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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.1 (2003) 1-18

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Fictions of the Trans-American Imaginary

Paula M. L. Moya and Ramón Saldívar

In a variety of discursive and material forms, artists, activists and cultural critics are in the process of documenting a shift in late-twentieth-century notions of what constitutes a nation, a people, and even subjectivity itself. This shift has important implications for the categories and frameworks through which literary scholars are approaching the study of modern fiction. In contrast to former paradigms by which national identity and sovereignty have been understood in the United States, emerging forms of study variously organized around notions of the "new" or "post-nationalist" offer strikingly different conceptions. 1 Eschewing notions such as consensus, uniqueness, or even subversion in the construction of the national subject that have often guided American literary historiography, the essays collected in this special issue of MFS participate in the production of this alternative by articulating the idea of the transnational imaginary as a guiding concept.

The trans-American imaginary is "transnational" to the degree that "American" fiction must be seen anew as a heterogeneous grouping of overlapping but distinct discourses that refer to the US in relation to a variety of national entities. Even in the earliest periods of US national formation in the early nineteenth century, American literary discourses were already produced by a large variety of popular forms, genres, styles, and modes uneasily grafted together to form symbols of plurality and respresentativeness. Emerson, Whitman, and Melville, for example, "sought in their central texts to incorporate as many different popular images as possible and to reconstruct [End Page 1] these images" (Reynolds 10). The frontier, the backwoods, the antebellum South, and the Old Southwest provided indigenously heterogeneous idioms that vastly confounded efforts to describe a singular American national voice speaking with a New England accent. Our call to see American literature as heterogeneous and multiple can be taken as a reaffirmation of some of the original features of American literary historiography. What is different here (and a possible challenge to traditional American literary historiography) is our proposal to shift the tradition enough that it can respond to a transnational framework within which literary works produced by residents and citizens of this country can be interpreted. As the frontier of the US moved west and southwest (especially after 1848), encountering other nations and native idioms, the transitive nature of American discourses was historically—but not historiographically—established. Indeed, the influences on American literature of nations other than England and idioms that do not originate in the English language have been unevenly and inadequately incorporated into the larger narrative of American literary historiography. This incomplete incorporation has in part precipitated the rise of the "new" or "transnational" American studies.

The trans-American imaginary is "imaginary" to the extent that it figures a very real but fundamentally different syntax of codes, images, and icons, as well as the tacit assumptions, convictions, and beliefs that seek to bind together the varieties of American national discourses. The transnational imaginary is thus to be understood as a chronotope, a contact zone, that is both historical and geographical and that is populated by transnational persons whose lives form an experiential region within which singularly delineated notions of political, social, and cultural identity do not suffice. As we understand it, the trans-American imaginary is an alternative and epistemically valuable way of describing our place in the world and understanding the literature we teach. It is an interpretive framework that yokes together North and South America instead of New England and England. And although we are not at this point suggesting that this alternative framework will always produce more illuminating interpretations of American literature, we do contend that unless we make more visible the unequal relations of domination that exist in this hemisphere, our conception of American literary history will remain both incomplete and inadequate. A literary historiography that ignores those hemispheric relations effectively obscures certain historical events and makes opaque certain political interests. It has the effect, finally...


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