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  • Hemispheric Islam: Continents and Centuries for American Literature
  • Wai Chee Dimock (bio)

How many continents are involved in hemispheric studies, and can we necessarily predict which ones? Is “hemispheric” an objective designation, referring to a physical landmass, or is this a construct for the most part, notional and to some extent strategic? If the latter is true, is it possible to use the word variably, as a term differently mapped by different contexts, without necessarily equating it with one axis of alignment, one set of geographical coordinates? Can we think of it simply as a vector—a direction of inquiry—to indicate any research protocol that goes beyond a single nation, that requires more than one continent for an adequate archive?

1. The Two Americas

As a synonym for “the two Americas,” hemispheric studies has inspired an outpouring of work that has transformed American studies, breaking down its exclusive focus on the US and giving it a different map as well as a different database. For Vera Kutzinski, to link William Carlos Williams to Jay Wright and Nicolas Guillen is to read “against the American grain,” cutting away at the “dead layer” of the received canon to “make accessible the foundations upon which a New World tradition of writing may be built” (4). For Kirsten Silva Gruesz, to contextualize New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans against Cuba and Mexico is to honor a Spanish-language print culture, a Latino tradition extending well beyond US borders, “grounded in a larger web of transamerican perceptions and contact” (xii). For José David Saldívar, to explore a “dialectics [End Page 28] of the Americas” is to give pride of place to “Caribbean, Latin American, African American, and Chicano texts by José Martí, Roberto Fernández Retamar, Gabriel García Márquez, Rolando Hinojosa, and Ntozake Shange.” It is to turn from the transatlantic to the intra-hemispheric, substituting a longitudinal axis for the latitudinal. Rather than orienting “the literatures of the Americas . . . in relation to its ‘Old World’—essentially European—counterpart,” it brackets that side of the planet in favor of a field centered on a “pan-American consciousness” (xi). This shift of direction is even more pronounced in a recent special issue of American Literary History. For Caroline Levander and Robert S. Levine, the co-editors, to think in terms of a “broader hemispheric entity” is to look “North and South in the Americas”; it is to “adopt a North-South rather than East-West perspective” (403).

This is exhilarating work. Still, a different kind of problem can arise when we privilege one particular lineup—the two Americas, the “Western hemisphere”—set apart from another entity, not named, but which in contradistinction would probably have to be called the “Eastern hemisphere.” This binary opposition (like other more obviously worrisome ones) not only stems from an implicit geographical determinism, but it also assigns more weight to one pair of continents, giving one directional axis an automatic primacy and redistributing the prerogatives of the world accordingly. Its classic expression was, of course, the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, at once affirming the unity of the two Americas and asserting the hegemony of the US over this vast region, its hemisphere. A counter-hegemonic version of this doctrine was to appear in the 1826 Congress of Panama, “the first international congress held to form a hemispheric political coalition foresworn to defend its member states against imperial threat from Europe, particularly Spain, and to liberate the remaining Spanish American colonial territories, notably Cuba and Puerto Rico,” as Anna Brickhouse points out (2). In the early twentieth century, José Martí and others would revive this as a platform for anti-colonialism, but it is also important to remember that the hemispheric imperative was initially a territorial imperative, emerging in tandem with an expanding sense of US sovereignty, deployed across the Americas.1

In the mid-twentieth century, the most forceful advocate of that hemispheric sovereignty was John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State during the Eisenhower administration. For Dulles, there exists among the nations of the Americas “a common personality, distinguishing them from the other nations of the world”:

Such a state of facts can not be accidental. It...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1468-4365
Print ISSN
0896-7148
Pages
pp. 28-52
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-16
Open Access
No
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