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The Present Impasse: Hemispheric American Modernism and the Poetics of History


My dissertation, “The Present Impasse: Hemispheric American Modernism and the Poetics of History,” shows how U.S., Caribbean, and Latin American authors innovated with narrative to conceptualize the course of history as U.S. expansionism threatened to replace, rather than rout, French, Spanish, and British empires. Alejo Carpentier, John Rechy, and Zora Neale Hurston, I argue, experimented with temporal elements of narrative emplotment, such as order, duration, and frequency, to align the passage of time with the unfolding of history. In doing so, they mediated the collision of repeating and overlapping empires in the hemispheric American South: an experience rendered cyclical in narrative discourse and, as such, one that contests the linear progress most commonly associated with modernity. Their work, therefore, presents a new modernist understanding of historical time: one in which the expectation of social change collapses back onto the experience of the past and promises not a divergent future but rather an eternal return of the same. In this way, cyclical time marks an impasse in narrative chronology that parallels the “present impasse” from which history is perceived to encounter the antinomies of colonial Enlightenment and reproduce the racialized social relations of empire. In response to this impasse, each work introduces the need for an alternative temporality of “the untimely,” i.e., an iteration of the premodern past or the unmodern present that nonetheless highlights the conditions of possibility with which modernity may be reconstituted in the future.

Beyond my first chapter, which details the advent of U.S. intervention and expansion in what Édouard Glissant termed “the Other America,” my second chapter focuses on Carpentier’s The Kingdom of This World (1949) to showcase the untimely dimension of the marvelous real, or lo real maravilloso: a transatlantic aesthetic and philosophical treatise that introduced a “historical counterpoint” to U.S. empire in Cuba and Haiti. My second chapter shifts from the Caribbean to the U.S.-Mexico borderlands to examine how Rechy’s City of Night (1963) responds to successive waves of internal colonialism by fashioning an untimely temporality that attempts to envision a reparative experience beyond racial and sexual intersectionality. My fourth chapter demonstrates how Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) approaches the reemergence of empire with an affirmative concept of history that proposes a philosophy of self-determination and calls for decolonial change in the hemispheric South. This chapter is followed by a brief comparative coda that demonstrates how each author contributed to the emergence of what we could call, if only heuristically, a hemispheric American modernism: one that distinguishes itself from European and Anglo-American modernism and illuminates the neo-imperial challenges against which the next generation of authors, amid U.S. Civil Rights and “Third-World” independence movements, would have to face.

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