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. Continue reading