- Territories of Empire: U.S. Writing from the Louisiana Purchase to Mexican Independence by Andy Doolen
From Oxford University Press’s Studies in American Literary History series comes Andy Doolen’s study of Anglo-American writings that chart the U.S. as a territorial empire in the early part of the nineteenth century. These “cartographic texts,” as Doolen calls them, are not precursors to the more familiar 1845 proclamation of “Manifest Destiny”; rather, the era that saw [End Page 183] the Louisiana Purchase, Mexican Independence, and the Monroe Doctrine ushered “an uneven, unpredictable, and often unplanned process of territorialization” that, Doolen maintains, inaugurated the culture of U.S. empire-building through state sanctioned expansion and private business ventures, filibustering, and travel into historic or occupied Spanish and French territories, such as Mexico, New Orleans, and what is now the greater southwest.
There’s not much literature proper in Doolen’s study of American literary history, save for Cooper’s The Prairie and Timothy Flint’s relatively unknown Francis Berrian, a novel about as rewarding as the Leatherstocking tale. Instead, we have newspaper coverage of the Aaron Burr scandal placed in the context of slavery and the Louisiana Purchase to analyze how Creoles in New Orleans adapted to an emergent form of Anglo-American whiteness; Zebulon Pike’s Account of Expeditions to the Sources of the Mississippi and through the West Parts of Louisiana situated between Jefferson’s writings on Louisiana, on the one hand, and the war for Mexican Independence, on the other, to show how the travel account serves as a primer of sorts for the way U.S. imperialism would breach the Mexican borderlands; and William Davis Robinson’s Memoirs of the Mexican Revolution, a shoddy history of Mexico’s war for independence filled with dubious facts, read as foundational to the Monroe Doctrine. Flint’s Berrian, the first Anglophone novel about the Mexican revolution, and Cooper’s Leatherstocking novel round out the study’s line-up in ways that foreground the historicity of American literary culture.
Doolen’s focus on what he calls “cartographic texts” doesn’t disappoint; it proves to be a fulfilling, informative, and astute assemblage of writings that chart the multiple forms of expressive culture U.S.-empire building takes historically and geographically. The book uncovers and analyzes U.S. empire’s discursive bedrock, a textual and cultural foundation of albeit uneven imperial narratives that pervade obscure newspapers, western travel accounts, presidential diaries, and official governmental acts. These are the figurative “territories of empire,” to use Doolen’s apt title, that convincingly show how empire and its culture of coloniality inhabit even the most prosaic texts of U.S. print culture and literary history writ large. Not all writings do this evenly, however, and Doolen’s study would’ve been more cogent with discussion of work from the other side of the colonial divide, such as Vincente Rocafuerte’s 1821 Philadelphia-published Ideas Necesarias a todo pueblo Americano Independiente, available in Spanish or in anthologized English excerpts; Lorenzo de Zavala’s 1834 Journey to the United States of North America, written in the vein of de Tocqueville and available in English translation; or the less accessible but still significant Ramón de la Sagra’s 1836 Cinco meses en los Estados Unidos, a Cuban-authored travel narrative [End Page 184] in the spirit of de Zavala’s text—all three of which complicate the one-way territorial gaze Doolen’s selection of texts map as American literary history in the first place.