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Helmbrecht Breinig, Hemispheric Imaginations: North American Fictions of Latin America (Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College P., 2016), xvii + 390 pp.:

Helmbrecht Breinig, Hemispheric Imaginations: North American Fictions of Latin America (Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College P., 2016), xvii + 390 pp.

Helmbrecht Breinig’s inspiring volume Hemispheric Imaginations: North American Fictions of Latin America is proof that Inter-American Studies is here to stay. In the context of transnational American Studies U.S.-European relations have been amply researched and the Black Atlantic has also received much critical attention—rightly so. But Inter-American Studies has traditionally been pushed out of sight—mainly because of the language problem of many North Americanists.1 Yet in the German context Helmbrecht Breinig was a pioneer, one of the few scholars who has been pursuing an inter-American outlook for decades. It is in part because of his work that “the hemispheric turn in American Studies” has been gaining momentum.2 The 2019 / 2020 landmark publication of the three-volume Routledge Handbook on Inter-American Studies will further promote this hemispheric turn.3

Twenty-five years after the publication of Frederick B. Pike’s comprehensive study on The United States and Latin America: Myths and Stereotypes of Civilization and Nature (U of Texas P, 1992), which had highlighted the projection of primitivism onto Latin America in much U.S. literature, Helmbrecht Breinig presents a more nuanced picture. Rather than simply reprinting some of his numerous essays on the topic that have been published in past decades, he integrates parts of his earlier textual analyses into more comprehensive contexts and creates a thematically arranged overview of U.S. and Canadian writing on Latin America. His study limits itself to fiction, which explains the absence, for example, of Langston Hughes. The omission of a text like O. Henry’s Cabbages and Kings (1904, the origin of the phrase “banana republic”) may be harder to justify, though. Breinig explains his decision not to include an author like Cormac McCarthy by the need for manageability in the face of thousands of relevant texts (xv). But of course every reader will think of authors or texts she or he would have liked to see discussed in this outstanding accomplishment, for example Karen Tei Yamashita’s Through the Arc of the Rain Forest (1990) and Brazil-Maru (1992), which offer the additional complication of a strong Japanese component. Yet since the book under review is a thematic study rather than an encyclopedia and since Frederick Pike’s earlier volume already gave brief mention to so many works, omissions in no way diminish the merits of Breinig’s authoritative volume. The minimal discussion of travel literature is justified, since the findings would probably mainly have echoed the “literary symbolizations of attitudes, discourses, and the cultural imaginary” that Breinig uncovers in so many fictional works (xiv). On the whole there is a distinct focus on the twentieth century and on texts dealing with Mexico.

The focus of this study lies not on backgrounds like historical, political, economic, and social developments but on primary fictional texts and their “Latinamericanism” (a term derived from “Orientalism”), by which Breinig means “the construction of Latin American otherness and its circulation in the public mind” (6). Consequently, the theoretical basis for this study is that of identity and alterity. These concepts, along with “transdifference,” are thoroughly discussed in the book’s second chapter. They shape the author’s endeavor “to show the transhistoric persistence of Latinamericanism and its directedness at virtually the whole hemisphere outside the United States and Canada” but also to uncover “the counter-discursive, antireductionist questioning that characterizes at least the more substantial of the texts under scrutiny” (16). Rather than taking a New Historicist approach focusing on cultural developments or situating his material in empire studies, Breinig remains text-centered, noting that he is “interested in the epistemological and hermeneutic problem of dealing with the Other, with the ethical questions it has laid open, and with the aesthetics required for dealing with it” (18). He thus avoids the trappings of an all too superficial treatment of political and social contexts, of which some cultural critics have been accused. The concentration on texts rather than contexts supports Breinig’s decision to focus on the quantity, quality, and range of U.S. and Canadian fiction on Latin America rather than on the role of literature in inter-American relations in general. The concentration mainly on “elite or mainstream literature,” Breinig points out, helps him “to show not only the power of discursive thinking but also the capacity of literary art to disrupt and subvert it, to show self and Other with more complexity, uncertainty, ambiguity, openness” (18).

The book is divided into five sections that contain altogether twelve chapters. The introduction and theoretical foundations are followed by a section dealing with historical moments from Columbus’s ‘discovery’ to the onset of the Good Neighbor policy. Chapters on the nature / culture dichotomy and on gender make up the next section, which is followed by discussions of post-Vietnam realism, postmodern responses (incorporating magical realism), and postmodern and Native American versions of Columbus. Section five, finally, looks at Canadian fictions spanning from WWII to the early twenty-first century. While those reiterate many of the features addressed in the U.S.-focused chapters, they also offer instances of transcending U.S. approaches, which is why they deserve to be treated in a separate chapter. In terms of geographical focus, Breinig notes:

half of the texts use Mexico as their field of action. Central America (represented repeatedly by fictional or fictionalized countries) and Cuba are the runners-up, with Brazil and the rest of the Caribbean following. The remainder is made up of Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, and Peru. The specifics of each country or area, especially their geo- and biotopographical features are often represented, and to varying degrees their respective history. Nonetheless, the discursive construction of these countries and their people homogenizes them more or less strongly. (21)

Neither a spatial nor a temporal ordering principle would have been appropriate. So Breinig is to be applauded for the thematic structure that he managed to establish.

He situates his readings in the realm of cultural hermeneutics, which considers texts as engagements with prevailing discourses about the Other—either as shorthand confirmations of existing images or (more interestingly) as critical contestations of such preconceived notions. In Breinig’s words: “Intercultural literature may […] foreshorten our understanding of the Other or else open our eyes and minds to the complexity, vastness, and incomprehensibility of the Other” (31). Literature is an especially suitable medium for imagining the Other in new ways. In order to signal the move beyond binary distinctions, Helmbrecht Breinig and Klaus Lösch introduced in past decades the term “transdifference,” which also underlies this study. They mean by it complex positions beyond opposing identity markers and they delineate the term from “cultural hybridity,” since the latter requires the deconstruction of difference (190). As Breinig writes, “[i]ntercultural hermeneutics has to deal […] also with phenomena of an irreconcilable co-presence of identity positions and contexts of meaning” (33).

Breinig concludes that the Latinamericanism he studies in this book usually assumes an alterity of Latin American cultures (that invites comparisons to U.S. and Canadian equivalents) rather than a radical “alienity.” There are long lists of topics toward which the texts examined here take a position:

In this body of literature, typical and stereotypical notions referring to Latin America, that is, important areas of thematic reference comprised by the national and cultural alterity discourse are Indianicity, primitivism, race relations, and mestizaje; a dominant femininity of people and landscapes, strangely at odds with glaringly machistic tendencies to be noted in gender relations in general; the body and sexuality; external nature; orality; social heterogeneity, class stratification, political chaos, and/or authoritarianism; atemporality and the absence of historical progress; religion, magic, and myth; violence and death. The contrasting North American and European autostereotypes involve homogeneity, linearity, and representability; logocentric order and a culture based on written communication; masculinity and instinctual control; historicity and progress. In particular, these notions inform the US American discourses of national identity and alterity. (39-40)

While discourses of Latin Americanism started being propagated on a wider scale in the young United States in the early nineteenth century, when most Latin American colonies of Spain and Portugal declared their independence as nations, their features were retroactively projected onto the landscapes and people encountered by Columbus. From the assumption of a “tropical south” (and the interpretation of Columbus as either a hero or a destroyer) Latin America emerged in the northern imagination as both “inferior and desirable” (55, 56). Breinig is truly innovative in pointing to the hemispheric approach of Joel Barlow (65-72), whose inter-American outlook is not usually foregrounded in American literary history. His remarks on the impact which Washington Irving’s biography of Columbus had on conceiving of the Genovese as a romantically heroic explorer and as a representative of civilization and progress explain why Columbus came to be regarded as a national model for the United States—especially in the first half of the nineteenth century. The next chapter looks at literature in the context of the eighty-four political and military interventions of the United States in Latin America between 1806 and 1933. The “spaces to be invaded or avoided” (91) were dealt with, for example, in the fiction of James Fenimore Cooper, Frank R. Stockton, Richard Harding Davis, Stephen Crane, Hermann Hagedorn, and Joseph Hergesheimer.

As Breinig notes, “Mexico has always been a favorite alterity pole for the United States” (112). The combination of Southern European Catholicism and an indigenous heritage led to the image of a radical Other, whose difference could especially be observed in the bloody conflicts of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 to 1920. Writers advocating social reforms, like John Reed and Jack London, are discussed with regard to their novels set during the revolution and their challenges to class privilege. For a range of post-revolutionary conceptions of Mexico Breinig delves into works by Carleton Beals, Katherine Anne Porter, John Dos Passos, Rosalind Wright, and Laurence Gonzales.

The list of well-known and lesser known fiction (and some travel) writers imagining Latin America continues in the subsequent chapters with John L. Stephens, Jack Kerouac, Paul Theroux, Christine Bell, Sheila Ortiz Taylor, Ana Castillo, Joan Didion, Robert Stone, James Wylie, Margaret Atwood, John Updike, and Walter Abish. Among the gems unearthed by Breinig are Mary Peabody Mann and Daniel Curley.

Especially in the post-Vietnam era, from the late 1970s until the early 1990s, writes Breinig, U.S. and Canadian authors created Northern characters who feel unfulfilled at home and who therefore enter Latin America on a kind of quest. In such fictions “the Latin American Other” tends to be “reduced to the same stereotypical motifs as in more trivial texts […]: political repression and corruption; social inequality; revolutions; the dominant role of foreign powers, for instance in the roles played by the CIA or Cuba; drug smuggling, violence, decaying cities; and an overwhelming tropical flora and fauna as well as natives experienced as primitive, dangerous, or sexually attractive” (194).

The U.S. fiction portion of Breinig’s book concludes with a chapter on Native American versions of Columbus, which examines works by Stephen Marlowe [i. e., Milton Lesser], Michael Dorris and Louise Erdrich as well as Gerald Vizenor. Their Columbus novels, writes Breinig, “undermine the Eurocentric alterity discourse governing the non-Native narratives” (258). While that is so, the chapter tends to depart from the focus on northern fictional engagements with Latin America and instead shifts to Native American fictional engagements with Indian-white history.

The concluding section of this volume is devoted to Canadian imaginations of Latin America—with one chapter on Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (1947) and another on fictions of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. For Lowry’s milestone novel Breinig observes that here “[a]lterity is subject to individual perception and projection and entails the double process of attempted familiarization and, on the other hand, rejection, alienating” (296). While Canada is only faintly present in Volcano, it tends to play a more prominent role in the fictions by Margaret Atwood, Graeme Gibson, Jessica Morrison (aka Jessica Raya), Amanda Hale, and Anthony Hyde that the final chapter discusses. Also, in Canadian fictions on Latin America, the explicit or implicit presence of the United States often complicates the works’ “Latinamericanism.”

The sizeable lists of authors mentioned in this review illustrate the range of Breinig’s study as well as the wealth of this field of research, in which scholars can find ample material for future work. He is to be congratulated for having systematized some of the available fictions and for having uncovered broad lines of alterity discourses while also offering illuminating readings of several dozen texts. Sometimes those readings lose sight a little of the alterity focus and of the volume’s theoretical underpinnings; “transdifference,” for example, appears mainly in the theoretical chapter on identity and alterity and in the postscript, but is only rarely made explicit in the 260 pages in between those two parts. That Breinig’s readings do not all follow the same scheme helps avoid repetition and allows for the texts to be better appreciated in their own right. What is especially helpful for readers is the book’s comprehensive index. If the majority of the fictions discussed here were written by white males, that is a reflection of the material available. And if Ana Castillo’s The Mixquiahuala Letters is extensively analyzed, while Sandra Cisneros’s Caramelo (with its focus on the Mexican relatives and roots that the narrator and her family habitually visit and with its challenge to traditional notions of gender) goes unmentioned, that is a matter of choice. In view of the wealth of primary texts available, Breinig had to omit hundreds for which he could no doubt have offered equally insightful readings. It takes a well-seasoned and well-read scholar to accomplish the kind of magisterial study that we have here.

Close to a century after Herbert Eugene Bolton laid the foundation for inter-American Studies in history, it is gratifying to see how decades of work by inter-Americanists in literary and cultural studies have come to fruition in Helmbrecht Breinig’s standard-setting accomplishment. Now we eagerly await the follow-up study by a Latin Americanist discussing Latin American fictional engagements with the United States and Canada.

Josef Raab † (Duisburg-Essen)


[1] Fitz, Earl E. “Inter-American Studies as an Emerging Field: The Future of a Discipline.” Review of International American Studies (RIAS) 3.1-2 (Winter/Spring 2008): 32-44.

[2] To my knowledge, this expression was first used in my essay “Neither Same Nor Separate: Hemispheric Horizons of American Studies,” Crossroads in American Studies: Transnational and Biocultural Encounters. Essays in Honor of Rüdiger Kunow, ed. Frederike Offizier, Marc Priewe, and Ariane Schröder (Heidelberg: Winter, 2016) 215-42.

[3] The Routledge Handbook to the History and Society of the Americas, ed. Olaf Kaltmeier, Josef Raab, Michael Stewart Foley, Alice Nash, Stefan Rinke, and Mario Rufer came out in May 2019. The Routledge Handbook to Political Economy and Governance in the Americas and The Routledge Handbook to Culture and Media in the Americas are forthcoming.

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