- The Latin American Literary Boom and U.S. Nationalism during the Cold War by Deborah Cohn
cold war, boom literature, literary history, Panamerican studies, universities, expatriation
Deborah Cohn's The Latin American Literary Boom and U.S. Nationalism during the Cold War offers a well-researched and compelling study of how Latin American literature in the 1960s and 70s became what historian Gilbert Joseph calls a "transnational 'contact zone"' of Cold War activity (qtd. in Cohn 200). With intriguing details gleaned from a host of archival sources, Cohn shows how the critical and commercial success of Latin American Boom literature in the U.S. intersected with ideological interests relating to the strategic importance of Latin America in the wake of the Cuban Revolution, and the investment in literature as a symbol of democratic freedom. Cohn focuses on the social networks, infrastructure, and material support that enabled the production and dissemination of Latin American literature in the United States during the heyday of the Boom, alternating her descriptions of North American cultural institutions with the experiences of individuals who came into contact with those institutions, from both North and Latin America, and from both sides of the political spectrum. Through meticulous descriptions of the circumstances around the Boom's success in the U.S., Cohn's project comprises a richly detailed case study of the limits of imperial reason within the belly of one of the Cold War superpowers.
The Latin American Literary Boom and U.S. Nationalism during the Cold War makes a significant contribution to the growing body of Cold War studies that has emerged over the past several decades. Within the field of literary studies, Cohn's book can be seen as an in-depth exploration of some of the claims made in Jean Franco's influential book The Decline and Fall of the Lettered City: Latin America in the Cold War (2002). With her focus on the U.S., Cohn clearly grapples with the argument, advanced by Mark Berger and others in the 1990s, that Latin American studies—along with area studies in general—operated as an extension of U.S. Cold War policy. However, taking her lead from Hugh Wilford's The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America (2008), Cohn argues that intellectual and artistic activity was not completely subsumed by the ideologies underpinning the institutions that supported them. She underscores the fact that although programs promoting Boom literature in the U.S. often used Cold War policy as a justification for financial or logistical support, they also tended to involve individuals—both organizers and guests, North and Latin American—who voiced dissenting perspectives.
Cohn approaches the mechanisms and interactions behind cultural production as a privileged space for the analysis of the exercise and limits of power, citing Gilbert Joseph's assertion that "power does not flow only from the policies [End Page 235] and interventions of states; it also works through language and symbolic systems and manifests itself in identities and everyday practices" (qtd. 200). Cohn examines diverse aspects of the production and promotion of Boom literature, including the changing landscape for translation and publication, conferences, university initiatives, literary prizes, and funding sources. In addition to highlighting the conflicting political agendas that affected every step of literary production and dissemination during these years, she also stresses the numerous contingencies that lie behind the establishment of the Boom's canonical status (and by implication, behind all canon formation), including not only direct effects of state and private power, but also individual encounters, struggles, and decisions.
At the center of the mechanics of literary production and promotion during these years lay the symbolic function of literature, in which artistic freedom was associated with the kind of civil liberties the U.S. ostensibly defended, in distinction to the supposed repression of Soviet-led Communism. Cohn describes myriad appeals to this symbolism in the name of negotiating national policies that paradoxically restricted freedom in the name of protecting it. Both left-leaning intellectuals and U.S. government officials argued for the diplomatic...