American Literary History 18.3 (2006) 468-495
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The Gulf of Mexico System and the "Latinness" of New Orleans
Kirsten Silva Gruesz
It is insufficient to say that the first world population got out of town and left New Orleans to become a third world capital, flooded and stinking and dangerous. It is truer to say we discovered that New Orleans, like any other city, had been in the third world all along.
Most travel writers maintain a detached distance from the foreign scenes they witness, but the section on the US in Domingo Faustino Sarmiento's epistolary Viajes por Europa, Africa i América (1847) opens instead with a conversion scene: "I leave the United States, my dear friend, in that state of excitement caused by witnessing a new play—one filled with uncertainties, without plot, without unity" (Sarmiento 290/115).1 Describing a political awakening in literary terms, he portrays himself as a changed man. Appropriate to a nation "without plot, without unity," Sarmiento's narrative proceeds in nonlinear fits and starts of association, but it circles back again and again to New Orleans, where it was composed at the end of his journey. After 10 days enjoying the pleasure-dome of the St. Charles Hotel, attending the theatre, and buying "Books [wicked ones]" (518/316), Sarmiento steams toward the Gulf to meet his Havana-bound ship: "we booked passage on a wretched and pestilent sailing vessel which . . . carried its cargo of pigs plus three or four consumptives who embarked with us and bunked in extremely narrow, hot cabins filled with cobwebs. The North American world was ending, and we began to sense through anticipation the Spanish colonies toward which we were heading" (428/307).2 Sarmiento's travelogue ends here, as if his narration—like civilization itself—had [End Page 468] reached the fabled end of the flat earth, somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico.
In this closing passage, Sarmiento's principal trope shifts from nation as drama to nation as body, associating the claustrophobic, pestilent ship with the whole Spanish-speaking zone of the hemisphere. (Ironically—and not insignificantly, as this essay will suggest—the ship is named the Pierre Soulé, after the expansionist Louisiana Senator). Indeed, throughout the Viajes, which recounts a journey undertaken to diagnose the ills of his native Argentina, Sarmiento describes the former Spanish colonies as diseased or deformed bodies, in contrast to the US, "a new animal produced by political creation" (290/115).3 Geography both shapes the national body and determines how it will grow. Ports, he speculates, are like the orifices of a primitive organism: young nations are dominated by their access points to the outside, but as the nation "evolves to a higher form of life" (294/121) by developing its interior, the ports will become less dominant, producing a healthier entity. In Sarmiento's moralized geography, then, the cosmopolitan port city seems a corrupted orifice of the national body: New Orleans, situated at the mouth of the Mississippi, is "the only exit for an entire world," a place made "incurably sick" by its constant contact with the world at large (428/307).4 The comparison is temporal as well: Sarmiento's proto-evolutionary language categorizes the port city as primitive, retrograde, and soon to be superannuated by the "new animal" of a republic led by its virtuous small-town interior.
Readers familiar with the vast corpus of fictional and non-fictional depictions of New Orleans—which Lewis P. Simpson has called "unquestionably . . . the most exotic setting, rural or urban, in a whole nation" (Simpson 82)—will perceive that Sarmiento's travelogue shares many of the tropes that drive those works: contamination, backwardness, and danger on the negative spectrum; romance, exoticism, and sensual pleasure on the positive. Less usual is his apprehension of the city as a liminal zone between the Anglo and the Latin worlds—the North and the South, the future and the past, mingling in the Gulf like fresh water and saline. Throughout...