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American Literary History 18.3 (2006) 521-549

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"Out of This World":

Islamic Irruptions in the Literary Americas

The poem, through candor, brings back a power again
That gives a candid kind to everything.
We say: At night an Arabian* in my room,
With his damned hoobla-hoobla-hoobla-how,
Inscribes a primitive astronomy
Across the unscrawled fores the future casts
And throws his stars around the floor. By day
The wood-dove used to chant his hoobla-hoo
And still the grossest iridescence of ocean
Howls hoo and rises and howls hoo and falls.
Life's nonsense pierces us with strange relation.
Wallace Stevens, from "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction"
* ". . . the fact that the Arabian is the moon is something that the reader could not possibly know. However, I did not think it was necessary for him to know."
Wallace Stevens, Letters

Wallace Stevens's poem represents the enigmatic impact of the moon's light moving across the floor of his room as the ethnic necromancy of a mysterious Arabian. Stevens figures poetry itself as an unearthly source of light that illuminates most fully when the hemisphere is shrouded in the darkness of night. The errant orbit of the crescent, symbolic of Islam, provides an outlying vantage point freed from the earth's terracentric singularity. Such strangeness casts [End Page 521] an indecipherable pall over continental complacencies while still influencing the ebb and flow of oceans. Other instances of Islamic irruptions explored in this essay share some of these crepuscular aspects of the moon's present yet otherworldly power. For Stevens, the unsettling luminescence of the moon, voiced by the inscrutable "hobbla-how . . . hoobla-hoo," ultimately comprises the empowering gift of poetry that promises expansive access to a more "candid kind." This essay argues that the appearance of Islam in American situations, intimated here by Stevens's lunar "Arabian," has been a dynamic and variable intercultural process since the earliest days of European settlement in the continents that came to be called the "New World." The exotopic resources that such a presence provides have disrupted the geographical insularity of hemispheric literary studies and supplied broader planetary latitudes from which diverse critical and creative projects have been launched and enriched.

The violent attacks of Arabian hijackers on 9/11 revealed the hemisphere's vulnerability to an "overseas" menace that pierced the boundaries of the Americas in ways that have been said to have "changed everything." As the strange privacy of Stevens's moon and the stunning surprise of the terrorist attacks attest, such irruptions occur in a range of aesthetic and political registers in the post-contact history of the hemisphere. Similar to the historical communities of Muslim maroons who rejected assimilation and formed communities of resistance throughout the territories of the Americas, literary writers have evoked the spectral elusiveness of Islamic difference to imagine a variety of unincorporated spaces that lie beyond the full control of continental systems of cultural power.

The best work of the new hemispheric approaches to American studies has dislocated the US from its metonymic centrality by tracing cross-cultural ramifications throughout the broader expanse of the Americas. Such innovative approaches as "New World studies" (Roland Greene), "inter-Americas studies" (Claudia Sadowski-Smith and Claire F. Fox), "trans-American literary relations" (Anna Brickhouse), the "trans-American imaginary" (Paula Moya and Ramon Saldivar), and "an Americas paradigm" (Sandhya Shukla and Heidi Tinsman) have bridged the boundaries that have long confined cultural inquiry within narrow frameworks of nation, ethnicity, and language. This emergent enterprise has illuminated subaltern indigeneities, heterogeneous circuits, and hybrid conjunctures long obscured by established genealogies and canons. The essays in this issue contribute to this burgeoning intercultural dialogue by demonstrating anew the fresh comparative lineages revealed by situating the local intricacies of creolization within the trajectories of a greater regionalism. By transgressively expanding the nodes of American literary studies along the longer axis afforded by north-south transcontinentalism, the critical enterprise of the new [End Page 522] hemispherism is generating American studies that are more responsive to the complex routes of...


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