Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Life in Search of Form: Mexican American Literature and American Literary History, 1959-1999
by Arellano, José Antonio, Ph.D., The University of Chicago, 2019, 258; 10840787
Abstract (Summary)

Searching for Form: Mexican American Literature and American Literary History,1959-1990 explores how Mexican American writers advanced notions of literary art to explore the conditions of their self-determination. Rather than stipulating a relatively continuous story of Mexican American “culture,” however, I show how the very terms “self-determination” and “literary art” changed radically from 1959 to 1999—a change that responded to shifts in the American political and economic scene.

I start in 1959, with the publication of what was then considered to be the first novel published by a Mexican American, José Antonio Villarreal’s Pocho. I show how Pocho is situated at the intersection between two competing accounts of “traditional culture” that started to clash at the end of the 1950’s: on the one hand, the liberal and sociological critiques of the supposed pathology and anti-individualism of traditional culture, and on the other hand a celebration of longstanding communal resilience found only within tradition. I argue that midcentury American novelists including Villarreal posited the novel as the genre uniquely equipped to explore the possibility of individual freedom in relation to both accounts via a self-determination seemingly made possible through the achievement of the novel as art. Pocho simultaneously dramatizes the tragic conclusion of the type of callow idealism that animates facile understandings of freedom (as freedom from social expectations) while also enacting what a more enduring ground of freedom could be: a disposition toward social engagement—one of aesthetic distance—that allows for recognition without distortion, and social participation without loss of individuality, an aesthetic sensibility that enables the exploration of the limits of freedom while imagining, by enacting, its possibility.

After the Chicano intervention of the mid-1960s, however, such an exploration would have to be understood in communal terms (the “I” seeking freedom becomes the “we” of Chicano liberation) and be seen as operating within a Mexican American cultural tradition. Ethnicity was not something to be “transcended” in art but the very ground of communal self-determination as such. This intervention was in part meant to register the reality of an economy whose treatment of Mexican American laborers amounted to their complete objectification, rendering human life into fodder for agrarian commerce. Villarreal, like his liberal contemporaries, seemed to take for granted the luxury of a relatively stable economy in which one was free to explore his or her “individualism.” Works including Tomás Rivera’s …y no se lo trago la tierra (1971), instead dramatize the historical emergence of a group consciousness that called itself “Chicano,” a self-awareness that entailed the recognition of one’s place in history as part of a people struggling to survive. Instead of advancing the novel as the primary genre, Rivera defines “the Chicano” as a “life in search of form,” by which he meant a growing communal self-consciousness that sought to understand itself through art. As Rivera puts it, “the Chicano” sought to “externalize his will through form,” which I argue his work performs by being explicitly intertextually related. No longer positing the novel as the central genre, as it was for Villarreal, Rivera instead uses poems, short stories, essays, and a novella in concert—his oeuvre itself producing (by demanding) the type of reader who does not see the world as composed of discrete, alien objects. Instead, Rivera’s reader becomes the type of person who can, as he puts it, seek to understand totality: “To relate this entity with that entity, and that entity with still another, and finally relating everything with everything else.”

But if the recognition of oneself as a Chicano was in part the result of a growing working-class consciousness, the sought for permanence of this identity came to be perceived as sclerotic. The response to reification itself had a reifying effect. The explicitly Chicano representational strategies developed throughout the 1970s reached a point of exhaustion during the 1980s. “Chicano literature” could no longer be presented as “representative” of “a people” coming to know itself as such without significant qualification. Work by feminist writers took the question of representation as the very problem to be resolved in their work. Writers including Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherríe Moraga, Ana Castillo, and Alma Luz Villanueva experiment with genres (producing a blend of poems, journal entries, and letters) to create representational strategies that imagine the possibility of transcending representation as such. These strategies (which include “spectral haunting,” “blood memory,” and photographic indexicality) allowed writers to imagine a literature that did not speak for or represent a community so much as index that community’s presence via its textual personification. (Abstract shortened by ProQuest.)

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Warren, Kenneth
Commitee: Michaels, Walter Benn
School: The University of Chicago
Department: English Language and Literature
School Location: United States -- Illinois
Source: DAI-A 80/01(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: American literature, Hispanic American studies
Keywords: American literary history, Chicano literature, Mexican American literature
Publication Number: 10840787
ISBN: 978-0-438-37087-6
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