The American Sublime Was Discovered by a Chicana

Angelo Franco

 

In May 2015, the late Harold Bloom published The Daemon Knows, his latest literary criticism in which he attempts to find the so-called American Sublime by listing and writing about 12 authors who have shaped American literature. Bloom’s latest offering is not surprising – he was celebrated literary critic after all. That all 12 members on his list are white men (with the mildly notable exception of Emily Dickinson) is, unfortunately, also not surprising. The search for the American Sublime (in reference to Emerson and Thoreau and the landscape paintings of the Hudson River School) is neither new nor will it end any time soon, and there will be countless more attempts to pinpoint the source of American literary greatness. But when we think of these great American authors, we tend to pull a Bloom and list the same sort of age-old names that have been in the literary cannon for what seems to be an eternity: Melville, Waldo Emerson, Hawthorne, Twain, etc.

 

This isn’t bad or wrong, of course. I don’t believe anyone would truly question the talent and genius of the likes of Robert Frost and William Faulkner. But it is precisely because of this that the list on Daemon feels rather tired. We are told and taught about Walt Whitman’s genius since middle school and through our entire educational system; then again for the rest of our lives from publishers who continue to put out printings of his works, movies that make repeated references to O Captain! My Captain!, and respected literary critics who insist on reminding us of Whitman’s daemon lest we forget. That Whitman is one of the greatest and best-known American authors is not up to dispute; we get it. But the list fails in assuming that “American” literature—or at least literature at its peak state of greatness—is  normative and uniform, as if America had ever really been a homogeneous type of land; and that, apparently, literary greatness had already been achieved by the mid-20th century (and everything else after that is an attempt to expand on, mimic, or achieve that same level of worth, I guess?).

 

 

I got to Bloom’s book only last year. I had just finished Roberto Bolaños’s The Spirit of Science Fiction and what was probably my 23rd reading of Love in the Time of Cholera. My first reaction to Bloom’s list, then, was eye-rolling cynical: I am no literary critic, but were we really going to straight-up ignore the lyricism and genre-defining works of García Marquez and the masterwork that was Bolaños’s The Savage Detectives? To my chagrin, of course, I immediately realized that I had really just read translations of García Marquez’s and Bolaños’s works. In their own right, these two are literary giants the world over, but most definitely not American; their writings may be cannon of freshman college classes and even literary theses, but part of the American Sublime they are not. And that’s mostly the way it is. Our celebrated Latin-American authors are in abundance: Vargas Llosa, Allende, Borges, Mistral, and the list goes on. But there are very few Hispanic-American authors who are as widely read and studied as T. S. Elliot or Pablo Neruda – if any, really.

 

 

And Hispanic-American authors who should be celebrated are not in short supply either. Whether they will ever be considered as contributors to the myth that is the American Sublime, I guess we may never really know. We may be hard-pressed to find many Hispanic-American authors of much notoriety from the 1920s when The Sound and the Fury was published, reasons for which and several and many are obvious. But since then, especially beginning with the Latin-American immigration boom of the 1970s, there have been a number of Hispanic-American writers on the come-up.

 

Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street was published in the mid-1980s. With an avalanche of awards and accolades, the New York Times bestseller is considered a modern classic of Chicana literature.  Mango Street is on many middle, high school and college reading lists, and it has even been banned from some places. That the book deals with some controversial themes (Marxism, feminism, sexual abuse) and that it could technically be considered a coming-of-age story of Latinos in the Young Adult genre are perhaps the reasons the American Sublime is not been sought in these parts.

 

 

A couple of years later, Gloria Anzaldúa published Borderlands/La Frontera, in 1987. It was a radical work by a self-described chicana lesbian-feminist, a seminal text that explores the invisible borders between people, codeswitching between English and Spanish, using prose and poetry to explore themes of immigration, culture, identity, and queer theory that feels essential even—maybe especially—today. And I presume Anzaldúa’s writing may not feel like the most American experience or the most relatable to Americans, although I don’t know what could be more American than a native Texan switching between English and Spanish back and forth. 

 

 

Junot Diaz published Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in 2007, and would eventually become only the second Hispanic-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, a cool 17 years after Oscar Hijuelos became the first for his 1990s The Mambo Kings Play Song of Love. It would be remiss not to note that the main theme of these two celebrated works is Coming To America. They are love stories framed within the immigrant experience and the struggles of assimilation into white culture and therefore, I imagine, deeply relatable or at least understandable to many. And that’s totally fine. Cisneros’s Mango Street and Anzaldúa’s Borderlands both touch on this immigrant experience, on this sense of not belonging and of belonging to too many spaces at once. I suppose the main difference is that Cisneros’s and Anzaldúa’s works seem as radical and rebellious, presumably because they’re written by staunch feminists of color and their perspective is crystal clear on the page.

 

 

But I digress, somewhat. The work of the authors mentioned above are somehow far too removed to be considered the part of the American Sublime, no matter how uniquely American their themes are and how celebrated they are as American pieces of literature. And there are good reasons why Walt Whitman and Gloria Anzaldúa should be celebrated, but beyond that – where are the Hispanic-American authors getting the accolades they deserve? Not by being groundbreaking radical queer theorists, but by being talented writers? Yes, Hawthorne was great and Hester is perhaps among the first and most important female characters in American literature; but when Hawthorne was writing about puritanical sin and guilt, Poe was also giving us wonderfully grisly tales of sickness and death and dark love.

 

 

In other words, why must works by Hispanic-American authors be revolutionary and an absolute pioneering piece of literature for us to regard Latinx authors as a force to be reckoned with? Because we really have Justin Torres writing about an interracial Puerto Rican kid living in rural New York coming to terms with his sexuality. And Salvador Plascencia is giving us magical realism avant-garde type of fiction, heavily influenced by Garcia Marquez, with a nod to the types of work by Jonathan Safran Foer that redefines the book format. And only one Hispanic-American has won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry (William Carlos Williams, whose mother was Puerto Rican), even though Aracelis Girmay’s Kingdom Animalia has been around since the turn of the decade. And these are all extremely good and immensely satisfying books. And even if they weren’t, would we really not read a Fifty Shades of Gris where an Alejandra discovers her inner diosa with the help of handsome Jose Manuel (and then adapt it as a telenovela!)?

 

 

We are on this road to El Dorado, searching for the mythical American Sublime while completely bypassing the contributions of writers after the “founding” of American literature, as if the sublime can be only one thing, one experience, in the hands of those who came before us by the mere merit of having come before us. In one of her first published essays, La Prieta, Anzaldúa describes a world she has created for herself, a sort of metaphysical sanctuary where her identity transcends norm-based borders. She called it El Mundo Zurdo (the Left-Handed World). Anzaldúa writes that in this Mundo Zurdo, she has “one foot on brown soil, one on white, one in straight society, one in the gay world, the man's world, the women's, one limb in the literary world, another in the working class, the socialist, and the occult worlds.” Turns out that back in 1981, writing for an anthology of works by radical women of color, Anzaldúa had already discovered the American Sublime all on her own.

 

Author Bio:
 

Angelo Franco is Highbrow Magazine’s chief features writer.

 

 

For Highbrow Magazine

 

 

Image Sources:

 

--La Muse, Pablo Picasso (1935)

 

--Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Jose Lara, Wikimedia.org – Creative Commons)

 

--Sandra Cisneros (Gage Skidmore, Flickr – Creative Commons)

 

--Graffiti by Miss Van and Ciou (Aikijuanma, Wikimedia.org – Creative Commons)        

 

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