- Vernacular Latin Americanisms: War, the Market, and the Making of a Discipline by Fernando Degiovanni
Within the fields that renegotiate the borders of Hispanic studies, alongside a true explosion of scholarship on Latinx studies, recent years have witnessed a renewed interest in redefining the limits and the scope of Latin America and Latin Americanism. Books such as Mariano Siskind's Cosmopolitan Desires (2014), Nathalie Bouzaglio's Ficción adulterada (2016), and Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo's Latin America: The Allure and Power of an Idea (2017) have all advanced new readings of canonical works of literature, while questioning to different extents the need to sustain a geopolitical entity that is seen as both artificial and too constraining—that is, Latin America itself. Among these interventions, Fernando Degiovanni's Vernacular Latin Americanisms: War, the Market, and the Making of a Discipline seeks to debunk altogether the very foundational narrative behind the emergence of Latin Americanism in the early twentieth century.
Degiovanni argues that Latin Americanism did not come out of the tradition of essay writing on continental identity by key figures such as José Martí, Rubén Darío, and José Enrique Rodó, but rather out of the construction of Latin American literature as a specialized field of knowledge first in American universities and then also in Latin American countries from 1900 to 1960. Instead of highlighting the region as a privileged place of enunciation (a tradition that can be traced from Rodó to Nelly Richard and Hugo Achúgar), he claims that the emergence of Latin Americanism is to be found in institutional initiatives and academic discourses that sought to shape the continent as a territory of peace against the backdrop of a series of armed conflicts, from the Spanish-American War in 1898 to the Cold War.
In doing so, Degiovanni boldly opposes the famous works of Martí and Rodó to the more anonymous efforts of American university professors and high school teachers who promoted the study of Spanish and Latin American literature in the United States during the early twentieth century, as well as to the continental endeavors of somewhat forgotten cultural figures active in Latin America roughly at the same time. This polemic twist gives way to what is perhaps Degiovanni's most provoking hypothesis: that while it is generally accepted that there is no Latin Americanism without Latin America, it is no less true that there is no Latin America without Latin Americanism. In other words, Degiovanni's approach to Latin Americanism (as well as those of the foundational figures he analyzes) [End Page 121] could be deemed as performative, insofar as he is more concerned with what Latin America does than with what Latin America is. Hence the notion of "vernacular Latin Americanisms" that gives the book its title, for the word "vernacular" evokes the local and historically situated, rather than the normative or exemplary (5).
The first two chapters of the book focus on the academic trajectory of Jeremiah Ford, a professor at Harvard University who first called his students to pick up the study of Latin American literature in the 1910s, and Alfred Coester, a high school teacher and occasional CIA spy who wrote the first-ever history of Latin American literature in 1916. The academic careers of Ford and Coester are examined as part of the Dollar Diplomacy that brought together politicians, scholars, and businessmen to foster US expansionism. But Degiovanni also turns to Latin America itself to study the work of Manuel Ugarte and Rufino Blanco-Fombona. Although these figures have been forgotten by contemporary scholarship, Degiovanni unearths the great deal of attention their continental literary projects received in the 1920s, strongly opposing American agendas in the region, and even seen by the United States as a threat to their own interests.
Throughout the book, Degiovanni combines close reading with historical analysis to strengthen his arguments through an impressive archival research of manuscripts, letters, and unpublished academic records. Following this method, chapters 3 and 4 carefully examine the ideas of Federico de Onís and...