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The citizen's progress: irony, agency, and the evolution of the Bildungsroman in Americo Paredes's George Washington Gomez.

From the moment of its belated publication, (1) the formal unorthodoxies of Americo Paredes's George Washington Gomez have captured the attention of its readers and critics. In his introduction to the first published edition of the novel, Rolando Hinojosa apologetically remarks: "[ijt's a first draft, and it should be seen as an historical work, not as an artifact" (5). Hinojosa's separation of the historical and the literary, the factual and the artifactual, suggests a model of literary production and critical reception in which the novel's purported shortcomings with respect to what he seems to consider the temporally autonomous rules of aesthetic form result in an imperfect structuring of historical content.

No doubt this impulse to separate history and aesthetics stems from Paredes's own determination to publish the novel unrevised, in the form he had left it more than half a century before. (2) But if we take seriously the notion that, in so doing, Paredes was presenting, as he describes it in the novel's acknowledgments, an "archeological piece" (3), a different sense of the relation between literary form and the operations of ideology emerges. Thus understood, we do better to view George Washington Gomez less as a draft than as a record of the aesthetic possibilities available at a particular historical moment for negotiating that moment's ideological conflicts. Indeed, we might better say, at two particular historical moments. For if the formal structure of the book Paredes composed in the late thirties/early forties responds to one set of historical needs, his decision in 1990 to publish it as it was indicates an evolved interest, from the vantage of the cultural historian, in the issues. The novel's aesthetic possibilities, framed with respect to their moment of production, provide, in Michael McKeon's formulation about genre, following Claudio Guillen, "a problem-solving model on the level of form" (McKeon 1). As such they limn the conditions of possibility for agency and subjectivity at the moment of the novel's composition. (3) Their deployment fifty years later marks Paredes's interest in the broader, ongoing dynamics of the Mexican-American subject.

Subsequent critics have been somewhat more integrated in approaching the problem of form and content while nevertheless keeping the issue of their relation at the center of concern. The majority of these have closed the gap by asserting that, far from being somehow inadequate to its representational content, the novel's form is a manifestation of the ideological operations it represents. For Hector Perez, for example, the novel inflects the form of the Bildungsroman with a naturalism that is ultimately antithetical to the genre--with the result of ultimately circumscribing the protagonist's agency. Similarly, Maria Josefina Saldana-Portillo sees the protagonist's subject formation as irreconcilably riven by the conceptual reductions that occur when a complicated Mexican racial economy is translated into the relatively less complicated, though no less discriminatory, US one. Likewise, for Christopher Schedler, "[t]he ever present gap in narrative meaning and sense of absence within the apparently unified subject points to the impossibility of closure for George G. Gomez's identity or for Americo Paredes' novel" (Schedler 172). And Leif Sorenson's excellent reading of the novel stakes out yet another version of this homology between "failed" form and ideological unrest: "Each option, I contend, misses the mark, effacing Paredes's critique of both forms [corrido and Bildungsroman] and the subjectivities they produce. In my view, Paredes's rejection of both forms represents the conditions of cultural emergence with uncompromising rigor." He concludes that "[w]e must face the disturbing realization that by the end of the novel, Chicano/a literary emergence seems impossible" (Sorensen 114, 135).

Various as their particular foci and concerns are, the majority of readings of the novel share a couple of clear, though not always explicitly asserted, suppositions. The first is that the novel's formal irregularity registers a collapse or critique of its principal genre--Bildungsroman--as well as the model of subject formation (manifested through concepts of agency and identity) that the genre encodes. The second is that the formal manifestation of this collapse is the novel's irony. Most readings interested in the novel's literary form view its use of irony, in particular the increasing distance established between the novel's omniscient, third-person narrator and its eponymous protagonist, as an index of the problematics of proto-Chicano/a identity. For most critics, this irony destabilizes the hero's progress and disrupts standard possibilities for closure that characterized the Bildungsroman in its traditional form. As Tim Libretti remarks, "Finally the pressures of Americanization win out and in an ending full of tragic irony, George Washington Gomez ends up working for the U.S. government working in, of all things, border patrol along the Texas-Mexican border" (125).

I want to build on the acumen of this focus on irony, genre, and identity, but to cast the issue of generic and conceptual change slightly differently: to ask, in effect, what happens if we consider the novel's formal eccentricities part of an evolution, rather than a failure? Framing the issue in this way is to assert that the irony that critics have identified, correctly in my view, as a distinctive formal departure from traditional Bildungsroman does not, as they have also maintained, function only, or even principally, as negation or rejection. On my account, the novel's irony is neither dramatic nor epiphanic, as critics have suggested, but adaptive and mediating. Rather than resulting in the failed subject formation that so many readers have asserted, I want to suggest that the novel's irony helps to establish a resolution that provides for a unified subject--although the terms of both this resolution and its subject's unification are markedly different from those found in traditional Bildungsroman. It should be noted at the outset that by substituting terms like evolution and resolution for failure or critique, I am not concerned to invert the particular, often quite useful, political valuations that have motivated many readings (for instance, critiques of ethnic oppression or masculinist politics that the novel undertakes) but rather wish to introduce a somewhat broader account of the novel's operations as a means of framing them. Part of my aim is to generate a picture of the novel as simultaneously more complex--in its dialogic negotiations--and more determinate--in its insistence on a sense of ending that, as Frank Kermode has observed, we require even (perhaps especially) in an age whose reflexivity renders endings problematic--than has thus far been advanced. Somewhat more broadly, I intend my reading as a case study suggesting the need for more attention to the ways in which we might broaden and more accurately remap our accounts of the conceptual and formal evolution of the US American Bildungsroman along both temporal and spatial axes. (4)

From the vantage of literary history, the notion that George Washington Gomez represents and participates in a collapse or curtailment of the genre of the Bildungsroman should hardly surprise us. Franco Moretti's magisterial analysis of the genre, now nearly thirty years old, asserts its termination at precisely the historical moment that the novel depicts. (5) Moreover, the cultural and conceptual specificity of Moretti's study further excludes the very idea of an American Bildungsroman--an exclusion to which he remained attached when the book was re-released twenty years after its initial publication. Nonetheless, or rather for just these reasons, it behooves us to return to Moretti's formulation, both for the persuasiveness of its account of the genre's key features and ideological operations and for its reluctance to imagine its possible genealogical filiations.

The first obstacle to locating Paredes's novel within Moretti's taxon for the Bildungsroman concerns periodization. As a novel set in the wake of World War I and written two decades after the war, George Washington Gomez treats a world in which, on Moretti's account, the Bildungsroman could no longer effect the kind of ideological compromise that it did for Goethe, Stendhal, or Balzac. Moretti describes the genre's closure thus:
   If history can make cultural forms necessary, it can make them
   impossible as well, and that is what the war did to Bildungsroman.
   More precisely, perhaps, the war was the final act in a longer
   process--the cosmic coup de grace to a genre that, at the turn of
   the century, was already doomed. (229-30)

Nevertheless, the novel's highly reflexive handling of its spatio-temporal coordinates makes clear that it is concerned to assess the features traditional to the classical Bildungsroman--the coming of age of a youthful protagonist, the confrontations between self-realization and social solidarity, the relays connecting mobility, experience, and interiority--at precisely the moment in which Moretti has decreed the genre's European demise. As I will suggest a little later in my reading of the protagonist's birth (on the eve of WWI), the particular problematics of youth and socialization in the Rio Grande Valley at that time, to say nothing of the distinctly different national experience that war involved, might well lead us to anticipate a somewhat different periodization for Bildungsroman in the American grain.

A second obstacle to reading George Washington Gomez according to Moretti's account of the Bildungsroman concerns what he maintains are incompatible conceptual elements. Moretti dispatches the very idea of a specifically American Bildungsroman in the first footnote of his introduction to the book's re-released edition:

Let me also justify, in passing, a double exclusion that would not have displeased General De Gaulle: that of the Russian novel (represented here only by authors closely linked to the Western European tradition, such as Pushkin and Turgenev), and the American novel (missing completely). As for Russia, this is due to the persistence of a marked religious dimension (be it the 'politico-national' version of War and Peace, or Dostoevsky's ethico-metaphysical one), which attaches meaning to individual existence in ways unthinkable in the fully secularized universe of the Western European Bildungsroman. The same is true for American narrative, where, in addition, 'nature' retains a symbolic value alien to the essentially urban thematics of the European novel; and where the hero's decisive experience, unlike in Europe, is not an encounter with the 'unknown,' but with an 'alien'--usually an Indian or a Black. (Moretti 247, n. 1)

On the account above, the symbolics of nature, the encounter with the alien, and the exploration of religion as a locus of meaning for individual existence collectively debar American novels from inclusion in the genre. Of course, even conceding the distinctions here laid out, in the American canon one might with little difficulty identify a lengthy list of exceptions that evade these pitfalls, ranging from novels at the popular heart of the national imaginary such as Ragged Dick to those, like Roderick Hudson, at its rarefied margins. Such works share the criteria that Moretti identifies as constitutive to the genre, with none of the problematic features he assails. But in a stronger sense, one wonders if, in any case, the problematic features that Moretti identifies as central to many American coming of age novels can't be profitably viewed in connection with, rather than against, the concepts at the heart of his theorization of the genre.

In George Washington Gomez, along with the elements at the conceptual core of Moretti's account of the genre--the progress, figured as mobility, of youth, the focus on the trials and tribulations of subject formation, and the tension between individuation and socialization--we find the very elements that he would defenestrate, and not merely as incidentals, but in dynamic relation with these others. Thus, the novel's rendering of the complexities of its characters' dispositions toward nature--toward the land--is the principal means of establishing an inquiry into what is "alien" and what is "native" that forms the center of its concern with subject formation. And negotiating these complexities is at once figured and enabled through the novel's hermeneutic rumination on religion. More particularly, religion in the novel figures not principally as a particular body of theological belief but as a problematically fixed and inflexible interpretive position to which irony stands as a more supple hermeneutic alternative.

Where individual and national identity in Moretti's study are for the most part unproblematically cotenninous, in George Washington Gomez they establish, from the outset, the principal coordinates of the hero's intelligibility, both to others and himself. The novel's conceptual interest in the national--specifically American--dimension of the Bildungsroman's traditional concern with subject formation is iconically established with the title: if the novel's subject and representational content is the formation of its youthful protagonist, George Washington Gomez, its subtitle, "A Mexicotexan Novel," corroborates Bakhtin's assertion that "[t]he image of man is always intrinsically chronotopic" (Bakhtin and Holquist 85). In this instance, the terms designate not simply the geographic space of the novel's setting--the area of Mexico and Texas along the lower Rio Grande Valley--but somewhat more importantly the oppositional cultural affiliations (as against those created by legal status) circulating in this region at the period during which the action takes place. The subtitle offers not the fusion of a nation and a state, but rather the specification of two abutting land areas that have historically come under shifting national jurisdictions (Mexico, the Republic of Texas, and the United States). Thus the question of national identity--the native versus the alien--is framed as a problematic internal to the nation itself. Characters' cultural affiliations are differentiated by their relation to nature and the land; these affiliations are in turn situated in relation to the concept of American national identity (figured in the title by the icon of Washington) that is at the heart of the protagonist's formation.

Likewise, the novel is quite reflexive in casting its interest in the chronological dimension of these tensions between national and cultural identity in both global and local terms. Early in the novel, a newspaper that the protagonist's father and uncle are examining while the protagonist's mother, Maria, is giving birth to him announces the recent assassination of Austria's Archduke Ferdinand. The protagonist is thus "delivered," with the mixed determinations the term implies, on the eve of the events that Moretti maintains both mark and contribute to the collapse of the genre of Bildungsroman--events, not coincidentally, that in a novel concerned with national and cultural identity and their relation to subject formation mark, among other things, the first of nationalism's modern crises. Here, we should observe, are Hegel's world historical events disseminated in what Benedict Anderson, following Hegel's own observations about the collective ritual of newspaper reading, identifies as one of the principal forms for imagining the nation (Anderson 35). (7) As such, they constitute the all-but-absent historical referent that Paredes's novel, as Moretti claims the classic Bildungsroman characteristically does, at once invokes and exiles to the margins of the plot in order to render the formation of its protagonist in the ostensibly apolitical and unideological terms of the everyday.

If this historical reflexivity courts a consideration of the Bildungsroman at a moment (in the wake of WWI) incompatible with Moretti's theorization, it does so by foregrounding the incompatible conceptual elements--nature, the alien, religion--that he exiles from the genre. Here are the novel's opening lines:
   It was a morning in late June. The flat, salty llano spread as far
   as the eye could see ahead and to the right. To the left it was
   bordered by the chaparral, which encroached upon the flats in an
   irregular, wavering line. Along the edge of the chaparral wound the
   road, and down the road four Texas Rangers were riding. (9)

Travelling this same road, but in the opposite direction from the rangers, come two dark-skinned members of a seditionist movement that is militating to make this land, currently under US jurisdiction, an independent Republic of the Southwest. (8) When the rangers try to surround the sediciosos, the latter are careful to keep the untamed irregularity of the chaparral at their backs. The blocking of this scene suggests that the natural landscape will function not merely as setting (as a ground for events) but as an active element in the social and political life of the people it sustains. Later in the novel, the narrator makes this socio-political function of nature more explicit.
   The chaparral had been the Mexicotexan's guarantee of freedom.
   While it existed, it served as a refuge to the ranchero fleeing
   from an alien law. The chaparral and the flats had made
   cattle-raising possible; and even the small farmers--their little
   parcels of land tucked deep in the brush--had been comparatively
   independent. (42)

From the outset, then, Paredes situates a trope that theorists such as Moretti and Bakhtin have identified as central to the Bildungsroman, the "way"--conceived as at once a literal path (the way to Jonesville), the order of things (a way of life), and an index of power and agency (to have one's way)--in both metonymic and metaphoric relation to a historically specific cultural confrontation: the contestation of geographical space, or, as we might say, the proper disposition of nature, in the lower Rio Grande Valley on the eve of World War I. And through the confrontations that take place there, the road itself appears not simply as part of a setting in which to place characters, but as a means of working out a relation to nature, a cultural and political identification, which determines character. (12) In these terms, it is the law itself--the assertion of a particular kind of national claim--not the individual, that is described as alien. Alien not because it is US rather than Mexican law, but in its dispossession of US citizens from their land.

Thus the road, the "way" that the novel will use to figure the formation and "progress" of its youthful protagonist, figures, as well, as a historical contestation concerning nature, which precedes him. Even before his birth, other encounters on the road complicate the initial ideological coordinates that the opening scene establishes. Immediately following the first confrontation, a second, on the same road and with the same rangers occurs; this time, however, they confront Gumersindo Gomez, the protagonist's father, and the doctor he has fetched and is bringing home to deliver his child. In the course of the confrontation, Gumersindo's fair skin and the authority of the white doctor allay (barely) the rangers' suspicion of and hostility toward Mexican-Americans. The encounter simultaneously reinforces the mapping of race and political allegiances established at the outset, and renders that mapping more complicated by mixing the positions that have been laid out. (9) All secessionists are not Mexican and all Mexicans are not secessionists. The difficulty, as one of the rangers remarks, is that "it's getting kinda hard these days to tell the good ones from the bad ones" (12). Of course, the ranger's proposition is, strictly speaking, at odds with his belief--he doesn't, in fact, think it difficult at all since, for him, there are only bad ones. Nevertheless, the problem of "good" and "bad" Mexican identities--as established through attitudes toward the land--will become the central problematic of the protagonist's formation.

The first structural criterion Moretti adduces to bracket the idea of American Bildungsroman, the encounter with nature, in Paredes's novel effectively frames the issue of national identity. And it is intrinsically bound up with the second, the encounter with the alien. In the world the novel depicts, one's position both on and toward the land determines what is alien with respect to national affiliation. Being "Mexican" entails a position toward the land and its use that both challenges specific white land claims and is alien to the particular logic of white national settlement. This attitude toward land, rather than the specifics of legal status or allegiance to Mexico, in turn constitutes Mexicans as political aliens. But whereas nineteenth-century American coming-of-age novels might figure nature as contested space beyond or outside civilization, in Paredes's novel, with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo signed, the Gadsden purchase completed, and Turner's famous thesis of closure formulated in the wake of the 1890 census, other arrangements must be made. The land was someone's; the question was, whose? (10) Whereas the formation of the protagonist of earlier American Bildungsromane may have depended on a confrontation with the alien as external other, in Paredes's novel that confrontation with the alien is already internal to the national collective. Indeed, as the novel makes increasingly clear, the confrontation with the alien is also internal to the ethnic collective, and, ultimately, to the protagonist himself. (11)

Here again, the "way" precedes our hero: contestation of his identity begins before his birth because the political divisions that have been historically established already rive the family and the ethnic community as well as the nation. Arriving home on the day of his son's delivery, Gumersindo is chastised by other family members for insisting on a gringo doctor rather than a Mexican midwife. Once the child is delivered, competing political identifications are asserted through a lengthy family debate on what the child should be named. Gumersindo and his wife, Maria, advocate an assimilationist position by suggesting the name "George Washington Gomez," while the protagonist's uncle, Feliciano (secretly a member of the secessionist forces operating in the area), suggests the names "Venustiano" and "Anacleto," after Venustiano Carranza, one of the historical leaders of the Mexican Revolution, and Anacleto de la Pena, the quasi-fictional leader of the secessionist movement to which Feliciano belongs. The family ultimately settles on Gualinto--a misrecognition of "Washington" produced by the grandmother's advanced age and linguistic/cultural orientation--a nonsense syllable that it will be the work of the novel to imbue with meaning.

The road continues to dictate ideological concerns as the confrontations that the protagonist and his family experience along it figure the larger social contradictions that he must navigate. In a third episode, the protagonist's father, Gumersindo, is killed by rangers on the road. The incident effectively drives the internal contradictions of the white position represented in the second confrontation into the open. The transposition of a political opposition (assimilationist vs. secessionist) into an ethnic one ("kinda hard these days to tell the good ones from the bad ones") results in a misrecognition--Gumersindo's murder represents assimilationist affiliation turning upon itself in order to maintain hierarchic ethnic legibility. It also precipitates the protagonist's further movement on the road--with Gumersindo's death, the family, under Uncle Feliciano's guidance, flees the village of San Pedrito for the city of Jonesville to the east.

But with this flight, the terms of identity and the positions of collective affiliation competing to structure the protagonist's identity shift. A fourth encounter on the road to the city indicates that in his new life, the protagonist's identifications will be figured principally through social and cultural, rather than secessionist and national, affiliation. Confronted yet again by a contingent of racist rangers suspicious that a fair-skinned toddler (Gualinto) is travelling in the possession of a family of indios, the family is rescued by a white Jonesville judge and political boss who calls the rangers off and offers Feliciano work. The quid pro quo: Feliciano's loyalty and vote in the judge's Jonesville political machine. With this episode, the encounter with nature as an identity marker moves from the concrete and pragmatic concerns of a way of life and survival to a figure of historical and cultural affiliation--Chicano/a identity becomes, in part, recognizing oneself as displaced. Far from figuring restitution for the excesses of state violence via the justice system, the judge's intercession announces a change of venue and means in the struggle between competing cultural identifications--from the physical map of the San Pedrito and environs to the political map of Jonesville's electoral wards. And, it should be noted, this transition is accompanied by a transmutation of the political contestation: the symbolics of nature here become the urban thematics that Moretti associates with the classic European Bildungsroman and claims is absent in American coming-of-age stories.

Both the events within the novel and the historical referents upon which they are based illuminate particular facets of the relationship between shifting ideological context and transformations in literary form. The secessionist movement described in the novel's opening chapters and of which Feliciano was initially a part has effectively collapsed; its leader, Anacleto da Pena, has fled to Mexico. Likewise, the historical rebellion upon which this subplot of the novel is based was suppressed by June of 1916. (12) By the time Gualinto's family relocates to Jonesville, then, land for them has shifted from the object of a contested way of life and survival to a figure of historico-cultural identity (a narrative that will find its mythicized culmination in the Plan de Aztlan). Concomitant with this shift, Paredes abandons the corrido imagery of opposing national loyalties, which he introduced via the secessionist subplot in the first section of the novel, in favor of the negotiations within the urban political collective that have traditionally characterized the Bildungsroman. (13) From this point onward in the novel, although a literal or material path--the walk to school, the journey to college, the bus to Washington (and back)--enables the protagonist's progress, it is less his relation to the path/land itself that determines his identity, than the process of his interpellation by the institutional state apparatuses of elementary school, college, and government service to which the road literally connects him. (14)

If the protagonist's migration from the llanura of San Pedrito to the urban wards of Jonesville, and thence to Washington, DC, marks a representational domestication of the ideological oppositions I've just described (chaparral dwellers/rancheros, good/bad Mexicans, us/them), formally, the movement is figured by the novel's increasing use of irony. Despite the complex terrain of clashing political affiliations limned at the outset, the oppositional and typically unironic form of corrido with which the novel begins establishes a relatively straightforward mode of narration. As the novel progresses, however, conflicting meanings and interpretations are increasingly described as internal to the narrator himself. Thus, for example, a neighbor child who observes Gualinto alone in his backyard conducting an imaginary battle with imaginary rangers, saying more than he knows, remarks that Gualinto is "fighting against himself' (67). Similarly, events of which Gualinto is unaware, such as his uncle's participation in the seditionist movement or the fact that the man Gualinto mistakenly takes for an enemy and kills is his uncle Lupe, foreground the competing meanings that the young protagonist must navigate.

Two things about this movement toward irony warrant remarking. First, it represents an inversion of the movement found in traditional Bildungsroman. There, irony is frequently established at the outset by marking the distance between the protagonist's naivete and the authorizing voice of the omniscient narrator. In effect, it is the means of establishing the gap--the need for the protagonist's education concerning the ways of the world--which it will be the business of the classical Bildungsroman, through the hero's progressive socialization, to bridge. The second thing worth noting is that, as ideological conflicts move from the collective to the individual in Paredes's novel, they are coded (correctly) as irony rather than mere political opposition. Irony entails the problematic cohabitation of opposing meanings. When such meanings are framed by the arena of collective politics, they are cast not as irony but as diverging viewpoints; when the framing is effected by the habitus of a single self, traditional conceptions of the unity of agency dictate that opposing perspectives be resolved: either through a negation in which the narrative voice serves as a disabling commentary on the character (dramatic irony) or through an epiphanic reversal in which the character recognizes, and thereby realizes, his true self. Thus, there is a correlation between irony and individual agency as enacted through belief: the distinctive element of the discordance irony produces is not that there are competing interpretations in the world, but that they should emanate from the same speaker.

We can see this movement toward irony over the course of the novel in the process of Gualinto's interpellation. The book's middle sections comprise a series of episodes, to varying degrees traumatic and farcical, in which the protagonist occupies the different spaces and competing claims of Mexican and Anglo affiliation. (15) His yearning for girls of various social classes and ethnic affiliations (the upwardly mobile "Spaniard" Maria Elena Osuna at school, a working-class girl at a quinceanera in the barrio, his Anglo wife); his alternating pursuit and rejection of academic attainment; his initial solidarity with and later disavowal of his darker skinned Mexican friends; his vacillating attitude toward his uncle Feliciano and his political affiliations--the vagaries of Gualinto's legion identifications are figured in various terms (erotic, educational, familial), but all are ultimately coded (grounded) in terms of ethnic identity. The novel figures these contradictions, as critics have repeatedly noted, in terms of a divided or composite self.
   ... he developed simultaneously in two widely divergent paths. In
   the schoolroom he was an American; at home and on the playground he
   was a Mexican. Throughout his early childhood these two selves grew
   within him without much conflict, each an exponent of a different
   tongue and a different way of living. The boy nurtured these two
   selves within him, each radically different and antagonistic to the
   other, without realizing their separate existences.

   It would be several years before he fully realized that there was
   not one single Gualinto Gomez. That in fact there were many
   Gualinto Gomezes, each of them double like the images reflected on
   two glass surfaces of a show window. The eternal conflict between
   two clashing forces within him produced a divided personality, made
   up of tight little cells independent and almost entirely ignorant
   of each other, spread out all over his consciousness, mixed with
   one another like squares on a checkerboard. (147)

The extended series of transitory and conflicting identifications here described has inclined a number of critics to read George Washington Gomez as a story of failed initiation--rendering the oppositional social and political claims made upon the protagonist as simultaneously responsible for the failure of his particular formation and the condition of border subjects generally. According to this reading, the dream that George Washington Gomez has at the end of the novel, upon his first return to the valley some ten years after leaving for college, testifies to unresolved psychical conflicts that are in turn emblematic of failed subject formation. Upon arriving in Jonesville, Gualinto, who has changed his name to George Garcia Gomez, has a recurring dream he has had since his youth. In it, he rescripts the battle of San Jacinto so that the US victory is overturned and the land remains Mexican forever. Upon awaking, he is perplexed at the dream's recurrence.
   Lately, however, now that he was a grown man, married and with a
   successful career before him, scenes from the silly imaginings of
   his youth kept popping up when he was asleep. He always woke with a
   feeling of irritation. Why? he would ask himself. Why do I keep
   doing this? Why do I keep on fighting battles that were won and
   lost a long time ago? Lost by me and won by me too? They have no
   meaning now. (282)

Paredes's resort to dreams to illustrate the complexity of his protagonist's psychic state would seem to situate George Washington Gomez as an exception to a claim Moretti makes about the absence of psychoanalytic explanations for the novel in general and the Bildungsroman in particular. "[H]ow is it," inquires Moretti, "that we have Freudian interpretations of tragedy and myth, of fairy-tale and comedy--yet nothing comparable for the novel?" His answer:
   ... because the raison d'etre of psychoanalysis lies in breaking up
   the psyche into its opposing 'forces'--whereas youth and the novel
   have the opposite task of fusing, or at least bringing together,
   the conflicting features of individual personality. Because, in
   other words, psychoanalysis always looks beyond the Ego--whereas
   the Bildungsroman attempts to build the Ego, and make it the
   indisputable centre of its own structure. (10-11)

Any number of qualifications to Moretti's assertion about psychoanalysis and the novel generally might be advanced, but in this instance I want to suggest that the recounting of George's dreams does less to challenge Moretti's contention than to corroborate it. To the extent that Paredes's novel anatomizes the psychic forces in play in its protagonist's development, like the classical Bildungsroman that Moretti examines, it does so with an eye to presenting the formation of an Ego--the creation of a subject that, whatever the unreconciled or uncathected vectors of its psychic energies, struggles to insert itself operationally within a larger social horizon. Indeed, the form Paredes gives his narrator's/protagonist's (the rendering is principally in free indirect style)16 account of his dream suggests as much: one finds little suggestion of the encryption, effected through displacement and condensation, that Freud uses to characterizes dream work (Freud 277-84, 305-09). Nor does it require a talking cure to explicate, for either the reader or the protagonist himself. Rather, the conflict that takes place is one that narrator, protagonist, and reader alike have already identified in the course of the story. And whatever the shortcomings of the protagonist's attempt to navigate the conflict in either Paredes's eyes or those of his readers, the attempt has become, by the close of the novel, deliberate and reflexive. The interpretive import of this qualification requires us to ask not whether initiation or subject formation has taken place at the end of the novel but rather upon what terms it has taken place. Which is in effect to ask how the irony that critics have identified, correctly, as central to Paredes's narrative technique functions in the novel. What I have suggested is that Paredes's irony is not ultimately dramatic--the dissonance created by a disparity in knowledge/recognition between the protagonist and either the implied author or the implied reader. Neither is it epiphanic, the jarring reorientation that accompanies anagnorisis. Rather, it seems to me that irony in the novel functions to mark the complexity of the terms upon which the protagonist's identifications and ego formation are--and must necessarily be--based. It is this reconfiguration of irony that distinguishes Paredes's novel as an instance of evolution in the Bildungsroman genre rather than an instance of its putative collapse.

Paredes figures this revision of standard conceptions of irony--as complication rather than as antithesis (as if settling upon the "correct" thesis were sufficient to either explain or negotiate the complexities of the protagonist's experience)--principally through the third of Moretti's prohibitions for American Bildungsroman--religion. From the novel's outset, he uses religion to frame the issue of the hermeneutic grounding--the semantic stability--of the narratives that constitute both individual and collective identity. In the course of the story, this framing moves from an essentialist account of belief and identity to a more provisional and tactical one. Shortly before discovering that the rangers have murdered Gualinto's father, Gumersindo, Feliciano recalls an interaction he and Gumersindo had in the past with a proselytizing minister.
   [T]his pastor was no sheepherder. But Feliciano leaned back and
   took another look at him. A pink-cheeked young man, almost a boy,
   in suit and tie and the look as if he was praying all the time to
   beat his breast. But he didn't fool anybody with that holy-holy
   face. Feliciano had seen plenty of priests before, and he didn't
   care much for them. Besides this one was a Gringo even though he
   spoke understandable Spanish. But here he was, putting silly ideas
   into Gumersindo's head. It was all very well for him, who came from
   up north to talk about love between all men, and everybody being
   brothers. And it was very well for Gumersindo, who came from the
   interior of Mexico, to be taken in by such talk. But a Border
   Mexican knew there was no brotherhood of man. (19)

In subsequently communicating these sentiments to Gumersindo, Feliciano makes explicit the master narratives that underwrite their respective political orientations and by extension their beliefs about the relation between ethnic and national identity. At this early moment in the narrative, the in-betweenness figured by Feliciano's allusion to the border is geographical and political rather than conceptual: his critique is directed less at the contingency or constructedness of Gumersindo's narrative than at its theoretical inadequacy in relation to his own. As yet unencumbered by the conflicts and contradictions that will inform his own experience throughout the novel (much as Gualinto's inform his), Feliciano's remark (invoking Marx) to Gumersindo that religion "is the opium of the people" (20) substitutes one totalizing account of hermeneutic anchoring for another.

Given this conceptual terrain, it is hardly surprising that a youthful Gualinto initiates his own search for a story to ground his sense of himself by interrogating the religious narrative that, with the exception of Feliciano, informs the identities of the members of his household. He reprises one of the standard moments of youthful crisis in modern Bildungsroman in response to his mother's description of his residence in heaven with the angels before his birth:
   He was silent, thinking. Thinking, thinking. If I was up there
   [heaven] I ought to remember, just like I remember I was in the
   banana grove this yesterday because I was. I was born but I don't
   remember that either. And she [his mother] says I was up there. Was
   it me? With wings? How can Mama know? If nobody can remember. Maybe
   it wasn't me at all. Maybe it was somebody else. Maybe I'm somebody
   else! (51)

In a traditional Bildungsroman, the gentle humor produced by the incoherence of the final ejaculation would mark a standard moment of youthful irony. But, as the novel will make clear, the remark is incoherent not because the questioning subject's identity is certain, but because the posited "somebody else" couldn't fail to be any less so. The structural dynamics of the problem, as well as the specific problem of Gualinto's identity, remain in place. The dramatic irony here centers not on the distance between the narrator's vantage and the character's but on the resort to metaphysics to either ground or unify identity.

Ultimately, as is the case for Feliciano (though with a different outcome), the epistemological uncertainties of such narratives, along with their inability to fully resolve the manifold contradictions of individual experience, lead Gualinto not to a naive inhabitation of a narrative of identity but rather to the pragmatic--which is to say non-theoretical--adoption of one. Upon returning to Jonesville as an adult, his questions upon awaking from his dream of San Jacinto--"Why do I keep doing this? Why do I keep on fighting battles that were won and lost a long time ago? Lost by me and won by me too? They have no meaning now" (282)--are no longer epistemological queries but pragmatic remonstrances. Just as the historical victories and losses between Mexico and Texas have been fixed, so have their material and psychological implications for the self he has become. Importantly, these implications for individual identity are figured as simultaneously losses and victories. Any simple, unreflexive, unilateral identification with either winners or losers would effect a reduction inadequate to accommodate George's experience. Which is not to say that the protagonist refuses identification. Indeed such identification is requisite to the unity of agency that he has pursued throughout the novel. The difference is that, his identification is presented as political (in both broad and narrow senses of the term), rather than metaphysical--a matter of identification, rather than identity. Irony in this connection amounts to the ability to view identifications as commitments of belief rather than conditions of substance, commitments that are at once historically contingent and whole-hearted--at least, whole-hearted enough to act upon. At the level of character, the novel manifests this irony in its principals' gradual abandonment of essentialized accounts of themselves. Gualinto's change of name to George Garcia Gomez is one index of this. At the level of the narration, it manifests itself in the increasing use of irony between narrator and protagonist. Here, irony functions not as simple critique but rather as its withholding--a means of establishing the complexity of the alternatives within which George must stake out a course of action and commitment. In this instance, George Washington Gomez reverses the traditional structure of classical Bildungsroman in which an initial ironic distance between character and narrator (which operates dramatically and whose semantic function, however gentle or whimsical, is oppositional) is gradually eliminated to bring character into alignment with what is presented as the monological imperatives of his social milieu. In Paredes's novel, by contrast, it is precisely the multiple possibilities within the social that the protagonist has to reckon with. The irreducible complexity of competing identifications, which is initially structured as a sequence of alternating and confusing conflicts, increasingly gives way to an image of their simultaneous, if hardly harmonious, coexistence. Thus, formation, or bildung, consists not in exchanging individual freedom for the happiness that social solidarity provides, but in navigating the competing possible identifications within the social.

The conversation between George (formerly Gualinto) and Feliciano that constitutes the novel's final scene uses religious figuration to make explicit this substitution of a pragmatic account of agency for an essentialized one. (17)

"I'll tell you," his uncle said. "This is one of those times when I wish I believed in another life, in a life after death."

"It is?"

"Yes. Then I could look forward to seeing your father in purgatory or limbo or wherever it is that Mexican yokels go. We could sit down and have a good long talk about you."

George smiled. "I didn't know you had a sense of humor," he said. "I don't," his uncle said. (302)

Feliciano's yearning, belief to the contrary, for an afterlife articulates the desire for a hermeneutic anchor for narrative--a condition of metaphysical stasis that would ground meaning and permit the adj udication of the various identifications that the characters in the novel (George, himself, Gumersindo) have made. As his inclination to interpret Feliciano's remark as facetious, rather than wistfully utopian, indicates, it is a species of nostalgia--desire without an object--that George has long since abandoned. Of course, George is not entirely immune to the blandishments of utopian moments; his dream restaging the battle of San Jacinto suggests as much. But, despite its allure, its location in his dream life marks an impossibility that he recognized consciously even as a child. As the narrator tells us, his childhood attempts to imagine an alternate history by staging the reconquest of the Southwest and Florida with his toy soldiers could never be brought to satisfactory conclusion: "At that point he would end up with a feeling of emptiness, of futility. Somehow, he was not comfortable with the way things ended. There was something missing that made any kind of ending fail to satisfy" (282).

Call this the affective price of a dawning historical consciousness. Such reimaginings fail to satisfy because the coherence that such satisfaction depends upon would require a subject formed in advance of the historical moment, not in its wake. In other words, a subject who hasn't occupied the competing narratives (produced by that historical moment) that have constituted George's experience.

The passage might well serve as Paredes's gloss on the ending of his own Bildungsroman. If they share little else, both George and Feliciano recognize that the afterlife Feliciano half-heartedly imagines would consign the contingencies of history to a species of temporal illusion in order to provide a metaphysical ground for hermeneutic resolution. It is the rendering explicit of a fantasy that haunts even the most secular of classical Bildungsromane. By refusing it, the novel reconfigures the sense, understood as both meaning and affect, of an ending not simply for its own characters, but for the genre of Bildungsroman more generally. For if, as I have argued, the elements by which Moretti debars the American novel from inclusion in the genre of Bildungsroman--confrontations with the alien, nature, and religion--are in fact integral to the genre's larger interest in subject formation in the American grain, the openness, heterogeneity, and ongoing historical mutation of these confrontations requires a different type of ending than that which characterizes classical European Bildungsroman. As the conversational standoff between George and Feliciano suggests, an ending equal to the contradictions of the historical moment seems to require a resolution producing neither the static fantasy of an unproblematic alignment of individual and society nor the equally static fantasy of deconstructive indeterminacy, failed subject formation, etc. In their stead, we find the sense of ending as a kind of provisional resting place--a vantage from which to reckon competing commitments that are provisional, but no less commitments for that. This, of course, doesn't relieve the reader of the ethical obligation of appraising them, either with respect to their moment(s) of production or their moment(s) of reception. It simply refuses to do it for him, suggesting, instead, that such appraisals be undertaken in the light of the historical complexity of the situation. Understood in these terms, the satisfaction of closure is not affective insulation from the flow of history but rather the affective disposition of both subject (character) and reader, cognizant of its incessant flux, to find what will, or won't, suffice. (18)



Anderson, Benedict R. O'G. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Rev. ed. London; New York: Verso, 2006.

Bakhtin, M. M., and Michael Holquist. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.

Bakhtin, M. M., Michael Holquist, and Caryl Emerson. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Austin: U of Texas P, 1986.

Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1992.

Chcah, Phong. Spectral Nationality: Passages of Freedom from Kant to Postcolonial Literatures of Liberation. New York: Columbia UP, 2003.

Esty, Jed. Unseasonable Youth: Modernism. Colonialism, and the Fiction of Development. Modernist Literature & Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 2012.

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. New York: Basic Books, 1955.

Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction. New York: Oxford UP, 2000.

Libretti, Tim. '"We Can Starve Too': Americo Paredes' George Washington Gomez and the Proletarian Corrido." Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage. Ed. Ramon A. Gutierrez, Genaro M. Padilla, and Maria Herrera-Sobek. Vol. II. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1993.

Lukacs, Gyorgy. The Theory of the Novel: a Historico-Philosophical Essay on the Forms of Great Epic Literature. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. P, 1971.

McKcon, Michael. Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2000.

Moretti, Franco. The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture. London: Verso, 2000.

Paredes, Americo. Between Two Worlds. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1991.

--. George Washington Gomez: A Mexicotexan Novel. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1990.

--. "With His Pistol in His Hand, " a Border Ballad and Its Hero. Austin: U of Texas P, 1958.

Perez, Hector. Radical Discourse and Cultural Interdependencies between the United States and Mexico. Austin: U of Texas, 1995.

--. "Voicing Resistance on the Border: A Reading of Americo Paredes's George Washington Gomez." MELUS 23.1 (1998): 27-48.

Robert, Marthe. Origins of the Novel. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1980.

Saldana-Portillo, Maria Josefina. '"Wavering on the Horizon of Social Being': The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo and the Legacy of Its Racial Character in Americo Paredes's George Washington Gomez." Radical History Review 89 (2004): 135-64.

Saldivar, Ramon. The Borderlands of Culture: Americo Paredes and the Transnational Imaginary. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2006.

Schedler, Christopher. "Inscribing Mexican-American Modernism in Americo Paredes' George Washington Gomez." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 42.2 (2000): 154-76.

Sorensen, Leif. "The Atia-corrido of George Washington Gomez: A Narrative of Emergent Subject Formation." American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography 80.1 (2008): 111-40.


I would like to thank my colleagues William Ulmer and Albert Pionke, as well as the two anonymous readers for Studies in the Novel, for their thoughtful feedback on preliminary drafts of this article. Thanks, too, to Stephanie Hawkins, Ashley Reis, and Timothy Boswell for their assistance with preparing the manuscript for publication. Grateful acknowledgment is also made to the University of Alabama's Research Grants Council for their financial support.

(1) Although it was written in the late 1930s, the novel wasn't published until 1990.

(2) "When the novel and other works were finally published, Paredes unequivocally stipulated that they appear in unedited form, precisely as he had left them when he had last worked on them in the 1930s and 1940s" (Saldivar 53).

(3) Alternately put, if, as Louis Althusser observes, the position of the subject is foundational for ideology, we might understand the novel not as the draft of a particular subject, Americo Paredes, but as a draft (non-telcologically understood) in the ongoing representational history of the Mexican-American subject--a movement that Paredes marks elsewhere by referring to his past self as the "proto-Chicano of a half century ago" (Paredes, Between Two Worlds 11).

(4) Although it is beyond the immediate purview of this article, my sense is that such a remapping would yield a highly heterogeneous, though in principle mappable, topography of archaic and emergent forms, produced by and responding to a highly differential collection of historical and cultural energies. Clearly, the reading I undertake here makes a case that is in step with, even as it contests certain impulses within, contemporary theories of Mexican-American/ Chicano/a consciousness. Mutatis mutandis, we might expect to find kindred but different mutations with respect to other ethnic categories (African-American, Asian-American, etc.) as well as with respect to other, larger identity categories (gender, sexual orientation, class, etc.). Likewise, the incidence of transformations of this sort seems to increase over the course of the twentieth century. That said, we should be prepared both to find earlier challenges to dominant forms (whether conceived as "proto" moments, or mutations with no immediate or lineal survival value) and at the same time to recognize the remarkable durability of national consciousness, and its resistance to certain forms of disruptive irony, in our present moment.

(5) A number of recent studies have begun to take up the much needed work of qualifying and extending Moretti's observations in this connection. Sec for example Pheng Cheah and Jed Esty.

(6) Here, as in Paredes's landmark study of the border corrido, With His Pistol in His Hand, Mexico functions "in a cultural sense, without reference to citizenship or to 'blood'" (With His Pistol in His Hand xi).

(7) For an excellent analysis of the interanimating influences of novel and newspaper in this moment of nationalist imagining, sec Perez.

(8) The subplot of the seditionist movement depicted in the novel has its historical referents in the figures and events connected with "El Plan dc San Diego," written by agents of then Mexican president Venustiano Carranza in 1915. The plan called for a multi-racial uprising to free the states of Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas from control of the United States in order to form an independent republic. Two of the leaders of the uprising, Aniceto Pizana and Luis De la Rosa, conducted guerrilla raids on the border for several months until October 1915 when the US government recognized Carranza as president of Mexico and pressured his administration to halt the raids. See Saldana-Portillo.

(9) A full account of the racial and ethnic complications at work in the text (as well as the historical events surrounding "El Plan dc San Diego") is beyond the scope of my analysis here. In the text, for example, the Mexicans arc figured as "niggers" as well. Sec Saldana-Portillo.

(10) Of course, the land was someone's before the frontier was closed, but at that time different conceptions of property (among other things) rendered the fantasy of its vacancy consonant with the logic of imperial expansion. Indeed, that fantasy possessed a certain obduracy when one considers that Robert Frost could deliver "The Gift Outright" at Kennedy's 1961 inauguration utterly without irony. In the border conflict depicted in Paredes's novel, that logic has no such fallback.

(11) This is consonant with Lukacs's contention that the condition of transcendental homelessness renders the plot of the modern novel conterminous with the psychopathology of the protagonist. Here, the lost ideological totality that made the classical epic possible cannot be replaced by a unified and uncontested set of national meanings. Ultimately, however, a provisional set of national allegiances arc adopted. Sec Lukacs.

(12) For accounts of the parallels between historical events and Paredes's novel, sec Perez and Saldana-Portillo.

(13) Critics have recognized the elements of corrido, a form that Paredes famously analyzed in With His Pistol In His Hand. As Leif Sorensen points out, the plot of Paredes's novel moves from corrido--the genre of heroic political resistance--to Bildungsroman--the drama of socialization and assimilation. My reading differs from his in suggesting an alternative to reading the novel's ending in terms of the failure or fragmentation of subject formation.

(14) Moretti marks the introduction of the institution as a signal contributor to the demise of the genre, claiming: [w]hat the school deals with arc means, not ends; techniques, not values. A pupil must know his lesson, but he doesn't have to believe in its truth" (230). In Paredes's novel, precisely the opposite is asserted, for example through the protagonist's contestation of his history textbook's account of the US role in the Franco-Mexican war (159).

(15) It is important to reassert here that, nomenclature notwithstanding, the competing affiliations arc not national--US vs. Mexican--but rather cultural. At stake is not allegiance to the Mexican government rather than the US one, but which spaces) of cultural affiliation is open to subjects already occupying US geopolitical space.

(16) Indeed, in my reading, the melding of character and narrator that free indirect discourse produces is here a strategy of synthesis by which the conflicting elements that the subject must accommodate arc cobbled into a functioning whole at the level of narrative.

(17) Although my analysis here is predicated upon according the literary artifact a certain autonomy, were I otherwise disposed there seems ample biographical support for the reading I am advancing. Read with an eye to parallels between the complexities of Paredes's own experiences and choices and those of his protagonist (who is born approximately when Paredes was), it becomes difficult to read the book as only a critique or renunciation. Paredes's own position in two cultures, as well as the nuances of his text, suggest something more complicated than simple renunciatory irony--as though George's choices were simply the product of pathology.

(18) I imagine my analysis could be received as politically quietistic. In the narrow sense of the term political, this is accurate enough. Although I am not without opinions in this connection, my purpose isn't to argue for a particular account of the protagonist as, say, a victim or a sell-out or a patriot. Neither, on a Bakhtinian account of the genre, is that what novels themselves do. Rather, they provide us with the complex interplay of what Bakhtin terms languages--the recognition of which must antecedently underwrite any further adjudication.
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Author:Whiting, Frederick
Publication:Studies in the Novel
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2014
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