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Fall 2002 Seminar "Confluence of Cultures: Histories and Fictions of the Americas"

Dates: August 26 - December 6, 2002


Right: From a Nahua pictorial manuscript with captions in Nahuatl, created in the first half of the 18th century, documenting land claims in the village of Zempoala. Courtesy of the Newberry Librarys Ayer Collection.

Faculty Gilberto Gmez-Ocampo, Program Director. Modern Languages, Wabash College (Ph.D., Washington University). James Fisher, Six-month Fellow. Theater, Wabash College (M.F.A., University of North Carolina). Confluence of Cultures: Histories and Fictions of the Americas In an age of intense cultural, economic, and demographic intra-continental exchange, it seems pertinent -- even urgent -- to explore the concept of the Americas as a whole -- the United States and Canada, and Latin America. This seminar will examine fundamental aspects of the culture of North and South America searching for connections and parallels through essential and stimulating literary texts read in a historical context. While emphasis will be given to the period from colonization through the 19th century, attention will also be given to contemporary reflections on the issues raised in the seminar. Typically, America has been viewed from East to West (from sea to shining sea), with a focus on the influence of Europe. We seek to invert the axis to North and South looking for a new definition of the Americas as we examine the descendents of discovery in terms of the congruencies and dissimilarities of our histories. Participants will study questions common to the Americas while pursuing their own research at the Newberry Library -- one of the leading humanities libraries in the world -- and within the rich urban culture of Chicago. An intellectual exploration of the Americas can foster a greater understanding of enduring cultural traditions while permitting an examination of the histories of peoples whose pasts exhibit remarkable similarities amidst vastly different cultures. Fiction, at its most valuable level, depicts these cultures and presents the crosscurrents and confluence of history through individual, often intimate, experiences. Our search for commonalities in the history, human experiences and cultural evolutions of both Americas will emphasize colonial struggles, encounters among various Others (Amerindian, Black/African, European settlers), external pressures on the societies, economic strains, war, political conflicts and spiritual issues, aiming to challenge conceptions of the meaning of America and to broaden our grasp of the vital relationship and interconnectedness within which the two halves of the continent have come to exist.

Left: The Slave Market, from Sir Henry Chamberlain, Views and costumes of the city and neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from drawings taken by Lieutenant Chamberlain during the years 1819 and 1820, with descriptive explanations. London: T. MLeau, 1822. Courtesy of the Newberry Librarys Ayer Collection.

The seminar will stress both the historical and the literary. In fact, many of the texts chosen for the course are claimed both by history and by literature, for example, works by Bartolom de las Casas, Simn Bolvar, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, and others. They will form the basis of our examination of fundamental characteristics of the American experience as we ask ourselves, what do all Americans share? Answers are found in the study of experiences such as the first contacts between Europeans and Native Americans, the establishing of colonies, the enslavement of native and African-American peoples, the revolutionary spirit of achieving independence from European metropolises, and the evolution of a national character that followed. We propose to examine intracontinental exchanges, going from the national level to the local, as we move from the seminars discussion of texts to an exploration of these cultures within the city of Chicago. A literary approach that combines history and literature is particularly appropriate for the texts discussed in this seminar, and recognizes that a work of literature is in itself a historical agent and artifact -- an event of history that evolves from other historical occurrences and influences the course of history. As the distinct cultures and national characters of North and South emerge, similarities and differences in the two Americas become more evident and more instructive in understanding the continent as a whole. The seminar leaders will endeavor to approach the fictions of North and Latin America as a cohesive collection of American literature worthy of study either within or without the European context -- that is, as texts that illuminate the history of the Americas and the circumstances that marked and shaped the nations of the New World. For example, parallels between life on the farm or plantation with that of the hacienda are evident, as is the Puritan spirit of individuality shaping a bourgeois mentality in the North while that of Catholic universality carried with it feudal remnants in the South. Throughout the semester, seminar participants will draw not only on the vast and singular holdings of the Newberrys collection, but also its experienced staff, distinguished visiting fellows in residence and guest speakers. Field trips in Chicago will further enhance the seminar experience. The central culminating event will be the completion of an independent research project. Having acquired a broad understanding of the seminars topic, students will be encouraged to test, refine and enrich their appreciation of the subject through the focus of their own particular research interests. Participants will, as a result, not only expand their views of the seminar topic, but also develop techniques and methods for pursuing advanced research and sophisticated writing, experiences certain to enhance their future intellectual endeavors. Seminar participants will engage fascinating classics of the literature of the Americas that will challenge them in understanding the newness and significance of American cultures, and will be encouraged to become more self-conscious readers and residents of the continent we share.