John C. Havard, is an associate professor in the Department of English and Philosophy at Auburn University at Montgomery and the author of Hispanicism and Early US Literature: Spain, Mexico, Cuba, and the Origins of US National Identity. His new book is a well-researched analysis of the impact that Spain and Spanish America had on antebellum literature in the United States.
More than just a work of literary criticism, Hispanicism and Early US Literature contains a substantial amount of cultural and political history discussed. Havard’s use of archival sources such as political articles and personal correspondence elucidates not just literary genres and movements such as early national epic poetry, abolitionist fiction, and the American Renaissance, but also US culture writ large.
The following is an interview with Havard conducted by UAP intern Megan McCarter.
What first made you notice the lack of attention given to the treatment of Hispanophone countries in discussions of race and othering within early American literature?
My academic background is different than that of many early Americanists, most of whom majored and then did their graduate work in English. I studied English as an undergraduate, but I also had an additional major in Spanish; as part of that major, I studied abroad in Xalapa, Mexico. Moreover, when I began graduate studies, I initially studied comparative literature, with a focus on Latin American literature. These experiences prepared me to pay closer than usual attention to US literary treatments of Hispanophone countries when I moved into an English PhD program.
One of my key experiences when I began noticing the pattern of Hispanicism in US literature occurred while I was studying Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno” in preparation to take my PhD comprehensive exams. As I read the scholarship on this work, I noticed that most of the discussion of its treatment of race and othering focused on Amasa Delano’s attitudes regarding blackness. However, it seemed clear to me that what Melville was examining is how US American, Spaniard, and African triangulate in Delano’s racial sight. I later discovered that a handful of scholars had written important studies of the tale’s treatment of Spain and Spanish America. However, the experience of studying the work illustrated to me that scholars of race and nation in US literature had overlooked the representation of Hispanophone peoples in favor of African Americans and, to a lesser degree, Native Americans.
Why do you think these Hispanicist narratives have been so largely overlooked?
I should clarify that Hispanicism is not the only narrative overlooked in US culture. US national memory has a tendency to obscure many of our national traumas and tragedies. For instance, as recent contentions over Confederate monuments illustrate, many white US Americans still downplay the horrors of slavery and struggle to acknowledge its role in causing the Civil War. Lost Cause ideology—an ideology premised precisely on overlooking tragic narratives of racial injustice—still has many adherents.
However, the difference between Hispanicism and Lost Cause ideology is that whereas the nature of slavery and the Civil War are furiously debated in US culture, similar such incidents in the history of conflict between Anglo-Americans and Hispanophone peoples are given much less attention. For instance, as Jaime Javier Rodríguez writes in The Literatures of the U.S.-Mexican War (U of Texas P, 2010), “the U.S.-Mexican War remains largely, and infamously, unknown by most citizens of the United States.” Rodríguez elaborates that “The U.S.-Mexican War draws interest from some historians, but when compared to the regular dramatizations of the revolution against England, the Civil War, or the Second World War, the U.S.-Mexican War remains collectively elided” (257n1). This elision is just one example of a Hispanicist narrative being overlooked in our culture.
Why are these narratives overlooked? The turning point in national awareness of the treatment of African Americans was the Civil Rights era, when activists challenged Lost Cause constructions of slavery and the Jim Crow recalcification of white supremacy. Their efforts—and the violent response of Southern authorities to their demonstrations—spurred a national reckoning with the history of slavery and Jim Crow that remains ongoing to this day.
Hispanic (as well as Native American) activism was a part of the Civil Rights movement, but perhaps due the proportionately smaller size of these populations, their efforts did not become as big a part of the national conversation as those of African Americans. The reckoning with the history of overlooking Hispanicism did not occur in the same way that it did with Lost Cause ideology. However, with the Mexican American population rising around the country and with immigration poised to be one of the primary political battlegrounds of the future, the time is now for such a reckoning. More scholarship and public discussion on the history of Anglo American relations with the Hispanophone world is occurring now than ever before, and my book is part of that effort.
What initially attracted you to the authors that you chose to discuss in your book?
Different things attracted me to each author. A couple of authors I genuinely admire in some ways made the list: James Fenimore Cooper and Herman Melville. Both had flawed political views of their own, and the works of Cooper’s that I wrote about in Hispanicism are hardly his best. But in the tradition of great art and literature that speaks the culture back to itself in a revelatory way, these writers skillfully used the literary means they were working with at the time—realism for Cooper and perspectival narration for Melville—to interrogate Hispanicism in clever ways. They do the important work of not only revealing important things about Hispanicism but also showing us the value of literature in teaching us how to question socio-cultural norms.
I also wanted to highlight works that illustrate how literature engaged the most important historical flashpoints in US-Hispanophone relations during the early national and antebellum periods: US incursion into Spanish Louisiana, the US-Mexican War, and US efforts to annex Cuba. Joel Barlow was useful for touching on the first of these, Cooper the second, and Mary Peabody Mann and José Antonio Saco the third.
Barlow was also useful for illustrating how Hispanicism informed constructions of national identity at the outset of US nationhood. This made Barlow very helpful to me, as I wanted to show that early constructions of US national identity were rooted in Hispanicism and then to show how that relationship evolved over the next century or so.
What do you believe might further study and awareness of these Hispanicist narratives teach us today in this cultural climate?
The most obvious example of Hispanicism in US culture today pertains to media representations of Latin American immigrants. The terms of the representations have changed since the antebellum period. In the literature I examine, Hispanophone peoples are represented as lazy and inclined to support despotic political and religious institutions. Today, as documented by scholars and activists such as Leo Chavez, media and pundits frequently represent immigrants as invading criminals who are defiantly opposed to the US way of life. Such representations spur calls for harsh enforcement of immigration law and scaling back legal immigration. These policies lead to large-scale detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants and consequent tragedies such as the breakup of their families.
Recounting the diverse efforts of Latino/a immigrants to achieve productive lives in mainstream America, in The Latino Threat (Stanford UP, 2008, 2nd edition 2013), Chavez carefully illustrates the compelling human story of individuals striving for better lives for themselves and their families. These stories give the lie to media caricatures of criminal invaders. I see my book in a similar light; like Chavez, I am urging caution against misleading stereotypes regarding Hispanophone peoples and the policies spurred by such representations. The difference is that I am doing so by unearthing the cultural history of these contemporary phenomena. Negative stereotypes about Hispanophone peoples and contrasting positive stereotypes regarding Anglo-Americans are not new. They have a long history in US culture that goes all the way back to the nation’s founding. These stereotypes, moreover, have never been innocent; for instance, early US imperialists argued that because Hispanophone peoples were slothful and averse to liberal democracy, it was the duty of Anglo-Americans to harness control of Spanish-American nations to liberate their constrained economies. We are again in the midst of a cultural moment characterized by the propagation of negative stereotypes regarding Latino/as. To take advantage of this moment, many politicians are calling for harsh immigration legislation. Careful appraisal of history demonstrates that early stereotypes were misleading and were questioned by insightful commentators and should suggest to us that we, too, ought to question the stereotypes being propagated today.
While writing responses to these questions, I learned that the Trump administration is revoking Temporary Protected Status for Salvadorans fleeing gang violence and the destructive wake of two earthquakes that hit their country in 2001. The administration is acting on the promises that it made during its election campaign to curtail immigration and the electoral appeal of such promises is due in large part to the demagogic propagation of immigrant stereotypes. These stereotypes portray immigrants not as unique individuals pursuing better lives but rather as faceless threats to American identity and white American sovereignty. That is the power of the Hispanicism I examine and its more recent evolutions in the form of stereotypes regarding immigrants. These narratives enable simplistic representations of Hispanophone peoples that are then deployed to manipulate voters and argue for unjust policies towards Hispanophone populations. This process is what I see my book arguing against.
As you note in the text, your reasons for including the writings of José Antonio Saco is slightly different from the reasons you chose the other authors you discuss. Why do you feel he was important to include in your writing?
Some background is helpful for answering this question. I highlighted antebellum US efforts to annex Cuba as one of my primary flashpoints in the history of early US relations with the Hispanophone world. Along with Mexico, Cuba is the Hispanophone nation that has historically been of most concern to US Americans; in fact, although it is difficult to recognize the fact in the current Mexico-focused cultural climate, Cuba has arguably been of more concern to US Americans than Mexico for most of US history.
To address Cuban annexation, I chose to write about Mary Peabody Mann’s Juanita, a novel that makes tentative suggestions that the United States should annex Cuba. I had also come across Saco in my reading, and while I was focused on exploring representations of the Hispanophone world by US authors, I decided that devoting some attention to this Cuban author would enable me to do a couple of things. First of all, examining Saco’s response to proposals for Cuba to be annexed by the United States enabled me to flesh out Hispanicism’s role in the annexation debates in a more three-dimensional way.
Second of all, as I have said, my purpose in writing this book was not merely to describe but also to question Hispanicism. While the full reckoning with Hispanicism has yet to occur in US culture, there is a long tradition in Latin America of critiquing US imperialism. I thought it was essential to discuss this tradition in my book. Given the way discussing Saco fit in with my purposes for discussing Mann, I thought he would be a good choice for the goal of illustrating this Latin American tradition.
A large portion of your book focuses on early US Imperialism and the arguments that faced America about Manifest Destiny, the Mexican-American War, and expansion into Cuba and other Hispanophone countries. Why do you believe this early narrative of imperialism has been so largely rewritten and reframed? How do you think your book contributes to discussing what truly happened?
The idea that the United States is what María DeGuzmán calls an “antiempire” (xxv, Spain’s Long Shadow, U of Minnesota P, 2005) is deeply rooted in US culture. This idea holds that the United States is not an empire but rather empire’s sworn enemy. The myth has its basis in public perceptions of the nation’s roots in casting off the yoke of the British empire and the nation’s role in combatting empire in various world conflicts, most notably World War II.
Because this idea is so intrinsic to US American identity, many US Americans are inclined to either ignore (as I explained above in my response to your second question) or to explain away historical instances in which the United States has been an agent of empire. Politicians and pundits have often been only too ready to confirm these inclinations. Thus, historical instances of US imperialism that I discuss in my book—filibustering in Spanish Louisiana, the US-Mexican War, Cuban annexation, and the Spanish-American War—were portrayed not as attempts to extend the US empire but rather as attempts to extend the reach of liberty.
In a memorable phrase, Donald E. Pease (“Re-thinking ‘American Studies after US Exceptionalism,’” American Literary History, vol. 21, no. 1, 2009, pp. 19–27) calls this phenomenon the “structure of disavowal” of US exceptionalism. Pease’s concept works like this: Because the United States has an exceptional (in the sense of unique and different) role to play in spreading liberty around the world, its actions are exceptions to the normal rules of the game of imperial conquest. Whereas other nations are to be condemned when they attempt to expand their influence around the globe, the United States is to be praised for undertaking the arduous tasks of spreading liberty and civilization. The idea that US incursion into the Hispanophone world should be understood not as acts of imperialism but of benevolence is a prime example of this phenomenon.
How does my book contribute to understanding this matter? I illustrate the cultural processes described above through analyses of works of literature and other cultural artifacts. For instance, my chapter on Melville’s “Benito Cereno” describes precisely Melville’s examination of the structures of disavowal of US exceptionalism. In doing so, my book compares these structures of disavowal to the messier reality of US imperialism. The United States has worked to expand its reach not just to spread liberty but also for reasons of material self-interest. For instance, Cuban annexation was largely spurred by Southern interests keen to add more slave states to the nation. My hope is that in illustrating how the realities of US imperialism have been disavowed in American culture, my work will spur greater wariness regarding rhetoric that paints US strong-arming around the globe in a misleading light.