Book Review: Barrenechea, Antonio. America Unbound: Encyclopedic Literature and Hemispheric Studies

Reviewed by Micah Donohue, Eastern New Mexico University

In “Good Neighbor/Bad Neighbor: Boltonian Americanism and Hemispheric Studies” (2009), Antonio Barrenechea challenged inter-American, hemispheric, and comparative American scholars to take a “modified” Boltonian approach to studying the literatures of the Americas. Barrenechea invokes the US historian Herbert E. Bolton, an important precursor to borderlands and hemispheric American studies in the United States. Addressing the American Historical Association in 1932, Bolton famously argued in “The Epic of Greater America” that a “synthetic view” of the hemisphere, one that focused on “inter-American relations,” is essential to a better understanding of the constituent nations of North and South America, their entwined histories, and, by extension, their overlapping literatures (448). While Barrenechea acknowledges the shortcomings of Bolton’s inter-American thesis, notably the Mexican philosopher Edmundo O’Gorman’s contention that it symptomatically reproduces US American imperial oversight, he still claims that Bolton’s “comparative and historically grounded […] methodology” can serve as the foundation for a genuinely “transamerican studies project” (“Good Neighbor” 240). Such a project would form part—and itself be an example—of the “multinational and multilingual field” of comparative American studies (240).

America Unbound: Encyclopedic Literature and Hemispheric Studies adopts (and adapts) Bolton’s methodology for its own “transamerican studies project.” Barrenechea provides a comparative, inter-American rereading of four encyclopedic novels: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), Carlos Fuentes’s Terra Nostra (1975), Jacques Poulin’s Volkswagen Blues (1984), and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead (1991). America Unbound reveals how each of these canonical texts—Barrenechea calls them “hemispheric masterworks”—constitutes its own “multinational and multilingual field” that poetically entangles the languages, histories, and literatures of the New World. As Barrenechea explains, “one of the aims of America Unbound will be to bring a non-Eurocentric and more self-aware form of the Bolton thesis to bear on four of the most important novels from the Americas, and also to uncover the legacies of contact, conquest, and colonization that structure that trilingual literary corpus” (Unbound 8). In this compound goal that coordinates US American, Native American, Mexican, and Québécoise literatures, Barrenechea unquestionably succeeds. America Unbound provides eloquent and convincing accounts of “how each of these works self-consciously aspires to be a summa americana, i.e., a Greater American Novel about what Bolton calls ‘Greater America’” (10).

Barrenechea begins America Unbound with a short preface in which he claims that “American literature is a de facto comparative literature” (xi). By adopting a comparative perspective, Barrenechea hopes first to unsettle “what is currently a US-led hemispherism” and, second, to accommodate methodologically the inter-American sprawl of the narratives that he is studying—novels “guided by a shared sense that American parts live in a complex relation to the hemispheric whole” (xi). The remainder of America Unbound is divided into five chapters plus notes, a bibliography, and an index. In Chapter 1, “The Great(er) American Paradigm: Moby Dick and the Summa Americana” (1–37), Barrenechea turns to Melville’s encyclopedic “masterwork.” After lengthy discussion of his neo-Boltonian position that would have been more effective in a standalone introduction, Barrenechea reaches the true subject matter of the chapter: a hemispheric reorientation of scholarly approaches to Moby Dick.

Barrenechea rereads Melville as a “New World writer who extends, in transgressive ways, the colonial legacy of the entire Americas” (13). The transamerican and global trajectory of Moby Dick, simultaneously a reworking of American and world literatures, allows Barrenechea to demonstrate that “a connection exists between the encyclopedic novel [of which, for Barrenechea, Moby Dick is prototypical] and a Greater American archive that is central to understanding its origins and significance as a New World variant of the genre” (14). In other words, encyclopedic American novels are always reconfigurations of a time- and geography-spanning “Greater American archive,” in the double sense of reconfiguration as a different assemblage and as a re-“figuring” or troping differently. This intertextual play of repetitions and differences, a defining characteristic of “Greater American” literature, is particularly evident in Fuentes’s Terra Nostra, which Barrenechea discusses in Chapter 2.

In “From Terra Incognita to Terra Nostra: Carlos Fuentes’s Reinvention of America” (38–71), Barrenechea claims that the Mexican author of Terra Nostra accomplishes a neo-baroque “reinvention” of “a tripartite globalism with colonial violence as a constant, a connection that exemplifies the subversive coupling of the encyclopedic novel with the New World archive” (39). Fuentes’s novel voraciously consumes centuries’ worth of histories and literatures from throughout the Americas and around the world in the inter-American tradition of cannibalisme and antropofagia to (re)construct an encyclopedic and neo-baroque retelling of those stories that is simultaneously an act of resistance against the colonial violence signaled by Barrenechea. Barrenechea leaps from Mexico to French Canada in Chapter 3, “Jacques Poulin’s Archival Pathways: Volkswagen Blues as Discovery Chronicle” (72–103). As Barrenechea notes, studies of Canadian, and even more so of French Canadian, literature are frequently absent from discussions of inter-American, hemispheric, and comparative American literature (72). (These omissions are also true of Brazilian and, to a lesser extent, Caribbean literatures—both of which are noticeably absent in America Unbound.) Barrenechea reads Volkswagen Blues not only as another “reinvention” of “archival materials that predate and/or undermine American national borders,” but “as a blueprint for the hemispheric study of Canadian literatures” that could also serve as a model for reorienting comparative American studies to use Canadian and Québécoise literatures as conceptual foci (74).

Chapter 4, “Leslie Marmon Silko’s Council Book: Hemispheric Forces in Almanac of the Dead” (104–138), locates Almanac of the Dead within “its proper hemispheric and historical context as an indigenous summa Americana” (105). By studying the transamerican narratives that Silko interweaves throughout Almanac, precolonial and post-contact stories that predate, enfold, and in some cases predict an end to the histories of conquest and colonialism that repeat in encyclopedic “Greater American” novels, Barrenechea demonstrates how Almanac constitutes a transformative “intersection,” a textual knotting together “of Latino, Latin American, Native American, ethnic, and border identities” (135). In the final chapter, “Greater America in the Classroom: Comparative Literature, Theory, and Praxis” (139–173), Barrenechea switches from hermeneutics to pedagogy. The chapter exemplifies how the same neo-Boltonian approach to interpreting works of hemispheric American literature can be used in teaching them, and Barrenechea “invite[s] scholars working in all fields of American studies to embrace a more comparative framework in the classroom” (145). Barrenechea offers his own model of such a framework: a three semester class sequence that moves from “New World Writing in the Colonial Period” through “Literature and Nation-Building in the Americas” to “Hemispheric Fiction of the Global Age.” Each class, in much the same way as the novels analyzed by Barrenechea, aspires to be a “summa americana” that reincorporates the multiple languages and histories that stitch together the hemispheric fabric of American literature.

The comparatist Earl E. Fitz, like Bolton a guiding light of Barrenechea’s, claimed in the 1990s that “there is something to be gained by showing how the canonical works of New World literature reflect themes or ideas that are themselves fundamental to our better understanding of the entire inter-American experience” (Rediscovering xii). A quarter-century later, America Unbound picks up certain of those themes and ideas to show how the encyclopedic novels of Melville, Fuentes, Poulin, and Silko are reflections and prismatic refractions of the “entire inter-American experience” of what Bolton called “Greater America.” In that hemispheric and comparative light, Barrenechea’s work unquestionably constitutes a gain for scholars working across time periods, borders, and languages in the Americas.

Works Cited

Barrenechea, Antonio. “Good Neighbor/Bad Neighbor: Boltonian Americanism and Hemispheric Studies.” Comparative Literature 61.3 (2009): 231–43.

Bolton, Herbert E. “The Epic of Greater America.” The American Historical Review 38.3 (1933): 448–74.

Fitz, Earl E. Rediscovering the New World: Inter-American Literature in a Comparative Context. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1991.