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  • The American Renaissance and the Mexican RenacimientoThe Long Critical Disconnect in the Americas
  • Robert McKee Irwin (bio)

The mid–nineteenth century marked the moment of the United States’ “coming to its first maturity and affirming its rightful heritage in the whole expanse of art and culture” (Matthiessen 1941, vii). The masterpieces of the American Renaissance, including novels, essays, and poems by Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Henry David Thoreau, remain to this day the cornerstone of national literature in the United States. Whether or not this Renaissance is defined less narrowly than it is articulated in F. O. Matthiessen’s classic study, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941), to include other literary greats of the era, such as Edgar Allen Poe, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Emily Dickinson, or even major figures who emerged a bit earlier and whose place in the canon has weakened with time—for example, William Cullen Bryant or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—there is no [End Page 235] doubting its importance in the solidification of a national literary tradition in the United States.

Mexico’s political history did not allow for a literary renaissance at mid-century, a time when Mexico was just recovering from a devastating war with the United States in which it lost half its territory, and when the precariousness of the nation’s finances were about to make it vulnerable to another invasion, this time by France, whose occupation of the country, deemed the “French Intervention,” would keep Mexico in political disequilibrium, with its president-elect Benito Juárez living in exile in the United States, until the late 1860s. However, once peace and political stability were achieved, “the literary minds of the nation could substitute the pen for the sword and dedicate themselves to the cause of national literature” (Bleznick 1952, 346). It was in this period that Mexico’s greatest promoter of national literature, Ignacio Altamirano—“el fundador de la cultura moderna en México” [the founder of modern culture in Mexico] (Blanco 1996, 51)1–inaugurated first a series of veladas literarias, gatherings where Mexico’s leading intellectuals read and discussed their poetry, stories, and essays, and later the journal El Renacimiento, which has been described as “the most influential literary magazine ever published in Mexico” for its success in “awakening the interest in literature all over Mexico” (Bleznick 1952, 348). The short-lived but vigorous journal, which printed a total of 52 weekly issues from January through December of 1869, published works by a range of writers who together form the foundation of national literature in Mexico. Aside from Altamirano, they include Manuel Acuña, José Tomás de Cuéllar, Guillermo Prieto, Ignacio Ramírez, Francisco Pimentel, and Justo Sierra, among others.2

This study originated from an invitation by Shelley Streeby to participate in a panel at the annual Modern Language Association congress on the American Renaissance, revisited from a transamerican perspective. Streeby is the author of American Sensations: Class, Empire, and the Production of Popular Culture (2002), a fascinating study in a relatively new line of inquiry among U.S. Americanists that places U.S. literature in a context that goes beyond the national. In her book, she argues, for example, “that class and racial formations and popular and mass culture in Northeastern U.S. cities are inextricable from scenes of empire-building in the U.S. West, Mexico, [End Page 236] and the Americas” (15). Streeby’s own example of what has been called the “new” American studies is one of several milestone investigations published in the past few years that examine not only the rhetoric of U.S. expansionism, but also a range of fertile and dynamic literary relations among nineteenth-century writers throughout the Americas. Ambassadors of Culture: The Transamerican Origins of Latino Writing (2002), the innovative study by Kirsten Silva Gruesz (who was also invited to speak on the MLA panel) of what she calls “cultural ambassadorship” in the nineteenth-century Americas, views literary production from a transamerican perspective, looking at the circulation of literary texts across national and linguistic boundaries in the Americas, and establishing, above all, the importance...


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