[Access article in PDF]
The Places of History:
Regionalism Revisited in Latin America
The Places of History: Regionalism Revisited in Latin America. Edited by Doris Sommer. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999. Photographs. Illustrations. Index. vi, 310 pp. Cloth, $49.95. Paper, $17.95.
Doris Sommer, who gave new vitality to the study of nineteenth-century Latin American novels, has here collected 20 short essays exemplifying both a broad range of contemporary criticism and a refreshing emphasis on the particulars of time and place. Sommer's introduction even proposes that this emphasis might be termed a "new costumbrismo" on the part of literary critics. Hence the title of the volume, which may otherwise be misleading, because none of the essays deal with "regionalist" literature in the familiar sense. The [End Page 574] book's blurb suggests that a new critical investment in temporal and geographical specificity is a response "to the pressures of current theoretical trends towards models of cultural globalization." That may be. On the other hand, a renewed attention to particularities of time and place (history) might be merely an overdue retreat from excessive abstraction (theory), which is pretty arid and colorless stuff, after all.
Whatever explains the historical bent of these essays, historians of Latin America will find much of interest in this collection. Probably the most valuable for historians are the essays that use textual analysis to help us understand the way that people felt and acted in the past. For example, my favorite among them reads Machado de Assis to explore "the historical meaning of cruelty" in nineteenth-century Brazil. Pieces on Italian opera in early-nineteenth-century Mexico and on melodrama in late-nineteenth-century Argentina point in a similar direction, as do two that parse the discourse of recent rightwing dictatorships in Chile and Argentina and another that examines the novels read by middle-class Mexican women at the end of the twentieth century.
Many essays deal with colonialism and post-colonialism. El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega appears here (contrary to the conventional interpretations) writing in terms only Andeans could understand. An essay on the Philippine independence movement explains how, faced with local diversity of languages, that movement embraced the Spanish language as a weapon of anti-colonialism. A number of essays come in interesting pairs. Two examine the paradoxes whereby "the rhetoric of modernity was both the bedrock of [postcolonial] Spanish American cultural discourse and the potential source of its most radical disempowerment" (p. 96). Two focus respectively on Simon Rodríguez (the tutor with whom Simón Bolívar rambled in Europe and a true cultural radical) and on José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi, the first Latin American novelist who, though far more conservative than Rodríguez, at least denounced slavery. Two deal with José Marti, who needs no introduction, and two with various aspects of Puerto Rican historical identity.
Overall, the collection bears Sommer's personal stamp: her own interest in history and in clear prose, as well as the influence of her pathbreaking work on the region's "foundational fictions." (One of the contributors presents a novel of star-crossed lovers, on the model that Sommer has identified in so many national romances of nineteenth-century Latin America--this one about Texas, written in the 1930s but not published until recently.) Whether or not the idea of a "new costumbrismo" transcends the role of unifying introductory motif (it doesn't, in my view), The Places of History provides a valuable look at what Latin Americanist critics are up to these days. Significantly, the book is slotted for a marketing category called "Latin American Studies," rather than literary criticism, a field that has lost any claim on a general readership during the last couple of decades. This graceful collection evidently seeks to recapture some of that readership. I think it will succeed, as well as twenty essays by postmodernist literary critics ever could, in speaking to a larger audience.
JOHN CHARLES CHASTEEN, University of North Carolina at...