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  • The Citizen’s Progress:Irony, Agency, and the Evolution of the Bildungsroman in Américo Paredes’s George Washington Gómez
  • Frederick Whiting

From the moment of its belated publication,1 the formal unorthodoxies of Américo Paredes’s George Washington Gómez have captured the attention of its readers and critics. In his introduction to the first published edition of the novel, Rolando Hinojosa apologetically remarks: “[i]t’s a first draft, and it should be seen as an historical work, not as an artifact” (5). Hinojosa’s separation of the historical and the literary, the factual and the artifactual, suggests a model of literary production and critical reception in which the novel’s purported shortcomings with respect to what he seems to consider the temporally autonomous rules of aesthetic form result in an imperfect structuring of historical content.

No doubt this impulse to separate history and aesthetics stems from Paredes’s own determination to publish the novel unrevised, in the form he had left it more than half a century before.2 But if we take seriously the notion that, in so doing, Paredes was presenting, as he describes it in the novel’s acknowledgments, an “archeological piece” (3), a different sense of the relation between literary form and the operations of ideology emerges. Thus understood, we do better to view George Washington Gómez less as a draft than as a record of the aesthetic possibilities available at a particular historical moment for negotiating that moment’s ideological conflicts. Indeed, we might better say, at two particular historical moments. For if the formal structure of the book Paredes composed in the late thirties/early forties responds to one set of historical needs, his decision in 1990 to publish it as it was indicates an evolved interest, from the vantage of the cultural historian, in the issues. The novel’s aesthetic possibilities, framed with respect to their moment of production, provide, in Michael McKeon’s formulation about genre, following Claudio [End Page 178] Guillén, “a problem-solving model on the level of form” (McKeon 1). As such they limn the conditions of possibility for agency and subjectivity at the moment of the novel’s composition.3 Their deployment fifty years later marks Paredes’s interest in the broader, ongoing dynamics of the Mexican-American subject.

Subsequent critics have been somewhat more integrated in approaching the problem of form and content while nevertheless keeping the issue of their relation at the center of concern. The majority of these have closed the gap by asserting that, far from being somehow inadequate to its representational content, the novel’s form is a manifestation of the ideological operations it represents. For Héctor Pérez, for example, the novel inflects the form of the Bildungsroman with a naturalism that is ultimately antithetical to the genre—with the result of ultimately circumscribing the protagonist’s agency. Similarly, María Josefina Saldaña-Portillo sees the protagonist’s subject formation as irreconcilably riven by the conceptual reductions that occur when a complicated Mexican racial economy is translated into the relatively less complicated, though no less discriminatory, US one. Likewise, for Christopher Schedler, “[t]he ever present gap in narrative meaning and sense of absence within the apparently unified subject points to the impossibility of closure for George G. Gomez’s identity or for Américo Paredes’ novel” (Schedler 172). And Leif Sorenson’s excellent reading of the novel stakes out yet another version of this homology between “failed” form and ideological unrest: “Each option, I contend, misses the mark, effacing Paredes’s critique of both forms [corrido and Bildungsroman] and the subjectivities they produce. In my view, Paredes’s rejection of both forms represents the conditions of cultural emergence with uncompromising rigor.” He concludes that “[w]e must face the disturbing realization that by the end of the novel, Chicano/a literary emergence seems impossible” (Sorensen 114, 135).

Various as their particular foci and concerns are, the majority of readings of the novel share a couple of clear, though not always explicitly asserted, suppositions. The first is that the novel’s formal irregularity registers a collapse or critique of its principal genre—Bildungsroman...


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pp. 178-196
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