In July 1980, Earl E. Fitz, a professor of Spanish, Portuguese, and Comparative Literature at Penn State University, made the following prediction: “It is our contention that inter-American literary studies, naturally of a comparative nature, will prove themselves to be a major trend of the near future, one which will eventually establish itself as a permanent and vital part of every comparative literature department and program in the country” (“Old World Roots/ New World Realities” 10). Over 30 years later, comparatists know that Fitz was only half right. While inter-Americanism has resurfaced in the 2000s as a prime “Idea of the Decade,” the majority of teaching posts, fellowships, and seminars designated as “Literature of the Americas,” “Transnational,” or “Hemispheric” American Literature are housed within English departments, where Anglophone literature holds precedence. This historically anachronous approach places British before Indigenous, Spanish, French, and Portuguese American cultures. This institutional frame subsumes the hemisphere within the US, rather than the US within the hemisphere.
Caroline F. Levander and Robert S. Levine’s 2008 collection Hemispheric American Studies is a torchbearer for a recent resurgence of academic inter-Americanism. The book, Levander and Levine say, aims “to serve as a sort of handbook (or guidebook) to a burgeoning field” that would “chart the interdependencies between nations and communities throughout the Americas” and “enlarge the critical frame of Americanist debate by moving beyond traditional area studies paradigms through analyses of the multiple geopolitical terrains encompassed by the hemisphere” (3, 6). Most notably, the editors affirm their commitment to “doing literary and cultural history from the perspective of a polycentric American hemisphere with no dominant center” (7). The volume thus explores the promises and perils of hemispheric approaches to, among others, early American, African American, Asian American, and Southern US literatures and cultures. But, as this list suggests, the volume is resolutely US-centric, and remains limited by a conception of the hemispheric that means little more than an expanded US national terrain.
As presently constituted, then, Hemispheric American Studies reflects uneasily the uneven political relations that govern the hemisphere, as well as the dominance of a nation-centered model as the ground or source for innovative scholarship in the Americas. The field that “bourgeons” under such constraints awaits, still, the fulfillment of Fitz’s decades-old vision.
This is, in some sense, the most obvious critique one could make of the field, one Levander and Levine address in their introduction: “How can one de-center the United States in American Studies, and how can American Studies become transnational without bringing about what George Handley has called ‘a neoimperial expansion into the field of Latin American studies’?” (9). The answer may be as simple as: comparative literature. For American literature is comparative literature, de facto, once one recognizes the hemisphere as its ground, as the site and source of a multiplicity of languages, cultures, and modes of power. Books written by comparatists during an earlier wave of inter-Americanism know this (see Kutzinski, Fitz, Pérez Firmat, and Zamora, among others). To engage the hemisphere without starting from the United States, American literature will have to be multinational, plurilingual, allowing for multiple points of entry between and among major and minor traditions. In order to avoid both a U.S.-led hemispherism and a hemispheric isolationism, scholars will need to address, within transatlantic and transpacific contexts, the sociopolitical specificities that make identity in the Americas plural and often contradictory, and that nonetheless can, considered together, generate a meaningful sense of the hemisphere as a historically active social and cultural space. Reactivated as a comparative object of study, American Literature can form a hemispheric macro-terrain within the grander scales encompassed by World Literature.
Fitz, Earl E. “Old World Roots / New World Realities: A Comparatist Looks at the Growth of Literature in North and South America.” Council on National Literatures / Quarterly World Report 3.3 (1980): 8-11.
--. Rediscovering the New World: Inter-American Literature in a Comparative Context. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 1991.
Kutzinski, Vera M. Against the American Grain: Myth and History in William Carlos Williams,Jay Wright, and Nicolás Guillen. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press: 1987.
Levander, Caroline F. and Robert S. Levine (eds.). Hemispheric American Studies. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008.
Pérez Firmat, Gustavo. Do the Americas Have a Common Literature? Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990.
Zamora, Lois Parkinson. Writing the Apocalypse: Historical Vision in Contemporary US and Latin American Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.