Subjects and Citizens: Nation, Race, and Gender from Oroonoko to Anita Hillby Michael Moon
Focusing on intersecting issues of nation, race, and gender, this volume inaugurates new models for American literary and cultural history. Subjects and Citizens reveals the many ways in which a wide range of canonical and non-canonical writing contends with the most crucial social, political, and literary issues of our past and present.
Defining the landscape of the New American literary history, these essays are united by three interrelated concerns: ideas of origin (where does "American literature" begin?), ideas of nation (what does "American literature" mean?), and ideas of race and gender (what does "American literature" include and exclude and how?). Work by writers as diverse as Aphra Behn, James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, Frances Harper, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Herman Melville, William Faulkner, Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Bharati Mukherjee, Booker T. Washington, Mark Twain, Kate Chopin, Américo Paredes, and Toni Morrison are discussed from several theoretical perspectives, using a variety of methodologies. Issues of the "frontier" and the "border" as well as those of coloniality and postcoloniality are explored. In each case, these essays emphasize the ideological nature of national identity and, more specifically, the centrality of race and gender to our concept of nationhood.
Collected from recent issues of American Literature, with three new essays added, Subjects and Citizens charts the new directions being taken in American literary studies.
Contributors. Daniel Cooper Alarcón, Lori Askeland, Stephanie Athey, Nancy Bentley, Lauren Berlant, Michele A. Birnbaum, Kristin Carter-Sanborn, Russ Castronovo, Joan Dayan, Julie Ellison, Sander L. Gilman, Karla F. C. Holloway, Annette Kolodny, Barbara Ladd, Lora Romero, Ramón Saldívar, Maggie Sale, Siobhan Senier, Timothy Sweet, Maurice Wallace, Elizabeth Young
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Subjects and Citizens
Nation, Race, and Gender from Oroonoko to Anita Hill
By Michael Moon, Cathy N. Davidson
Duke University PressCopyright © 1995 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Letting Go Our Grand Obsessions: Notes Toward a New Literary History of the American Frontiers
Situada entre fronteras, en los problemáticos intersticios culturales y lingüísticos creados en el choque e interacción de varias culturas en tensión ... —Carmen M. Del Rió, "Chicana Poets: Re-Visions from the Margin" A history may be conceptualized as an ideologically or imaginatively governed catalog of figurative elements. The catalog is inconceivable in the absence of ideology, and a shift, or rupture, in ideological premises promotes strikingly new figurations.—Houston A. Baker Jr., "Archeology, Ideology and African American Discourse" Those societies which cannot combine reverence to their symbols with freedom of revision must ultimately decay either from anarchy, or from the slow atrophy of a life stifled by useless shadows.—Alfred North Whitehead, Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect
On the sunny morning of 4 October 1553, in a gesture meant to translate physical borders into cultural and political boundaries, an old man carrying "'his bow and arrows, and a wooden staff with a very elaborate handle'" "drew a line on the ground as a demarcation, threatening death to any intruder who dared cross it." Impressive in his "'black robe ... studded with pearls, and surrounded by dogs, birds and deer,'" the old man nonetheless faced a formidable adversary: an exploratory expedition dispatched by the Spanish adventurer, Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán, notorious for pillaging the villages of the Indies and enslaving all captives. Tracing the first contacts between Europeans and the Yaqui nation, historian Evelyn Hu-DeHart has translated the anonymous first-person expedition report. "'Aiming our heaviest cannon at them,'" the Spaniards attacked the warriors who accompanied their robed leader and, in the words of the Spanish scribe, quickly concluded that "'These Indians fought as well and as energetically as any Indians I have seen since I have been in the Indies, and I have seen none fight better than they.'" Deciding that they could not afford to sustain additional heavy losses, "the Spaniards turned back," according to HuDe-Hart.
While one motley band of Spanish slavers was driven off, however, the mark intended to inscribe inviolable borders finally came to denote permeable margins. By the 1620s, Jesuit missionaries had established churches and schools within Yaqui enclaves and translated rituals, the Mass for the Dead, and various prayers into the Yaqui language. As anthropologist Edward Spicer has noted, "the ideas in these prayers were therefore a part of Yaqui thought in the Yaqui language." At the same time, maehtom, Yaqui lay priests, were developing a species of priestly literacy that preserved elements from distinctly precontact religious beliefs and involved writing in Spanish, Latin, and Yaqui. The old man's line, in short, was quickly contained within a zone of successive interpenetrations which—on all sides—were variously hostile, welcomed, policed, suppressed, acknowledged, and subversive.
To recover and reconstruct the linguistic and textual encodings of seriate interpenetrations such as these would allow us, at last, to embark on a long-overdue literary history of the American frontiers. My aim here is to initiate just such a project. Building on the work of Norman Grabo, William Spengemann, Francis Jennings, William Cronon, Carolyn Merchant, Tzvetan Todorov, and Howard Lamar and Leonard Thompson, I propose extending the implications of their investigations beyond European colonial beginnings; and, in the case of the historians, I want to reinforce their debt to concentrated textual analysis—all in an effort to reconceive what we mean by "history" when we address literary history and to reconceptualize what we mean by "frontier" when we intend the Americas. My strategy is to offer an approach that allows for a more inclusive interdisciplinarity, mitigates the condescension with which we have traditionally treated the impact of region on the construction of literary texts, and at the same time frees American literary history from the persistent theories of continuity that have made it virtually impossible to treat frontier materials as other than marginalia or cultural mythology. For scholars of early American literature—the field in which I was trained—my approach necessarily complicates the notion of earliness but, at the same time, promises liberation from the stultifying habit of regarding that literature merely as precursor to an authentic literature yet to follow or as transition pieces between British forebears and American identities.
To effect this project will require that we let go our grand obsessions with narrowly geographic or strictly chronological frameworks and instead recognize "frontier" as a locus of first cultural contact, circumscribed by a particular physical terrain in the process of change because of the forms that contact takes, all of it inscribed by the collisions and inter-penetrations of language. My paradigm would thus have us interrogating language—especially as hybridized style, trope, story, or structure— for the complex intersections of human encounters and human encounters with the physical environment. It would enjoin us to see the ways in which the collision of languages encodes the physical terrain as just as much a player in the drama of contact as the human participants, with the landscape variously enabling, thwarting, or even evoking human actions and desires.
The Yaqui "Testamento" provides an apt example. As Larry Evers and Felipe Molina speculate in the introduction to their forthcoming translation, "some time perhaps long after the Yaqui elder inscribed that line on the earth before the Spanish slave-traders, other Yaquis wrote a narrative on paper as a way of re-inscribing the same boundary." Describing the origins of what the Yaquis have come to call the Holy Dividing Line, the "Testamento" represents what Evers and Molina call "a layered discourse in a combination of Spanish and Yaqui," with inflections from Latin and Hebrew. At the heart of the "Testamento" is the authorizing of Yaqui land boundaries and the threats to their security. Prophets, or originating elders, sing "the Holy Dividing Line" into being and then predict that
... "in the course of some years will come
some wicked men from
Gethsemane, that is New Spain, those men,
the image of Lucifer, are
invaders and enemies of our life and they do not respect
others and they will keep these properties."
* * *
They will ask you: "Whose land is this kingdom?"
Clearly, as Evers and Molina point out, establishing the boundaries of Yaqui lands has become "part of a story that evokes the Bible as much as any aboriginal Yaqui narratives." It thus participates in a long tradition "of cross-cultural interpretation" in which the Yaquis write and rewrite "their own culture in a dialogue with ... European history and Christian religion"—and, I would add, in dialogue with European concepts of ownership and landholding.
In asserting a mythic history for legalistic claims to "our poor inheritance, the earth that was given," the Yaqui "Testamento" renders the landscape ardently, albeit passively, possessed. In other texts that I would designate as integral to a literary history of the frontiers, by contrast, the physical terrain becomes an "active partner" in Carolyn Merchant's terms, "acquiesc[ing] to human interventions through resilience and adaptation or 'resist[ing]' human actions through mutation and evolution." In the works of Willa Cather, just as in Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony, "nature ... is not passive, but," as Merchant describes it, "an active complex that participates in change over time and responds to human-induced change." Indeed, Alexandra Bergson confronts the palpably sentient presence of the Nebraska prairies in Cather's O Pioneers! (1913), while what Tayo comes to understand as part of his healing in Ceremony is that he loves, and is loved by, the mountains that surround his New Mexico pueblo: "They were close; they had always been close. And he loved them then as he had always loved them, the feeling pulsing over him as strong as it had ever been. They loved him that way; he could still feel the love they had for him.... This feeling was their life, vitality locked deep in blood memory, and the people were strong, and the fifth world endured, and nothing was ever lost as long as the love remained." When the bond between the people and their land is threatened by uranium mining, by atomic testing laboratories "deep in the Jemez Mountains, on land the Government took from Cochiti Pueblo," and by the Los Alamos installations fencing off the "mountain canyon where the shrine of the twin mountain lions had always been," Silko provides story and symbol for Merchant's insistence that "the relation between human beings and the nonhuman world is ... reciprocal."
Although the figurative elements of such contacts do not concern them, historians Howard Lamar and Leonard Thompson similarly "regard a frontier not as a boundary or line, but as a territory or zone of inter-penetration between ... previously distinct societies." For them, "there are three essential elements in any frontier situation ...: territory; two or more initially distinct peoples; and the process by which the relations among the peoples in the territory begin, develop, and eventually crystalize." My own definition incorporates theirs, asserting that there always stands at the heart of frontier literature—even when disguised or repressed—a physical terrain that, for at least one group of participants, is newly encountered and is undergoing change because of that encounter; a currently indigenous population and at least one group of newcomers or "intruders"; and the collisions and negotiations of distinct cultural groups as expressed "en el choque e interaction" of languages and texts. Whether written or oral, the texts that comprise this new literary history of the frontiers would be identified by their articulation of these initial encounters. Thus, the literature of the frontiers may be identified by its encoding of some specifiable first moment in the evolving dialogue between different cultures and languages and their engagement with one another and with the physical terrain.
The materials that qualify as the primary or proto-texts of frontier literary history would be those that themselves participate in that first moment of contact—for example, the Eskimo legends of the Tunnit, the strangers who came from afar and erected stone buildings; Christopher Columbus's "Letter to Lord Sanchez ... on His First Voyage"; Amerigo Vespucci's Mundus Novus; Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá's Historia de la Nueva Mexico; William Bradford's History of Plimmoth Plantation; Mary White Rowlandson's captivity narrative; and Daniel Boone's putative autobiography. The secondary—but no less important—texts of frontier literary history would be those composed after the fact, reworking for some alternate audience or future generation the scene and meaning of original contact, or "recovering" the primary texts so as to give them new readings in a newly imagined and reconstructed past. Examples in English include Joel Barlow's Columbiad (1807) and even J. N. Barker's high-pitched melodrama "The Indian Princess; or, La Belle Sauvage" (1808), the first play by a United States author to focus on Indian characters. Reworking incidents from John Smith's General History of Virginia (1624), a primary text in my schema, "The Indian Princess" is also the first play to utilize the story of Pocahantas. Among novels that represent examples of significant secondary texts in English, I would certainly include James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking series, Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop, and Leslie Silko's Ceremony— with its subtext evoking a twentieth-century nuclear culture intruding itself into the sacred sites of the Indian Southwest.
What makes the paradigm so appealing, however, is that English texts, by themselves, could never constitute a sufficient history. Indeed, the new frontier literary history that I envisage might well begin with a comparative analysis of the Eskimo legends of the Tunnit and the Icelandic and Greenland versions of Norse sagas detailing the discovery and attempted colonization of Vineland, on the North American coast, by Scandinavian explorers from Greenland and Iceland about the year 1000. Recording clashes between Vikings and "Skraellings" (indigenous peoples who may well have been an Eskimo people migrating south), the sagas describe "a fair, well-wooded country" and the appeal "of all the valuable products of the land, grapes, and all kinds of game and fish." The dramatic elements center on the frustrated attempts of the Skraellings to barter with the Europeans and the Europeans' frustration at the fact that "neither (people) could understand the other's language."
Without question, a revised literary history of the frontiers would also include the foundational corpus of the Hispanoamerican written tradition, the crónicas de Indias, with texts by criollo and mestizo authors alike. Examples include not only the letters and diaries of the more notorious explorers and conquistadores from Columbus on but, as well, the journal of Cabeza de Vaca's wanderings from Florida to Texas (1555), Bartolemé de las Casas's Historia de las Indias (1527–61), and Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá's History of New Mexico (1610), arguably the first epic poem composed in what is now the United States. A key text for examining the way in which frontiers inevitably give rise to hybridized forms would be the massive two-volume Royal Commentaries of the Incas and General History of Peru (published in Spain in separate segments in 1609 and 1616–17). Claiming noble Spanish blood from his father and descent from the royal Inca line on his maternal side, Garcilaso de la Vega, El Inca, intentionally took on the name of the great medieval Spanish warrior-poet Garcilaso de la Vega (ca. 1502–36) in order to compose a text that at once justifies and mourns the demise of the Inca empire. By employing narrative structures from Incan haravi (oral verse histories), chivalric romance, and European discovery narratives, the Inca Garcilaso pits the narrative impulse of the Quechua haravi chants to celebrate the victories and glories of the ancestors against a distinctly Spanish Golden Age impulse to retell epic victories and reveal epic betrayals:
When the Spaniards saw how generously Titu Atauchi and his companions had treated them while in confinement, and how attentively they had been cared for and given their freedom, gifts of gold, silver, and precious stones, and provided with a large escort of natives to accompany them back to Spanish quarters, though the Indians might easily have cut them to pieces out of rage and indignation at the death of their king, and finally how the Indians asked for negotiations on such fair and reasonable terms, they were confounded and amazed.
Moreover, like the (presumably) later and much shorter Yaqui "Testamento," Inca Garcilaso de la Vega's Royal Commentaries demonstrates the dynamic and reciprocal relationship between a prior oral tradition and the intrusion of a written literature. The oral (or folkloric) elements have not been simply appropriated or incorporated into the European structures. Rather, their inclusion has fundamentally altered the narrative patterns that previously governed the written genres.
Similarly, the moral dialogues composed by Mendicant friars in the Nahuatl language would become frontier texts. In the years following the Spanish conquest, from Mexico through the present day Southwest, missionaries rendered catechistic texts into language and terminology by which (they hoped) Old World Catholicism might convert New World Aztec thought. Resembling no catechism then available in Latin or Spanish, but decidedly influenced by the traditions of Aztec "flower songs," these texts offer a rich body of proto-literary material that amply plays out—for both Spanish and Nahuatl—the consequences of the encounter of the two languages and the confrontation of two widely variant systems for constructing a cosmology of spiritual meaning and responding, on its basis, to the physical environment.
Excerpted from Subjects and Citizens by Michael Moon, Cathy N. Davidson. Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Meet the Author
Michael Moon is Associate Professor of English at Duke University and Associate Editor of American Literature. He is the author of Disseminating Whitman: Revision and Corporeality in "Leaves of Grass."
Cathy N. Davidson is Professor of English at Duke University and Editor of American Literature. She is the author of numerous books, including Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America.
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