Refocusing Inter-American Studies: A Closer Look at JML 41.1


This post is part of a series that takes a closer look at the scholarship behind IU Press Journals. Primarily written by journal editors and contributors, posts may respond to articles, provide background, document the development process, or explain why scholars are excited about the journal, theme, or article.

Vaughn Anderson’s article, “Revision of the Golden Rule’: John Cage, Latin America, and the Poetics of Non-Interventionism,” from the Journal of Modern Literature’s newest issue, is now available on JSTOR & Project MUSE. Below, Vaughn explores inter-American relations characterized by willful neglect, strategic ignorance, and carefully curated silence.

Like many scholars who study inter-American literature and culture, my first work in the field happened mostly in archives. I wanted to explore how literature might have served as a means for debating definitions of Americanness between North and South America during the Cold War. What I could find in library stacks was limited: a few volumes of poetry translated to and from Spanish; brief descriptions of the Beats’ travels in Mexico; and selected surviving volumes of the few literary magazines that boasted readership in both the US and Latin America. The period produced innumerable calls for closer collaboration between North and South, but these calls themselves seemed to be more common (or at least more available) than the published work that they were supposed to produce.

Partly because of the rich archival material that we have from the period, the Cold War and the two decades leading up to it have become an area of focus for scholars of inter-American literary and cultural studies. This is largely where we’ve established the foundational models and material for our field: famous friendships like that between Langston Hughes and Nicolás Guillén; celebrated translations like the ones that Pablo Neruda did of Walt Whitman’s poetry; and the cultural policy initiatives that often supported these relationships, like PEN, Casa de las Americas, or the Pan American Union. Works like Harris Feinsod’s recently released Poetry of the Americas are a testament to the richness and diversity of the trans-hemispheric dialogue that developed during this era.

As I began sifting through archival collections of forgotten letters, unpublished translations, and aborted anthologies, I imagined myself reconstructing a cultural footbridge between seemingly separate American traditions. But what I gradually realized was that, by focusing on building this bridge, I was actively ignoring the chasm that it crosses. Indeed, the more I looked, the more I found a series of telling silences: Alejandra Pizarnik’s years’-long struggle to secure a fellowship in the United States; Octavio Paz’s irritation with his English translators; an abrupt end to a previously lively correspondence between John Cage and Augusto de Campos. While we tend to build inter-American studies on felicitous moments of correspondence, collaboration, and cooperation, I discovered that it is worthwhile to pay equal or greater attention to the moments in which that communication breaks down.

My current essay in the Journal of Modern Literature had its beginnings in a visit to the John Cage archives at Northwestern University. There, in a collected correspondence that spanned a period from 1973 to 1989, I found evidence of a warm friendship between Cage and Augusto de Campos. They frequently exchanged gifts and birthday wishes; they collaborated on events and publications; they scheduled dinners in Boston and New York. However, this essay is about what else I found: de Campos’s mounting frustration as he struggled to publish a Portuguese translation of Cage’s book, A Year from Monday; the increasing time delay between the letters that they exchanged; and the eventual end of the archived correspondence, some sixteen years after it began. This essay, and its investigation of Cage’s relationship with Latin America, began as an attempt to understand and contextualize the silence and miscommunication that seemed defined his correspondence with de Campos.

My essay focuses on the ways in which Cage’s interactions with Latin Americans dramatize competing notions about the ethics of silence and the value of non-interventionism. However, I should note that, since I submitted the final proof for this essay in late April of 2017, the idea of non-interventionism has regained a tragic relevance in discussions of US policy in Latin America. Since Hurricane Maria decimated Puerto Rico's infrastructure in September 2017, the US government's response largely has been to turn a newly resurrected non-interventionist rhetoric against its own citizens. This non-interventionist rhetoric that recently reemerged bears little resemblance to the non-interventionism championed by Latin Americans in the OAS at the height of the Cold War. Indeed, this administration chooses to treat Puerto Ricans’ calls for cultural and political independence as justification for neglect and extortion.

The central observation driving my recent work is that, at least since the Cold War, inter-American relations have been characterized by willful neglect, strategic ignorance, and carefully curated silence. The current US administration's non-interventionist policies exemplify this. For this aggressively white and Protestant administration, the legal status of Puerto Ricans as American citizens remains irrelevant. It is my contention that Cage’s Latin American interlocutors, and even Cage himself, provide us with alternative models and moral frameworks for understanding and practicing non-interventionism.

Works Cited

Feinsod, Harris. Poetry of the Americas: From Good Neighbors to Countercultures. Oxford UP, 2017.

Vaughn Anderson is an NTT assistant professor of English at Maryville University.

More from the Journal of Modern Literature 41.1 Picture1

Editor's Introduction: Modernist Modes of Resistance
Paula Marantz Cohen

Charlotte Salomon, Degenerate Art, and Modernism as Resistance
Ariela Freedman

Elizabeth Bowen and the Futurist Imagination
Keri Walsh

Stephen Dedalus and Nationalism without Nationalism
Aleksandar Stević

“Revision of the Golden Rule”: John Cage, Latin America, and the Poetics of Non-Interventionism
Vaughn Anderson

War of Images or Images of War? Visualizing History in Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones
Zoë Roth

John Lanchester's Capital: A Dickensian Examination of the Condition of England
J. Russell Perkin

Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger: Birth and Demise of a Community
Raphaël Lambert

Possible Futures and Grammatical Politics in James Baldwin's Another Country
Laura R. Fisher

The 1939 State
British Writers and the Approach of World War II by Steve Ellis
Review by: Laura Blomvall

Recovering the Liberal Tradition
Bleak Liberalism by Amanda Anderson
Review by: Daniel Rosenberg Nutters

Modernist Resistance to the Surveillance State
Modernism and Mobility: The Passport and Cosmopolitan Experience by Bridget T. Chalk
Review by: Nissa Ren Cannon