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  • Introduction:Hemispheric American Literary History
  • Caroline F. Levander (bio) and Robert S. Levine (bio)

In 1994, an essay appeared in American Literary History that shook up the field. Carolyn Porter's "What We Know That We Don't Know: Remapping American Literary Studies" accused US Americanists of failing to question the most fundamental assumption of their field imaginary: that the nation itself should be "the basic unit of, and frame for, analysis." Nation-based literary study, Porter argued, has traditionally rested on the bedrock of "an idealized cultural nationalism now set in relief by its own failures" (470), and she made the rather cutting point (via the "what we know that we don't know" of her title) that Americanists had become increasingly aware of this conceptual blind spot. Her essay thus aspired to reconstruct the field through a sort of critical shock therapy, as she urged Americanists to break away from the bounded unit of the US nation and aspire to bring into their critical work nothing less than "a quadruple set of relations": between Africa and the Americas, Europe and Latin America, Latin America and North America, and North America and Europe. The starting point for such a massive project of disciplinary reconstruction, she suggested, should be a reconsideration of US literary and cultural histories in the larger territorial (and discursive) frame of the "American" hemisphere. The payoff of attending to "cultural, political, and economic relations between and within the Americas" (510) would be a fissuring and relativizing of America, in which new and more historically responsive stories and perspectives would come into focus. Such an approach would be quite different from the topographically comparative models that dominated "literature of the Americas" study of the 1980s and early 1990s; instead, she imagined a "field reconstellated by a historicized politics of location" (521).

Porter's influential call for an enhanced hemispheric—indeed trans-hemispheric—literary and cultural study in fact appeared at the moment when transnational, postnational, and empire studies were coming into a new prominence. A year earlier, Amy Kaplan and Donald Pease had brought out their Cultures of United States [End Page 397] Imperialism (1993), and there quickly followed a number of monographs and collections that both called for and demonstrated the value of moving beyond the frame of the nation.1 This corpus includes but is not limited to Pease's National Identities and Post-Americanist Narratives (1994), Jeffrey Belnap and Raúl Fernández's José Marti's "Our America": From National to Hemispheric Cultural Studies (1998), Doris Sommer's Proceed with Caution, When Engaged by Minority Writings in the Americas (1999), John Carlos Rowe's Post-National American Studies (2000), Walter Mignolo's Local Histories/Global Designs (2000), Alberto Moreiras's The Exhaustion of Difference: The Politics of Latin American Cultural Studies (2001), Shelley Streeby's American Sensations (2002), Amy Kaplan's The Anarchy of Empire (2002), Kirsten Silva Gruesz's Ambassadors of Culture: The Transamerican Origins of Latino Writing (2002), Jon Smith and Deborah Cohn's Look Away: The U.S. South in New World Studies (2004), Anna Brickhouse's Transamerican Literary Relations (2004), Mignolo's The Idea of Latin America (2005), Rodrigo Lazo's Writing to Cuba (2005), and María DeGuzmán's Spain's Long Shadow: The Black Legend, Off-Whiteness, and Anglo-American Empire (2005). The 2002 founding of the journal Comparative American Studies signaled the institutional recognition of the field's importance, and that journal and others have recently featured a spate of special issues that have specifically addressed connections between US literary and cultural history and the Americas. Notable in this regard are the 2003 special issue of PMLA edited by Djelal Kadir on "America, the Idea, the Literature"; the 2003 special issue of Modern Fiction Studies edited by Paula Moya and Ramón Saldivar on "Fictions of the Trans-American Imaginary"; the 2004 special issue of Radical History Review edited by Sandhya Shukla and Heidi Tinsman on "Our Americas: Political and Cultural Imaginings"; and the 2005 special issue of Comparative American Studies edited by Claire F. Fox on "Critical Perspectives and Emerging Models of Inter-American Studies." While Porter in the 1994 American Literary History could...


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