Adios Chaucer! Adios Shakespeare!, Part II
Americanizing the English Department and its Curriculum - A Latino Persepctive
By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca
Scholar in Residence / Chair, Department of Chicana/Chicano and Hemispheric Studies, Western New Mexico University
From the very beginning, the United States was a motley aggregation of peoples from various parts of the world – mostly Europe with the exception of American Indians, African slaves, and the Sephardic community of New York.
They did not think of themselves as a single ethnically hegemonic group. I’m talking about the beginning of the United States – 1776 – not about the antecedent British colonies.
In his “Letters from an American Farmer,” St John de Crevecoeur (1735-1813) tells us about the multicultural and multilingual character of the United States at its founding. In his Letters from an American Farmer, St. Jean de Crèvecoeur provided us with “some of the best surviving pictures of the diversity of tongues and types . . . that soon were to be welded into a new nation” (Stern and Gross 317). In Crevecoeur’s words: “they are a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes” (Ibid.). He does not mention the American Indians, the Sephardic Jews of New York who came with the Dutch nor the diversity of African slaves nor the countless Hispanics in the population like Francisco de Miranda, a Spanish Creole from Cuba, who helped the American colonists in their break for independence from England, and who later became president of the Republic of Venezuela.
There were many other diverse groups of people in the American population at the beginning. According to Thomas Sowell,
Over the years a massive stream of humanity . . . crossed every ocean and continent to reach the United States. They came speaking every language and representing every nationality, race, and religion. Today, there are more people of Irish ancestry in the United States than in Ireland, more Jews than in Israel, more blacks than in most African countries. There are more people of Polish ancestry in Detroit than in most of the leading cities of Poland and more than twice as many people of Italian ancestry in New York than in Venice (3).
In the beginning the strength of the new nation was considered resident in the differences of its people—differences which were prized and celebrated. All tolled, the 13 states consisted of some 3 million people, half of them slaves. In the first history of the United States, Salma Hale described Americans as “coming from every quarter of the world, speaking many different languages, dispersed over a vast extent of the territory” (12).
While they thought of themselves as Americans, the concept that would aggregate them all as a nationality was still years ahead of them. The nation was still fissured with ethnic and racial enclaves.
The United States started its democratic experiment with a multicultural and multilingual crew. So, why departments of English? Why not departments of American Studies? Or American literature? I realize these identifiers may not be quite accurate, but surely together we can come up with the right name for our purposes.
Americans have been apodictically conditioned to believe that England is the sole mother country of the United States.
From a post-colonial point of view, the United States has many mother countries: Germany, Ireland, France, Italy, Spain, Mexico, to name but a few. As is evident, not all Americans are of English stock. Large numbers of them are from Indigenous American groups, Ireland, Scotland, Africa, Italy, Germany, Scandinavia, Middle European backgrounds. Increasing numbers of them are from Middle-East, Asian-Pacific, and Indo-Hispanic origins. These demographics are not new, as Crèvecoeur pointed out in his Letters from an American Farmer.
The face of the nation is changing, and its literary canon must change with it. Census projections predict that by the middle of the 21st century whites will comprise a numerical minority in the American population. Even now, however, while the American population may be about 65% white, not all whites are of English stock.
Paramount in a reconsideration of what to rename departments of English is the groundswell of American writers whose origins are not from England but from a diversity of countries whose national languages are not English.
At the moment it appears that the largest and most significant demographic growth will be with American Latinos. The U.S. Census Bureau projects an American population of 439 million by the year 2050, one-third of whom will be Latinos — 66 percent of whom will be Mexican Americans. Of the 310 million Americans today, 50 million are Latinos — 16% of the U.S. population whose growth is fueled principally by fertility less so by immigration.
And two/thirds of American Latinos today are Mexican Americans, fueling the demographic growth trend of Latinos in every county of the United States — every county. With this demographic profile of the United States looming in the future, does it not make sense that American literature reflect that demographic diversity? However that demographic diversity does not yet include American Hispanics —t hat is, Hispanics of the United States. Here and there an American Hispanic author is included in the anthologies of American literature. However, not in numbers commensurate with their proportion in the American population.
Another third of the American population by mid-century will be minorities of color with origins from throughout the world: from Asia, Indonesia, Pacific Islanders, Africa, the Middle East, and a plethora of other places. Surely, the character of American literature must then reflect the character of its population? Is it not time to begin facing and preparing for these demographic changes by acknowledging them in the present?
Some changes are occurring in snippets here and there. Some textbooks are beginning to reflect the full sweep of the American experience. Some anthologies of American literature have become more inclusive, the best of which is the Heath Anthology of American Literature edited by Paul Lauter, et al. with an Advisory Board that includes Latinos. But a 2002 McGraw Hill anthology of The American Tradition in Literature (10th Edition) includes only one Hispanic writer, Isabel Allende born in Lima, Peru of Chilean parents, as representative of American Hispanic writers — that is, American Hispanic writers of the United States. This would be like including Inua Achebe, the African Nigerian writer, as representative of African American writers.
Minority writers of the United States are contesting — nay, challenging — the narrow aperture of the American literary canon.
As Walter J. Ong put it, “a minority literature often negotiates for its own identity with the majority culture and constantly redefines itself, ultimately bringing the majority culture to define itself more adequately” (Baker 3; see Ortego 2010).
This is precisely also the challenge of the project on "Recovering the U.S. Literary Heritage of the United States" led by Nicolas Kanellos at the University of Houston. The contention of the Recovery Project is that Hispanic writers before 1776 in what is now the United States ought to be considered very much a part of American literature just as the British writers before 1776 in what is now the United States are considered a part of American literature.
Both are colonial roots of American literature. Moreover, the Recovery Project argues that the literature extant in the territory dismembered from Mexico and acquired by the United States as a consequence of the U.S.-Mexico War (1846-1848) and ratified by the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo on February 2, 1848, rightly constitutes the roots of Mexican American literature (see Ortego 1971a).
In 1887, John Gilmary Shea presented the case in an article entitled “The First Epic of our Country, by the Poet Conquistador of New Mexico, Captain Gaspar de Villagra” (United States Historical Magazine, April). In the 1933 preface to Gilberto Espinosa’s translation of Villagrá, F. W. Hodge acknowledged that Villagrá’s work “may claim the distinction of being the first published history of any American commonwealth” (17). Jingoistic American history has negated that proposition, principally because Villagrá’s work was written in Spanish. To this Thomas M. Pearce did not mince words:
The English tradition, as it is carried on by the English language [in the United States], has made few concessions to other elements in the literary history of this country (“American Tradition and Our Histories of Literature” (16).
Villagrá’s work deserves consideration as the first epic in the literary history of the United States, for the fabric of American literature is not one woven exclusively on the Atlantic frontier by New England Puritans and Southern Cavaliers, but one woven in the American Southwest by Spanish and Mexican settlers as well.
In his article of 1942, professor Pearce argued that:
If we must write history by chronology, let the literature tell the story of the land. The English epic Beowulf found no mention in English literature until an antiquary published a garbled summary in 1705; no English translation was made until 1837. Yet we do not introduce Beowulf into English histories as literature of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. It is discussed as the beginning, the source materials (18).
This point was emphasized by Genaro Padilla in “Discontinuous Continuities: Remapping the Terrain of Spanish Colonial Narrative” (Herrera-Sobek, 34).
Indeed the Spanish literature of exploration dealing with the Southern and Southwestern portions of the United States—the chronicles of American exploration—have been excluded as part of our national literary heritage though they treat of the same themes of exploration as their British counterparts.
From 1527 to 1848, some 321 years, Spanish letters flourished in New Spain [subsequently called the Republic of Mexico after 1821]. There were thousands of other works over that span of time. The parallel between New England and New Spain as pre- cursors of American letters is all too striking with the exception that in New Spain the language of letters was Spanish. But the point is that if the United States can claim the writings of colonial New England as the roots of American literature, it can equally claim the writings of colonial New Spain as roots of American literature also. The point is that New Spain is as relevant to the American experience as New England.
However, the fly in this ointment is that American teachers of English in high schools and colleges are ill-prepared not only for the ethnic diversity of their classrooms but also ill-prepared to teach the diversity of American literature since so few are exposed to the diversity of American literature since the focus of their training has been on Chaucer, Shakespeare, and the English literary canon.
Like me in 1952, my first year of teaching, when teachers of English stepped into their classrooms all they knew about American literature were the works of what was then the American literary canon. Nurtured on the Western Tradition, this is what they taught and what they passed on to subsequent generations of American students. Sacrosanct, the illumination of the Western Tradition continued unabated until the emergence of minority movements of the post-Brown v. Board of Education era (Ortego 1971c).
My contention in this essay has been not to negate the English Tradition in which I was steeped but to augment it by opening the aperture of the American literary canon (Ortego 1971b).
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Ortego, Philip D. 1971b. “Which Southwestern Literature in the English Classroom?” Arizona English Bulletin, April.
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