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Reviewed by:
  • Transamerican Literary Relations and the Nineteenth-Century Public Sphere
  • Caroline Levander
Transamerican Literary Relations and the Nineteenth-Century Public Sphere. By Anna Brickhouse. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pp. xii, 329. Notes. Index. $70.00 cloth.

This work tells an important story about the hemispheric encounters that shaped national literary traditions across the American hemisphere in the early nineteenth-century. Taking the thirty years between the Congress of Panama (1826) and the Continental Treaty (1856) as her focus, Brickhouse shows how what is commonly termed the American Renaissance is, more accurately, a transamerican renaissance characterized by literary border crossing and intercontinental exchange. Yet this important book not only corrects the familiar historical narrative of American literary exceptionalism, but shows the complex interdependencies out of which seemingly distinct literary traditions emerge in the United States, the Caribbean, and across coastal and metropolitan Mexico. In short, Brickhouse argues that "the very conception of the American Renaissance . . . is inherently dependent upon and sustained not only by nationalist discourses but by the underlying transnational desires and anxieties that such discourses seek to mask" (p. 33). In order to make this powerful claim, Brickhouse chooses major narratives around which to redefine the geographic coordinates of Americas literary traditions: Cirilo Villaverde's Cecilia Valdés, Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter," James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans, and William Cullen Bryant's "The Story of Cuba" among many others. Locating discussion of such key texts within the context of the political conflicts that helped to produce them, Brickhouse makes a series of compelling cases for thinking transnationally when analyzing key nineteenth-century literary documents.

One of the most powerful chapters takes the anonymously and possibly multi-authored novel Jicoténal (1826) as its subject, showing how the historical writings that shape it resonate with the novel that Cooper wrote the same year. After persuasively charting the two texts' shared engagement with the same key thematic, political, and narrative concerns, the chapter concludes with an account of how William Hickling Prescott's Conquest of Mexico (1843) similarly is concerned with the mutually informing pressures of nationalism and historical understanding, and of historical writings about the Americas. As this wide-ranging first chapter illustrates, Brickhouse's goal is to remap the starting and endpoints of traditional nation-based literary history, and she does so by pairing specific literary relationships with more sweeping claims about literary and political influence. [End Page 279]

In this way her work is part of the recent critical effort in literary analysis, by such scholars as Doris Sommer, Paul Giles, and Kirsten Gruesz among many others, to rethink the nation-based approaches to analyzing literary production. Unlike many of these efforts, however, Brickhouse works across genres as well as geographies, not confining her efforts to the novel or the U.S.-Mexican War, for example, but considering how poetry, prose, drama, and autobiography look different once we see their transamerican geopolitical origins. As a result, Transamerican Literary Relations, of necessity, is suggestive rather than conclusive—it looks at particular episodes and events, be it Haiti in the 1830s or Cuba in the 1840s—to reframe familiar accounts of literary production, rather than offering "master narratives" of hemispheric literary and cultural study. While some may question whether these discrete episodes add up to a whole—for example, whether tracing the Mexican influences informing Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter" adds up to a full-fledged transamerican renaissance—such a provocative and thoughtful approach represents the highest caliber of comparativist work and sets a standard for scholars working in the field of inter-Americas literary history.

Caroline Levander
Rice University
Houston, Texas


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