Trans-American Modernisms: Racial Passing, Travel Writing, and Cultural Fantasies of Latin America

Posted in Brazil, Caribbean/Latin America, Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2011-12-31 18:05Z by Steven

Trans-American Modernisms: Racial Passing, Travel Writing, and Cultural Fantasies of Latin America

University of Southern California
August 2009
311 pages

Ruth BlandĂłn

Dissertation Presented to the FACULTY OF THE GRADUATE SCHOOL UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY (ENGLISH)

In my historical examination of the literary works of Nella Larsen, William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Jessie Redmon Fauset, and Carl Van Vechten, I investigate U.S. modernists’ interest in Latin America and their attempts to establish trans-American connections. As they engage with and write about countries such as Brazil, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Costa Rica, and Venezuela as utopian spaces, these writers often tend to relegate Latin America to the status of a useful trope, one that allows them to negotiate a variety of identitarian and sexual anxieties.

The domestic political landscape that informs the desire for migration to the Latin Americas—whether real or fantastical—in the early twentieth century leads to Johnson’s depiction of the savvy and ambitious titular character in his first and only novel, Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, to Van Vechten’s, Larsen’s, and Fauset’s fantastical Brazil in their respective Nigger Heaven, Passing, and Plum Bun. Hughes’s translation of Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén’s poetry illustrates his straddling of national and color lines through the translation of language. These writers react to Jim Crow laws, one-drop rules, and color lines in their connections to and fantasies of the Latin Americas. What then of writers who make similar trans-American connections and constructions, but who write from a space of relative privilege, however resistant they are to that privilege? Consider William Carlos Williams, who negotiates the pressures of assimilation in the United States as he attempts to assert his Afro Puerto Rican and Anglo Dominican heritages. Although Williams is commonly recalled as an “all-American” poet, his works betray his constant attempts to harness three perpetually shifting and overlapping identities: that of a son of immigrants, of a first generation “American,” and of a son of the Americas.

The trans-American connections I reveal span the fantastical to the truly cross-cultural. In placing United States modernism and the Harlem Renaissance within a larger hemispheric context, I shift our sense of U.S. modernism in general, but also of the Harlem Renaissance’s place within U.S. modernism in particular.

Table of Contents

  • Dedication
  • Acknowledgments
  • List of Figures
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One:
    • Reading, Misreading, and Language Passing in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man and Along This Way
    • Blackness under the law
    • James Weldon Johnson’s Along This Way
    • The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man
    • Conclusion
  • Chapter Two:
    • Brazilian Schemes and Utopian Dreams in Nella Larsen’s Passing, Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Plum Bun, and Carl Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven
    • Historical Context
    • From Liberia to Brazil—A Change of Venue
    • Carl Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven
    • Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun, “Home,” and Brazil
    • Larsen’s Passing and Brazil as Utopia/Dystopia
    • Conclusion: Utopia vs. Brazilian Reality
  • Chapter Three:
    • All-American Me: William Carlos Williams’s Construction and Deconstruction of the Self
    • Cultural Context—Casta and Passing
    • Blurring Cultural Boundaries: “Only the whites of my eyes were affected.”
    • The Specter of Blackness: “I had visions of being lynched…”
    • In The American Grain: “I am—the brutal thing itself.”
    • Translation: “El que no a vista Sevilla, […] no a vista maravilla!”
    • Conclusion: “I’ll keep my way in spite of all.”
  • Chapter Four:
    • “Look Homeward Angel Now”: Travel, Translation, and Langston Hughes’s Quest for Home
    • Langston Hughes in Mexico and Cuba—1907-1948: Mexico
    • Cuba
    • Langston Hughes and Nicolás GuillĂ©n in Spain
    • Translation, Analogy, and the “I”
    • Of Poetry, Jazz, Son, and Rumba
    • The Translations
    • Conclusion: Translating, Travel, and “Home”
  • Bibliography

List of Figures

  • Figure 1: James Weldon Johnson, photographed by Carl Van Vechten in 1932.
  • Figure 2: “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” Pablo Picasso, 1907.
  • Figure 3: “Noire et Blanche.” Man Ray, 1926.
  • Figure 4: “Blues.” Archibald Motley, 1929.
  • Figure 5: “An Idyll of the Deep South.” Aaron Douglas, 1934.
  • Figure 6: Bessie Smith, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1936.
  • Figure 7: Billie Holiday, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1949.
  • Figure 8: The Williams Family
  • Figure 9: “De Español y Mulata; Morisca.” [“From Spaniard and Mulatto, Morisca.”] Miguel Cabrera, 1763.
  • Figure 10: “De Mestizo y d India; Coyote.”[“From Mestizo and Indian, Coyote.”] Miguel Cabrera, 1763.
  • Figure 11: William Carlos Williams, circa 1903.
  • Figure 12: Elena Hoheb Williams
  • Figure 13: Langston Hughes
  • Figure 14: Diego Rivera with Frida Kahlo, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1932.
  • Figure 15: Nicolás GuillĂ©n

Read the entire dissertation here.

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