's currency and myriad uses to which the discourse was put. In so doing, it extends our understanding not only of how the early US viewed Spain, Mexico, and Cuba, but also of how it constructed its own emergent sense of national identity in relation to such.
MARIA A. WINDELL, University of Colorado Boulder
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|Author:||Windell, Maria A.|
|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2019|
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