Chicano Writers and the Art of the Novel
By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca
Scholar in Residence and Chair, Department of Chicana/o & Hemispheric Studies, Western New Mexico University; Professor Emeritus, Texas State University System—Sul Ross
My works on Backgrounds of Mexican American Literature and “The Chicano Renaissance” were still years in the future when I first met John Rechy in 1964 at an El Paso, Texas, soiree hosted by Molly Shapiro.
Rechy’s novel City of Night had just been published the year before and he was riding a high wave of recognition. I was still two years from becoming a Chicano. And John Rechy would become an important Chicano novelist. That night, however, neither of us thought of ourselves as Chicanos. We were still Mexican Americans or mejicanos as we referred to ourselves then. But the Chicano Movement, percolating since 1960, would change our nomenclature.
Rechy was warm, buoyant, and obviously delighted by the adulation he was receiving from those whom Molly had assembled for that night’s treat. James Baldwin had praised City of Night highly. There was a certain reticence on Rechy’s part not because of those of us who had been invited to hear him speak about his novel, but because that was part of Rechy’s charm. His rugged good looks carried the evening. I admired him with a trace of envy for I fancied myself a writer also.
I had never met a Mexican American novelist. I had no idea of Mexican American writers or, for that matter, Mexican American Literature. But the trove of Mexican American literature was there. Not waiting for me to “discovered” it. Just to organize it into a history. Later, in Backgrounds of Mexican American Literature (University of New Mexico, 1971), I created a scaffold for it. Subsequent scholars would bring it to life, give it form.
It turned out, John Rechy was among the first of the Chicano novelists in that first decade (1960-1969) of the Chicano era, publishing Numbers in 1967 and This Day’s Death in 1969. The other Chicano novelists of that decade included Fray Angelico Chavez and his novel The Lady From Toledo (1960), Antonio Serna Candelaria with Unscaled Fortress (1966), Floyd Salas with Tattoo the Wicked Cross (1967) and What Now My Love? (1969), and Raymond Barrio with The Plum Plum Pickers (1969). That was it.
In 1969, it seemed to me, on the basis of what I was able to find in completing Backgrounds of Mexican American Literature, that the novel Pocho was a clear marker in establishing the begining of the “Chicano Novel” because it dealt explicitly with the origins of the Mexican American experience. That marker was not set in stone. It was just a convenient starting point given the data I had to work with.
I came across the novel Pocho by Jose Antonio Villarreal in the fall of 1969 when at the urging of Louis Bransford, founding director of Chicano Studies at the University of New Mexico. I taught the first course in “Chicano” literature in the country at the University of New Mexico, so I have believed. Pocho had been published by Doubleday in 1959 and quickly went into remainders, not because of its literary merit but because the country was not ready for Chicano literature, even though Mexican Americans had been writing steadily since February 2, 1848 when they went from being Mexicans to being Americans (see “Mexicans and Mexican Americans: Prolegomenon to a Literary Perspective,” Journal of South Texas, Spring, 2005).
Insofar as current research indicates, about a dozen novels were written by Mexican Americans during the period from 1872 to 1959: several by Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton and Eusebio Chacon. Included in this group are novels by Daniel Venegas, Aurelio Espinosa, Josefina Niggli, and Americo Paredes’ novel George Washington Gomez dating from 1930 but not published until 1990 by Arte Publico Press. We still don’t have a full record of all the novels written (or published either in English or Spanish) by Mexican American writers between 1848 and 1959.
Research into those forgotten pages of American literature continues. The University of Houston project on “Recovering the Hispanic Literary History of the United States” is uncovering that trove.
From the perspective of the 21st century and almost five decades of Chicano novels, it’s easier to make historical and critical judgments about Chicano writers and the art of the novel. To begin with, one of the major obstacles in Chicano literature has been one of nomenclature: how does one define “the Chicano No-vel”? For example, is Famous All Over Town by Daniel James a Chicano novel since the work deals with the Chicanos of East Los Angeles -- its characters are all Chicanos. James passed himself off as Danny Santiago in getting the novel published.
Some Chicano critics dismiss as Chicano novels certain works by Chicano writers because they are not “movement” novels or don’t address the social and/or political issues affecting Chicanos. For example, in her commentary on the Chicano novel, Carlota Cardenas Dwyer excludes as Chicano novels the works by Villarreal, Rechy, Salas, Barrio and Vasquez on grounds that their novels do not promote a specific social or political issue unequivocally Chicano.
Rafael Grajeda excludes the works of Villarreal and Vasquez in his selection of Chicano novels on grounds that “the works do not confront clearly and honestly the implication of their premises,” namely, that the central characters arrive at an understanding and acceptance of themselves as Chicanos.
As a genre, the novel has raised more questions about its literary form and function. There is also the meaning of the word fiction to take into account. What exactly does the word “fiction” mean? When a novel is so apparently autobiographical or patently realistic in the details about the characters that their live counterparts are easily recognizable, is that “fiction”?
The word “novel” is a term difficult to define, but in the main it refers to an “extended” work of prose that employs the techniques of fiction: plot, setting, point of view and characterization. As fiction it also employs various approaches associated with fiction–psychological approach, sociological approach, archetypal approach, etc.
At large, there are no strict rules for the form and content of the novel. That leaves us pretty much where we started. Let’s consider the following.
Just as the short story is short, so too the novel is long–longer, that is. One could say the novel is an extended short story, but that isn’t quite accurate because the short story is bounded by particular elements of unity that do not inhibit the novel. Analogously, the short story is like a backyard; the novel is a ranch. There’s considerable more room in the novel to tell the story, elaborate more pieces of the story, space to develop character(s), plumb their being(s), exposit relationships, span generations. The novel is a canvas; the short story, a snapshot.
Like people, novels come in all sizes, shapes and forms. While Bocaccio’s Decameron is a series of stories told by narrators hiding out from the plague, the work has been variously identified as a novel. In many ways, the word “novel” is a catch-all term for a variety of prose manifestations. The origin of “the novel” is hard to place, but in English the novel had its beginnings in the early 18th century. In Spain, the novel took root in the 16th century.
It took 100 years for the novel to migrate to the United States from England. And given the character of America, the American novel grew self-consciously from the genteel traditions of New England, giving way to novels of social commentary and the amorphous novels of today enveloped in what is called “magical realism.”
Emulating first “the romance,” the American novel evolved through naturalism to realism. After the Civil War, the American novel was regarded as an instrument for social commentary. Richard Chase explains that “the American novel tends to rest in contradictions and among extreme ranges of experience” (The American Novel and its Tradition, Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1957, 1).
Generally, our assessment of American novels has focused on those contradictions and extreme ranges of experience. Henry James defined that range of experience as “what happens to us as social creatures” (Ibid. 21). That has been the general canvas of the American novel – what happens to us as social creatures. For this reason American novelists have tended to create in their novels a verisimilitude of the society in which their characters move, patterned in terms of human relationships and the human predicament.
Since 1945, the American novel has tended to reflect the uncertainty and ambiguities of modern life. Some critics of the novel suggest that as a consequence the American novel has become too stylized, too personal. The large vistas of traditional American novels have given way to narrow perspectives and a banality of language, say many critics of the genre.
The upshot is that the American novel provides a range of critical assessment, depending on what we think the function of the novel ought to be. Lionel Trilling thought the novel was “a kind of summary and paradigm of our cultural life” (“Art and Fortune” in The Liberal Imagination, 1950).
While there is some controversy about some forms of short fiction -- whether a short work is a piece of folklore, a tale or a short story (something more fictive than the novel) -- the novel as a genre has raised more questions as a literary form than any other of the literary genres. Discussion of “cataloging” the novel is much like the story that the only thing one can be sure of when the person driving a car in front of you puts his or her hand out the driver’s window to signal a turn in the old-fashioned way is that the window is down. There is, of course, the meaning of the word “fiction.” What exactly does it mean?
In The Four Forms of Fiction, Northrop Frye points out the distinction between fiction as a genus and the novel as a species. Of course, none of this sheds light on what the novel is, except to say that as a species it is not short, otherwise it would be a short story. Few critics would call a short story a short novel.
Is a “novel” still a “fiction” when it is so apparently autobiographical or patently realistic in the details about the characters that their live counterparts are easily recognizable?
However the novel may have come into being, we know a lot about its evolution after the Western Renaissance. Generally, though not conclusively, we can place the novel first in Italy, then in Spain, and identify the Spanish influences in the early English novel. In the 19th century, the strongholds of the novel were in France and Russia, giving way to its ascendancy in the United States toward the end of the 19th century and continuing until well into the third quarter of the 20th century.
Since World War Two, however, the stronghold of the novel seems to be in Latin America. It’s a genre that migrates with ideas and with the imagination. The current trend of “magical realism” in the novel is of Latin American origin, though that origin springs from the tradition of the fabula (fable) and earlier folklore.
To be continued...
READ PART II OF THIS ARTICLE
Originally published in Somos en escrito: the Latino On-Line Literary Magazine, November 12, 2009