U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What is “Our Canon”?: Between Latina/o and U.S. Intellectual History

(Editor’s Note: This is Kahlil Chaar-Pérez guest post for this week. — Ben Alpers)

In this post, I want to address more directly the implications of producing a Latina/o history of ideas, especially in connection to the discipline of U.S. intellectual history.   In a manner not too different from their colleagues in American Studies, scholars of intellectual history continue to engage actively with the enduring impact of the so-called linguistic and cultural turns and how they relate to the politics of higher education and contemporary U.S. culture at large.  Trenchant interventions such as Daniel T. Rodgers’ The Age of Fracture, Andrew Hartman’s project on the culture wars, and Kerwin Lee Klein’s From History to Theory, which just two weeks ago produced an animated debate in the pages of this blog, exemplify an ongoing interest in historicizing and probing the reception of structural and post-structural theories in U.S. academia and the simultaneous interdisciplinary interest in ethnic, race, gender, and sexuality studies that supplemented the emergence of multiculturalism in the 1980s and early 1990s.

This interest has manifested itself in the humanities through an increase in scholarship on marginalized social voices and practices in the U.S., especially Latina/o peoples, who, as their numbers continue to grow, have become more visible in mainstream culture (think Junot Díaz, Sonia Sotomayor, and Marco Rubio).  The inclusionary impulse has enabled the creation of new corpuses and archives (for instance, the Norton Anthology of Latino Literature and the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage project), that validate the swelling irruption of the Latina/o other into the public sphere, often resorting to two overlapping U.S. master narratives of progress:  the “American dream” and the “melting pot.”  In an interview where he discusses the release of the Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, its general editor, Ilan Stavans, turns to this dual narrative of individual achievement and collective inclusion in order to publicize the anthology: “It is a book that all middle-class Latinos need, proof that we’ve made it: We’ve arrived.”  As literary historian Kirsten Silva-Gruesz has argued in “What was Latino Literature?,” Stavans’ words are characteristic of the “marketing of ethnic heritage outside the academy and the way it is often abetted by the tools of our trade” (340). Silva-Gruesz points implicitly to what is probably the biggest conundrum facing the study of Latina/o cultures: the mass circulation of Latina/o identities as objects of consumption, a process of commodification that lumps all communities of Latin American descent into a homogeneous identity that effaces how they negotiate in different ways not only with ethnic and racial difference, but also with their national origin.1

At the same time, this opening of the canon holds the promise of a critical reimagining of the history of the U.S. beyond the master narratives I mentioned, building on the valuable work that has came out of the heyday of “histories from below” and cultural history, as well as the ongoing “attention to international communities of discourse” that David A. Hollinger sees in the field of U.S. intellectual history.2  The book I have commented on in my previous posts, Translating Empire, exemplifies this drive to an extent.  Through it, Laura Lomas strives to read the figure of José Martí not only as a crucial precursor to Latina/o cultural and political criticism, but also alongside a transnational genealogy of non-Latina/o thinkers who have positioned themselves against the dominant discourse and exploitative practices in the U.S., from Martin Delany and Wendell Phillips to W.E.B. Du Bois and C.L.R. James.   Lomas is perhaps most successful in framing Martí within this undercurrent, a critical tradition of U.S.-based thought that envisions the possibility of “alternative modernities” outside the assimilationist / developmentalist model suggested by Stavans, yet still in relation to the United States.

My question is then how this aspiration can translate into the field of U.S. intellectual history.  Curiously, while the last three decades have witnessed the publication of several anthologies of Latina/o literature, studies and so forth, we are still waiting for a similar anthology under the umbrella of intellectual history.  This absence can also be read in the pages of the current edition of Hollinger and Capper’s The American Intellectual Tradition, which does not include a Latina/o text.  The former edition did contain an extract from Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/ La Frontera, but this text was replaced with a selection from Catharine MacKinnon’s Feminism Unmodified.  In “What is Our ‘Canon’? How American Intellectual Historians Debate the Core of their Field,” Hollinger explains that the reason behind this substitution was that the Anzaldúa piece was “said to be obscurantist in prose style and proved even less appreciated than [Judith] Butler” (193).  For a textbook intended for a non-specialist audience, especially undergraduate students, this explanation seems reasonable enough and importance of MacKinnon’s work for gender studies is unquestionable.  But what is more interesting is that, in an article on canonicity produced by a scholar who has written extensively about ethnicity and race, Anzaldúa’s identity as a Latina writer is never addressed: she is essentially considered as a feminist thinker that can be replaced with another feminist.  Indeed, the lack of any Latina/o intellectuals is not considered at all in Hollinger’s assessment of the canon of U.S. intellectual history.

I would like to stress that these observations are not necessarily driven by the wish to see Anzaldúa reinstated in the anthology or to have another Latina/o intellectual included (although there is certainly an argument to be made in both respects).  Instead of liberal gestures of tokenism, I am more interested in understanding these absences, what do they speak to, and how can we interpret them from a Latino/Latin American framework and within U.S. intellectual history.  If, as Hollinger states, the purpose behind The American Intellectual Tradition is to focus on what he calls “leading intellectuals, the people who made history by arguing,” what ideas of U.S. history are constructed by leaving out Latina/o voices from its “intellectual tradition”?  What constitutes a U.S. “leading intellectual”?  Who are “the people who [make] history by arguing” in the U.S.?  How would the inclusion of Latina/o voices reconfigure conventional notions of U.S. intellectual history, if it would?  And what other “American” intellectual traditions can one trace beyond the genealogy offered by Hollinger and Capper?


1 Juan Flores’ landmark book From Bomba to Hip Hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity (2000) remains in an indispensable analysis of the meanings of latinidad and the practice of Latina/o Studies, especially the essays “Life Off the Hyphen. Latino Literature and Nuyorican Traditions,” “The Latino Imaginary.  Meanings of Community and Identity” and “Latino Studies.  New Contexts, New Contexts.” Arlene Dávila’s Latinos Inc. The Making and Marketing of a People (2001) also offers a useful examination of the role of media and advertising culture in the construction of Latina/o identities.

2 David A. Hollinger, “American Intellectual History, 1907-2007,” OAH Magazine of History, 21.2: 14-17.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. especially Latina/o peoples, who, as their numbers continue to grow, have become more visible in mainstream culture (think Junot Díaz, Sonia Sotomayor, and Marco Rubio).

    Junot Díaz? Ooops.


    [I]n his brief wondrous literary career so far, Mr. Díaz—now a tenured professor at MIT—has collected more medals than Michael Phelps. Starting with his Pulitzer for fiction in 2007, awards have stuck to him like burrs. He’s bagged a National Book Critics Circle Award, a Guggenheim, the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Lila Acheson Wallace Readers Digest Award, a PEN/Malamud Award, a US-Japan Creative Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, the John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize and a raft of lesser-known (to me anyway) awards including the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, the 2008 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Fiction, the 2008 Hurston-Wright Legacy Award and the Massachusetts Book Awards Fiction Award in 2007.

    This brings to mind a perhaps apocryphal quote I’ve heard attributed to Hemingway (but cannot find in any Google search this morning): “Literary prizes are like life jackets tossed to men who know how to swim and have already reached the shore.”

    So far in his brief wondrous life, Mr. Díaz has reached the shore with books exactly three times…

    • Ha, prize culture is definitely something that needs more critical attention. I am not exactly a fan, but Díaz has definitely turned into quite a public voice. Anybody interested in U.S. contemporary mainstream and literary culture should pay close attention to him, especially his interviews, conferences and so forth.

      • Heh. The Nina Burleigh piece was so deliciously vicious I had to link to it. But the pointed question is, “Who’s deciding what’s in ‘Our’ Canon?” The type of [Anglo?] academic that dominates prize juries, or actual Latina/o human beings who read the stuff?

        [As for Marco Rubio, sort of the same thing–his larger acceptance among Hispanics remains to be seen. As a Cuban American evangelical, he’s kind of an Orthodox Jew of latinidad.]

        [As for The Wise Latina, no disagreement there.]

  2. Kahlil, thank you for this post. As you are aware, it cuts across many of the discussions/debates we have had from time to time on this blog, and that is all to the good.

    As you probably know, I generally attempt to foreground “ideas” rather than “intellectuals” — a somewhat tricky thing to manage sometimes, given my dissertation topic. So I suppose if I were putting together a reader, I might organize it differently.

    I have been thinking about Lawrence Levine a lot lately. He and David Hollinger were part of the same “discourse community” — the History department at U.C. Berkeley — but their approaches to intellectual history seem to me to have been very different. (They could be seen as complementary or contradictory, depending on who was arguing with whom about what, I suppose.) I would surmise that they held one another in very high regard.

    Nevertheless, it is interesting to me to think about how Levine might have constructed / organized an American intellectual history reader. (Maybe he did construct one; I don’t know.) I was struck by how the Washington Post’s obituary summarized his career: “a historian who challenged the boundaries of traditional historical method in an effort to understand the diversity of America’s past.”

    What would a reader organized around the notion of understanding the intellectual diversity of America’s past look like? Could it offer coherence? Should it? Could it even offer “coverage”? What would it look like?

    And if anyone wants to co-edit it with me, drop me a line.


    • Thank you, L.D., for this wonderful reply. I wanted to intervene a bit in these wider discussions: if there’s something I don’t want scholars of Latina/o and Latin American cultures is to fall into self-ghettoization. It happens a lot, especially through the institutional structures themselves (having a Latina/o Studies program or department when there is a separate American culture/studies program, for example). In these times of crisis in the humanities and so forth, it is essential that we cultivate a true sense of interdisciplinary dialogue that connects not only our interests, but the university as an intellectual community.

      I confess I am not familiar with Levine; any particular texts I should read as an introduction to his work? I am partial to Hollinger’s emphasis on “communities of discourse,” how these communities are formed, how they circulate and shift across time and space, though I would add embodied and/or material practices into the mix. I am also partial to tracing ideas, but it is not altogether clear to me how is this distinct from doing cultural history. How do you distinguish between the level of ideas and the level of culture, if you can actually do so?

  3. Kahlil, not sure I can answer all your questions, but I can at least affirm their importance.

    On Lawrence W. Levine —

    In 1996 he published The Opening of the American Mind, a rejoinder to Allan Bloom’s 1987 jeremiad about how Mick Jagger has replaced Plato in the university and so we’re all doomed. Levine’s book spends a fair amount of time discussing the Stanford canon stuff, so I read it recently. However, the first work of Levine’s I encountered was his 1984 essay in the AHR, William Shakespeare and the American People: A Study in Cultural Transformation, which I used for my M.A. work. Basically, Levine traces the historical trajectory of Shakespeare’s American career from popular, broad entertainment to “highbrow” culture. That dualism is the subject of Levine’s 1988 book, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, also important for my dissertation.

    However, as the obit I linked to above says, Levine’s most significant historiographic contribution is probably his first book, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. What made the book groundbreaking was his use of “lowbrow” texts — songs, folk tales, proverbs, aphorisms, “toasts,” jokes, etc — to examine an intellectual tradition.

    Right now I’m trying to assess the extent to which my own methodological tendencies and training might be indebted to — or, at least, informed by — the ideas/approaches championed by Levine, and where (before Levine) I might see that thinking at work in the academy, or outside of it, and what is gained or lost by such an approach to intellectual history.

    As to what makes it intellectual history v. cultural history — it’s the object of inquiry. It’s the quarry you’re hunting. If you’re looking for ideas, sensibilities, etc., then what people thought is the object of your inquiry. The historian’s aim to trace out the career of an idea, and not the formal or self-consciously ideational aims of authors/sources used in that quest, is what makes something intellectual history.

    As you probably know from my previous comments / posts on the blog, the notion that only the thoughts/ideas of those who were formally and/or self-consciously engaged in “bookish” pursuits/conversations should be counted as “intellectual” is far too narrow for my tastes. If someone else wants to limit his/her scholarship to such sources, I have no objection. It’s rich enough ground. But if they try to limit the sources I want to look at, if they suggest that because I am able to find useful historical insights by examining sources that they deem unworthy or unimportant, then I obviously must not be doing intellectual history — well, then I have a problem. And if I have a problem, they’re gonna have a problem.

    As Alice said to the Mad Hatter, “There’s plenty of room.” So feed your head!

    • Thanks L.D., this helps to clarify things. And the Levine looks fascinating, more for my wish list for the summer. I confess though that I am still struggling with differentiating ideas from culture. Is it different to say, for example, in my project I am writing a history of anticolonial thought; vs. anticolonial elite culture? I tend to think that culture itself produces ideas, sensibilities and so forth. I sense a bit of a Hegelian trace in the idea that we can trace thoughts throughout history, as a separate entity from the cultural world (I am not suggesting you think this, btw; it’s just something I perceive in some of the discussions about intellectual history). Part of my questioning is rooted in my interests in cultural anthropology, which is definitely not interested in making such types of differentiation.

  4. Kahlil, I suppose the best clarification I can offer right now would be to suggest that one could describe this approach as something like “the cultural history of ideas.” That’s how it has been framed for me, and that makes sense.

    Of course, I’m getting my story straight on method before I actually have to tell that story by demonstrating it in the pages of my dissertation.

    I guess I’d say that a book like Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering offers a “cultural history of ideas.” How Americans conceived of death and the afterlife changed significantly because of the carnage of the Civil War. If the object of her inquiry is “what Americans thought/imagined/believed/felt about death,” that’s an ideational/intellectual object. And the methodology to get there can draw from Geertz or from Lovejoy or Huizinga or whoever.

    If all you have is a hammer, as the saying goes, maybe everything looks like a nail. But if you come across a nail that needs to be driven flush, you can use almost anything for a hammer.

    • I like the idea of a cultural history of ideas. And of feelings, which is why I look forward to seeing Wickberg present next week!

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