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  • Commentary:The Transnational Turn and the Hemispheric Return
  • Claire F. Fox (bio)

America's interconnected and violent foundational histories are a common point of departure in the essays by John-Michael Rivera and Jesse Alemán that open this special issue of American Literary History on "Hemispheric American Literature." Rivera's " 'A Complete Though Bloody Victory': Lorenzo de Zavala and the Transnational Paradoxes of Sovereignty" examines the formation and writings of Lorenzo de Zavala, a participant in the Mexican and, later, Texan struggles for independence. Zavala provisionally reconciled his seemingly conflicting patriotisms in the field of literary production, where he created a utopian vision of the US for Mexican readers. Rivera maintains that Zavala's 1834 travel narrative, Viage de los Estados-Unidos del Norte América, is not an invitation to his compatriots to engage in mimicry but rather "an aesthetic representation that renders for Mexicans guidelines for becoming an autonomous national people who can emerge from the legacy of Spanish colonialism and racialization." There is no independence, Zavala might argue, without interdependence. Alemán's "The Other Country: Mexico, the United States, and the Specter of Conquest" illustrates this point with respect to north-to-south trajectories. Alemán identifies a "trans-American gothic" in the gory tableaux that so fascinated nineteenth-century chroniclers of colonial Mexican history. For Alemán, this aesthetic operates through the Freudian uncanny; it confronts an expansionist US in search of a usable past with unexpected, horrific self-portraits, refracted through images of the Spanish and Aztec empires. Through theoretical insights derived from psychoanalysis and poststructuralism, these two essays establish a strong connecting thread that runs throughout this issue. The logic of historical returns, psychic projection, and fragile self–other relations that trouble nineteenth-century narratives of US nation formation vis-à-vis that of Mexico also influence US literary engagements with other parts of the Western hemisphere. [End Page 638]

The transnational turn in American studies has complicated US literary historical periodizations from the colonial era to the present. In the nineteenth century alone, the Civil War joins new watersheds—among them, the Monroe Doctrine, Indian Removals, Chinese Exclusion, the Treaty of Guadalupe–Hidalgo, and the Spanish–American War. Beyond the demand for inclusion, however, the articles in this issue remind us that the hemispheric concept is not particularly new in academic, political, and literary discourse.1 As in the case of Alemán's trans-American gothic, the hemispheric has irrupted at particular moments in history, only to recede into obscurity once more. The corresponding presentist and historicist impulses of the essays gathered here appear aimed at making explicit subterranean connections between hemisphere and nation that have covertly or overtly shaped American literary production from the nineteenth century to the present. The essays' references to contemporary events, from Hurricane Katrina to 9/11, the occupation of Iraq, and efforts to establish an Africatown business district in Detroit, are more than rhetorical claims for relevance in the context of a new wave of empire-building; they are arguments that the US and its place in the world can be understood more fully through an appreciation of inter-American dynamics which, until recently, have been underattended in the field. By placing the nation in tension with categories of analysis that transcend national boundaries, these essays illuminate networks of race, ethnicity, religion, and class that often pre-date nation formation; they theorize subaltern or minoritarian social positions; and they provide cautionary tales about imperialism in the Americas.

As Sophia McClennen has argued, hemispheric and Latin Americanist research paradigms have vied for precedence in the US academy from the nineteenth century to the present.2 In its most recent incarnation, which extended into the mid-1960s, the hemispheric approach held sway primarily in fields such as political science and international relations. For humanists, contemporary debates about hemispheric research are—per Alemán—uncannily reminiscent of Herbert Eugene Bolton and Edmundo O'Gorman's exchange during the Good Neighbor period. The universalist–particularist axis of their debate still informs contemporary hemispheric research; however, many of the essays featured here demonstrate that contemporary scholars have devised innovative strategies for integrating salient points from each side of that axis...


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