A Chinese translation of “Rip Van Winkle.” A speech by Ralph Waldo Emerson honoring the Burlingame-Seward treaty. A translation of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life” inscribed on a Mandarin fan. The autobiography and poetry of Yale’s first Chinese graduate, who founded a school for Chinese exchange students in Hartford. Judging by the stature of the figures and institutions involved, we might expect that the archive of nineteenth-century literary encounters between China and the United States would have generated lasting networks of influence.
Spoiler alert. Just before Stan Emery, the tragic embodiment of youthful excess in John Dos Passos’ glittering Manhattan Transfer, dies in an apartment fire, he looks out onto the cityscape of Manhattan and says, “Kerist I wish I was a skyscraper!” (255). For each reader of the novel, the line will stand out. It hits the eye, a solitary line after a set of song lyrics and before a paragraph break.
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From 1920 to 1932, the Literary Digest—a weekly American magazine—accurately predicted the winner of each presidential election in the United States by conducting massive straw polls. In 1936, however, the magazine fell into irreparable ignominy when, after distributing over ten million questionnaires, the editors predicted a landslide victory for Republican candidate Alf Landon, only to have Franklin Roosevelt win handily, securing sixty-one percent of the popular vote. George Gallup’s American Institute of Public Opinion, founded just the year before, gained widespread notoriety for not only correctly predicting the election’s outcome using only 50,000 respondents, but also estimating the Digest poll’s error in advance of their publication, with a sample of just 3,000. Gallup took the technique of the questionnaire, made politically potent by mass print culture, yet still employed as a blunt instrument, and infused it with a newfound statistical rigor. Gallup’s confrontation with the Digest at once exemplified and accelerated the growing influence that questionnaires had in American culture in the 1930s, and particularly highlighted how modern periodicals might thrive—or wither—by using this technique to actively engage national political debates. The Literary Digest, founded in 1890, endured its shame only briefly, being sold in 1938 and shortly thereafter dissolved into Henry Luce’s Time. Gallup’s Institute, meanwhile, became a leading authority in evaluating public opinion, his name soon treated as metonymic for the use of modern, quantitative polling.
In 1923 Alfred Stieglitz published “How I Came to Photograph Clouds,” a short essay in which he writes:
I always watched clouds. Studied them. . . . So I began to work with the clouds—and it was with great excitement . . . Every time I developed I was so wrought up, always believing I had nearly gotten what I was after—but had failed. A most tantalizing sequence of days and weeks.
This “tantalizing sequence” of initial experimentation would later yield a formidable legacy, as Stieglitz would spend nearly a decade (1923–31) producing the pivotal series of cloud photographs he would title the Equivalents. During this period he printed and exhibited hundreds of cloud images, most taken during the summers he spent with Georgia O’Keeffe at Lake George, in the Adirondacks. When Stieglitz turned his camera to the skies in the early 1920s, the resulting photographs sometimes included a sliver of horizon or the silhouette of a tree, inclusions which hold the vastness of the cloudscape in relative perspective against the scale of the earth. Yet by the late 1920s, most visual references to solid ground disappear from the work, seeming to set the clouds adrift within their frames. Free of mooring, their spatial proportions and positioning indeterminate, the cloud images become disoriented from any authoritative vantage: their shapes and textures may imply certain atmospheric vectors or conditions, but no single beholder’s grounded point of view definitively calibrates them (fig. 1).
November 2018 not only sees the US midterm elections which will allow the American people to respond at the ballot box to the tumultuous and often exhaustingly toxic political environment during the Trump presidency. It also brings the less heralded and seemingly more distant centenary commemorations of the end of the First World War on November 11th, 1918. Yet another world historical milestone to be overshadowed by a relentless domestic news cycle dominated by a politics of distraction and fear that seems to harness racism, misogyny, economic inequality and outright violence to an unprecedented degree.
This book investigates a flood that sprawled across forty percent of the United States (and some of Canada), killing hundreds (and perhaps thousands, since African American deaths were not included in any “official” count), displacing nearly one million people—including 300,000 African Americans who were placed in makeshift camps, which the Red Cross called “concentration camps” and which reproduced a particularly American racial logic—and stimulating an enormous range of intellectual and aesthetic production from the Mississippi Delta blues of Bessie Smith to the Berlin radio broadcasts of Walter Benjamin. The 1927 Mississippi flood, Parrish argues at length, and quite compellingly, should be understood as one of the central events in the history of modernism.
The contours of Latino/a modernism only begin to clarify in the light of the prodigious literary production of US Spanish-language serials. The original and republished literature that circulated in these serials—newspapers, weekly digests, literary magazines—defies current paradigms of modernism, including the experimentalism of canonical Anglo modernism, the aestheticism of Latin American modernismo, and the political bent of borderlands modernism. The size of this archive is staggering: Nicolás Kanellos and Helvetia Martell have documented the existence of 1,141 Spanish-language serials in the United States between 1880 and 1945, the vast majority of which included literary texts as part of their regular publication agenda. Almost a century after the apex of this literary formation, however, US Spanish-language print culture is virtually invisible in contemporary literary scholarship. That invisibility results from translation practices that have paradoxically served to disconnect Latino/a studies from modernist studies, fields that would mutually benefit from sustained engagement. In this essay, I give a brief account of how translation—understood literally and metaphorically—has worked as a point of blockage in the (non-)relationship of modernist and Latino/a studies. I then highlight the Kansas City Spanish-language weekly El Cosmopolita (1914–1919) as one example of how Latino/a modernism negotiates transnational literary currents and local social concerns. If we are to see these negotiations in their full complexity, we must adjust our research and teaching agendas, adopting underused translations and sponsoring new ones, allowing Latino/a modernism to challenge the boundaries of US and hemispheric modernisms alike.