Jeffrey Lawrence, Anxieties of Experience: The Literatures of the Americas from Whitman to Bolaño (New York: Oxford UP, 2018), 298 pp. Oxford Studies in American Literary History.
If Hemispheric Literary Studies still seems like a daunting project to scholars, then perhaps because its scope is an uncanny reminder of just how daunting any project we undertake really is, and how much we are always juggling the particular and the universal as we normatively frame our objects of research. The comparative consideration of the literatures of the Americas may seem beyond the capabilities of but a few individuals who are apparently gifted with both the language proficiency and the time to enter a field that seems too large to even survey. And yet this impression only speaks of just how dominant the notion of national literature still is, as if, say, English-language U.S.-American literature were not similarly beyond consideration as a whole, and as if not even the most narrowly defined regionalism could be conclusively and exhaustively analyzed. Regardless of the merits of its individual studies, this is probably one of the most relevant contributions hemispheric perspectives have made to the theory and method of Literary Studies in general today: a reminder that we need to find ways of constructing and analyzing patterns, commonalities and contrasts while eschewing both the extremes of totality and particularity, of (in Pynchonian terms) paranoia and anti-paranoia, where either everything seems connected to everything or nothing connected to anything. One important consequence of this positioning is that the national is no longer tacitly accepted as a standard for comparative analysis in hemispheric considerations, while at the same time none of them would deny the continued relevance of national frameworks for the texts, authors, and readers in question.
In case all this sounds much too abstract, one may well look to Jeffrey Lawrence’s Anxieties of Experience: The Literatures of the Americas from Whitman to Bolaño as a model of how this theory translates into a practical method of comparative literary analysis. In this case, this method results in innovative readings of individual works as much as in the kind of sweeping abstraction that helps in understanding more general cultural trends while being fully aware of its own conceptual limitations. Lawrence does many things very well in his study, but perhaps his most fundamental achievement is that he does not shy away from simplification in proffering his argument, and he explores the complexities behind this in such depth that no reader will mistake his considerate simplification for simplistic reduction. In short, Lawrence constructs a basic contrast between a U.S.-American literature of experience and a Latin American literature of the reader, and he argues that the literary contact and exchange between the United States and Latin America throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries proceeded largely along these axes. This neat conceptual framework allows him to trace the different trajectories these literary negotiations took with regard to different aesthetic dominants that speak of larger cultural and political developments.
Lawrence explores these different developments in so many ways that there are indeed different ways of reading his book, and each of its six chapters (including the epilogue) may well be taken on its own as an innovative contribution to its respective area of concern. To me, the most useful way of approaching the study as a whole is to read it based on its epilogue as a story of how we got here, to a present moment where Roberto Bolaño’s epigones have finally turned the tables on the imperialist hierarchy of Latin American writers rather passively writing back to U.S.-American authors who made Latin America the site of their active search for experience. Lawrence identifies Bolaño as the author who finally merged the literary aesthetics of experience and reading in his works, and he describes him as the pivotal reference point for a new literary engagement with the United States and Latin America from fundamentally transnational perspectives that reveal a purely U.S.-American focus as provincial rather than culturally normative; Lawrence describes this in the memorable phrase of “Bolaño envy” (228). In a way, the preceding chapters provide the arguments that support and elucidate this provocative conclusion, as Lawrence elegantly traces the various shifts that have occurred within this framework of the literature of experience and the reader to finally result in this hemispheric sublation.
The first chapter of this study is therefore historical and theoretical, and it covers a lot of intellectual ground: Lawrence critically positions himself within the discourse of Hemispheric Literary Studies as he undertakes a periodization of the literatures of the Americas from the early nineteenth century to the later twentieth, arguing that “US writers increasingly used Latin America as a ‘field of experience’” while “Latin America writers used the US literature of experience to define their own cultural aims” (33). His account of this increasingly mutual interaction is thorough and convincing, selective as it must be, and these literary classifications alone would be worth reading for their fresh insight into the larger frameworks they discuss. It is where they intersect, however, that the full original quality of the argument develops, as Lawrence traces the shifting intensities and centers of a transamerican literary imagination with distinct yet interrelated aesthetic fields. Lawrence provides concise cultural, historical, and political backgrounds for his literary argument, and he gracefully moves from one node to another in a vast intellectual network that ranges from pragmatism to arielismo, from modernism to modernismo, and from the Beats to the testimonio tradition, to name just a few. This chapter would work well as an introduction to the continuities and differences of a hemispheric literary tradition, especially as it is as clearly written as the study as a whole, and yet this foundational work also serves its more abstract argumentative purpose.
In the second chapter, Lawrence identifies a central point of convergence where the split between a literature of experience and a literature of the reader can be said to have occurred most prominently: Walt Whitman. Although Lawrence clearly demonstrates his familiarity with the complexities of Whitman’s work, he rightly focuses less on him and Leaves of Grass but rather on how author and text were used as a common point of reference for radically different constructions of literary aesthetics in the twentieth century. Containing multitudes, Whitman offers the perfectly malleable foundation for these contradictory perspectives, and Lawrence carefully analyzes how Waldo Frank and Jorge Luis Borges used him as the conceptual battlefield for their own literary agendas regarding a common American canon. Lawrence knows better than to try and answer the question of which one of them may have been right in their interpretation of Whitman, and instead he focuses on the cultural work that was being done in reference to Whitman. He singles out Frank and Borges as highly influential and representative voices in constructing these opposing views on authorship and authority, and he retraces their debate (which occurred largely at a distance) so as to give two concrete and highly influential examples that would each construct their own normative Whitman for their respective purposes. This is certainly about geopolitics, as Lawrence shows, but it is also about a paradigm shift away from “the US aesthetic of ‘writing what you know’” (97) to a Borgesian aesthetic of writing what you do not know but have the power to invent.
The third chapter similarly combines the particular with the general in its focus on three canonical texts that are representative of much larger intellectual formations, as Lawrence considers the representation of history in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. This turn to history in literature is motivated by a Lukácsian theoretical impulse, with the aim of showing how “the divergent histories of the US literature of experience and the Latin America literature of the reader are recoded in the formal processes of representing history” (103) in these novels. The selection is justified, as these novels share various patterns and can be related to each other in terms of “influence” that signify deeper shifts within the aesthetic framework outlined in the study. The comparative analysis rightly concentrates on the argumentative purpose at hand instead of getting lost within these vast narratives, and this conciseness ultimately turns out to be a merit rather than a shortcoming.
The fourth chapter shifts gears once more to focus not so much on particular texts but rather on particular authors, Ernest Hemingway and Katherine Anne Porter, who each constructed their own version of an “experiential aesthetics” (127). Lawrence uses these writers to show how “US fiction writers began to equate expansive global experience with greater literary authority” and how “Latin America increasingly became the privileged site for US writers of experience”; more importantly, he adds that this development “was essential to the development of American modernism” (128). Hemingway’s self-construction as a writer of experience has been so thorough that one can hardly envision a study on the subject without him taking center-stage, and yet it is especially the contrast to Porter that truly makes this chapter a success. Lawrence carefully dissects Hemingway’s self-fashioning and the contexts he constructed to make his texts work, but at the same time he rightly cautions against understanding experience only as a textual function (which is something that becomes especially evident when considering Latin American readings of Hemingway). If Hemingway was canonized as the modernist prose writer, Porter represents “an important alternative trajectory” (139) that was ultimately marginalized, and Lawrence not only discusses her aesthetics of experience in contrast to Hemingway’s but also in relation to larger “exclusionary principles” (144) of canon formation that speak of Eurocentrism and a disregard for Latin America.
The fifth chapter finally returns to Latin American literature by way of Borges once more, only that it focuses on how writers have engaged with his aesthetics of the reader in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century as they stage “a series of fictional misencounters between Latin American readers and US experiencers” (171). The main writers under consideration here are Ricardo Piglia, Roberto Bolaño, and Cristina Rivera Garza, although these only provide focal points that are enriched with numerous other references. Lawrence argues that these authors write back not only to the U.S. literature of experience but also the Latin American testimonio (172), and thus they engage with the hemispheric as much as with more local contexts, and most importantly they engage the local through the hemispheric (and vice versa). This chapter is perhaps the most openly political in scope as it first connects these contemporary writers to the “experiential trajectories of the Beats” (178) then continues to track their influences through various other sociopolitical environments. Lawrence shows how Piglia recovers Borges’s political side through his notion of “engaged reading” (181), adding a touch of Walter Benjamin’s critique of modernity by adopting it to a Latin American setting; how Bolaño merges the reader and the experiencer in his novels in what turns out to be the most influential move on later writers; and finally how Rivera Garza adds a much-needed feminist critique to the largely male-dominated experiential aesthetics.
All this leads up to the epilogue and its argument that Bolaño marks a crucial turning point at the end of this dialectic of the literature of experience and the reader that has been at work for centuries, and it is in his work that the two traditions merge most fully. Thus, the time “After Bolaño” (as the title of the epilogue has it ) really is significant enough to merit a label of its own, and Lawrence convincingly shows how writing after Bolaño (in both senses of time and influence) has resulted in something that may finally be called “a literature—as opposed to the plural literatures—of the Americas” (209). Such an argument demands a more wide-ranging approach, and even though Lawrence offers three basic categories for the contemporary works he analyzes (Latina/o writers composing in English in the U.S., non-Latina/o U.S. writers, and Spanish-language writers living in the US), his analysis becomes a little bit more fuzzy and enumerative than the focused efforts before. Nevertheless, his description of the multifaceted “Bolañian turn” (215) is convincing as a whole, and it is clearly not so much a conclusion of a contested literary field than yet another productive transformation in a framework that will continue to matter both to artists and literary scholars.
In summary, then, Anxieties of Experience is an excellent study that succeeds both on the largest and smallest scales of analysis, in its close readings as much as in its hemispheric observations. The chapters come together quite nicely despite their significant thematic differences, and Lawrence’s eloquent, direct style is always up to the task of keeping things coherent. The book will work for readers of very different levels of expertise, as Lawrence knows how to introduce newcomers to a topic without sacrificing the level of abstraction that is to be expected of top-notch scholarship, and he is commendably careful and self-critical about his own argument and method. In short, this truly is a model of hemispheric literary scholarship: Lawrence shows how it’s done by doing it himself.
Sascha Pцhlmann (Universität Konstanz)