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Maria Cristina Fumagalli, Professor in the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies at the University of Essex,
Peter Hulme, Professor of Literature in the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies at the University of Essex,
Owen Robinson, Senior Lecturer in US Literature in the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies at the University of Essex,
Lesley Wylie, Lecturer in Latin American Studies at the University of Leicester
Most literary histories are written in lockstep with national stories. It is perfectly clear what such co-ordination brings to nationalism: it makes that national story deeper and longer, more rooted in its territory. It is less clear that literary history benefits. For a start many of the books herded into such national literary histories were written long before these nations ever existed: to read, say, the writings of Christopher Columbus as part of US literature is to misplace the historical and geographical co-ordinates necessary to understand Columbus. But even within the modern era, dominated by nation-states, literature itself has rarely been disciplined by national borders. Other ways of organising can tell different stories, which can perhaps persuade us to look in different ways at the multiplicity of texts available for the writing of literary history.
In this regard the American continent offers some fine complexities, from indigenous cultures which pre-date the European invasion, through the ever-shifting pattern of colonial settlements and struggles for independence, to the present mosaic of nation-states and notional supra-national designations such as ‘Latin America’, ‘Anglo-America’, and ‘the Caribbean’, not to mention the constant patterns of migration which have created categories like Cuban-American and Nuyorican, with writers who might belong to two or three national territories—or perhaps to none at all.
In recent years new formulations have suggested some different configurations: the idea of the Black Atlantic has emphasised connections across that ocean, particularly between Africa and America; various new versions of ‘southern’ literature have rediscovered connections between the southern US states and the islands of the Caribbean; and the Caribbean itself has expanded to include the coastal regions of Colombia and Venezuela. One major difference between these new formulations and the older national literary histories is that whereas previously writers might be struggled over—is T. S. Eliot a US or an English poet? is Paule Marshall a West Indian or a US novelist?—the new configurations are not mutually exclusive: each optic can in theory reveal a different set of relationships and trajectories. Taken together they help produce a richer literary history.
‘American Tropics’ refers to a kind of extended Caribbean, an area that includes the southern USA, the Atlantic littoral of Central America, the Caribbean islands, and northern South America. European colonial powers fought intensively here against indigenous populations and against each other for control of land and resources. The regions in the American Tropics share a history in which the dominant fact is the arrival of millions of white Europeans and black Africans; share an environment that is tropical or sub-tropical; and share a socio-economic model (the plantation), whose effects lasted at least well into the twentieth century. The imaginative space of the American Tropics therefore offers a differently centred literary history from those conventionally produced as US, Caribbean, or Latin American literature.This important collection brings together essays by distinguished scholars, including the late Neil Whitehead, Richard Price, Sally Price, and Susan Gillman, that engage with the idea of a literary geography of the American Tropics and that represent the rich diversity of the writing produced within this geographical area.