- Transnational American Literary Studies in the Time of Trump
Of what use are transnational American literary studies in an era of virulently resurgent nationalism? At a time when promises of bigger and higher border walls helped elect an ethnocentric demagogue as President of the United States, when travel bans (however botched) are announced with regularity, and when the interests of business are deemed synonymous with the interests of America in the halls of power, examining American literature in transnational perspective has more to teach us than ever.
American texts have been crossing borders for centuries—being translated, reinterpreted, revised, and reimagined—inspiring writers around the globe to produce their own original and often arresting responses. What insights into our country and the literature it has produced might emerge when we look at how writers around the world have been in conversation with American literature in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? Looking at Walt Whitman through the eyes of Dominican writer Pedro Mir and at Mark Twain through the eyes of Chinese writer Lao She can suggest some answers.1
Consider Pedro Mir's "Contracanto a Walt Whitman," a poem that celebrates Whitman's appealing egalitarian validation of common people while blasting the outrageousness of his country's imperial [End Page 483] arrogance. In section twelve of the poem, in a sly satiric act of ventriloquism, Mir has Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt, the businessman-protagonist of the novel named after him, sing his own version of "Song of Myself." Speaking in the voice of "I, Babbitt, a cosmos, a child of Manhattan," Mir demands that the countries of Central and South America be brought to him on the caterpillar treads of tanks, and, amidst awful smells, they are. Mir writes,
—Yo, Babbitt,un cosmos, Un hijo de Manhattan.Él os lo dirá—Traedme las Antillas. … sobre los caterpillars de los tanquesTraedme las Antillas.Y en medio de un aroma silenciosoAllá viene la isla de Santo Domingo.—Traedme la América Central.Y en medio de un aroma pavorosoAllá viene callada Nicaragua.Traedme la América del Sur. …(Mir 1952, 68)
—I, Babbitt, a cosmos,a son of ManhattanHe will tell you,—Bring me the Antilles.. … On the caterpillar treads of tanksbring me the Antilles.And amidst a silent smellthere comes the island of Santo Domingo.—Bring me Central America.And amidst a dreadful smellThere comes Nicaragua quietly.Bring me South America. …2
Later the poet addresses Whitman directly saying that the speaker can't recognize him today—"because your sign is guarded in the vaults of Banks, because your voice is in islands guarded by reefs of bayonets and daggers" (72). Mir's "Countersong" asks us to examine how democratic openness and imperious arrogance can co-exist as they do in both Whitman's text and America itself. Twenty-first-century critics are increasingly examining Mir's vision here, noting, as Miguel Alejandro Valerio does (2014), for example, that Mir is referencing the ways in which Whitmanian ideals have been hijacked by an imperialist capitalism. Ultimately, in [End Page 484] Victor Figueroa's view, for Mir, the poetic personae of both Babbitt and Whitman "anchor their pronouns (I and mine) in imperial logic that not surprisingly makes them part of the same grammar of colonial domination" (2007, 55–56). Viewing Mir's poem as a "masterful presentation of colonial tensions experienced from the inside," Figueroa sees it as "an extremely accurate and powerful portrayal … of the colonial condition"—a condition "sustained by the myth of a 'lack' in the colonized that does not exist in the colonizer," who "can always claim to be 'a cosmos'" (55–56). In Figueroa's view, Mir's efforts to both celebrate and transcend Whitman's rhetoric with his own "countersong" may be seen, in part, as an effort to "re-imagine aspects of the Dominican Republic's convoluted historical relations with the 'colossus of the north'"—exemplified by "the U.S. occupation from 1916 to 1925, an uneasy cold war/good neighbor alliance during much of Trujillo's regime, another occupation in 1965, and armed and political resistance" (59). Mir's "countersong" offers...