Versatile Public Historian

Author: David McKenzie (Page 2 of 10)

AmWest Post #5: Migrations + Environmental Change = Way of the West?

This week’s reading, University of Arkansas historian Elliott West’s excellent The Way to the West: Essays on the Central Plains, focuses on two major migrations into the Central Plains during the mid-19th century: the better-known westward movement of U.S.-Americans and the lesser-known largely southward movement of various Native American groups, particularly Cheyennes. Through a series of four essays, originally lectures at the University of New Mexico in 1993, West traces the interconnectedness of these two migrations with the region’s larger environmental history.

This book particularly reminded me of one of my favorites, Colin Calloway’s One Vast Winter Count. Initially as I read The Way to the West, I thought of it as a sequel to One Vast Winter Count—until I realized that the former is eight years older than the latter. Nonetheless, in a lot of ways The Way to the West is a sequel chronologically.

Calloway’s geographic scope is much larger than West’s: The trans-Appalachian West, rather than the Central Plains (which West defines as the land between the Front Range of the Rockies and the Missouri River, south of the Platte River and north of the Arkansas River). Calloway’s chronological scope is from the arrival of the first humans in the Western Hemisphere up to when Lewis and Clark traversed the continent.

Nonetheless, Calloway and West echo each other strongly in focusing on the movement of peoples, and how they interacted with the environment (and how the environment interacted with them), as the basis of Western history. They both rightfully show that the many peoples lumped together as “Native Americans,” as well as the many people lumped together as “whites,” “Anglos,” “Americans,” etc., were neither static, monolithic, nor acting in a vacuum. Rather, their movements and interactions formed a “web of relationships.” For example, as West highlights, it was politics among the various Native peoples of the Central Plains that partially contributed to a sanctuary for bison—until a peace pact opened that territory for exploitation not just by whites but by Native peoples.

Randolph Campbell’s 2003 synthesis of Texas history, Gone to Texas (since updated), follows a similar track—arguing that the history of a particular Western state, Texas, has been one of migration.

So, then, taking West’s work in context with that of Calloway, Campbell, as well as others we’ve read this semester (particularly Limerick), could we say that the big theme of Western history has been movement into and out of this broadly-defined place called “the West”?

Instead of this class’s Turnerian name, “U.S. Westward Movement” (one I’m guessing has been a long-standing title for this course number, and which is really not used outside the course catalog), should it be something like “Movements into the U.S. West”? Is movement of various peoples, and their interactions with the environment (particularly how the environment has thwarted their dreams), the unifying thread of Western history?

On a related note, is this thread unique to Western history, or simply more pronounced in this region? As I was reading (the author) West, I wondered about a certain exceptionalism of the history of the (region) West. Is Western history exceptional?

What do others think?

AmWest Post #4: Oral History and Memory

Last week, in discussing Brian DeLay’s War of a Thousand Deserts, we briefly touched on the topic of oral history as a means to learn about the past–not just from a person’s lifetime, but from a family, tribe, and/or community’s more distant past. As we noted, DeLay used very little, if any, oral history; instead, he relied on written sources (as most historians do) to piece together the fascinating story he tells.

This week’s book, Susan Lee Johnson‘s Roaring Camp, uses oral history in what I thought was a fascinating way–one I’d like to discuss a bit further, since this has been on my mind after, as I’ve mentioned ad nauseam in this blog and in class, last week’s American Association for State and Local History conference. My previous encounters with use of oral history to glean pieces of the distant, non-lifetime past have largely, if not completely, come from Native American history.

Thus, Johnson’s use of oral history to get at both facts and memory of the legendary bandit Joaquín Murrieta fascinated me, especially since she uses it oral history to learn about a literate society. Her prologue discusses stories about Murrieta, and how those have evolved over time, beginning with family memories. She then goes into other sources for this story, including written news and literary treatments.

Like Anton Treuer said about his use of Ojibwe oral traditions to glean the motives of the leader Hole in the Day, Johnson largely uses Murrieta family tradition to learn more about why Murrieta took the actions he did. Family tradition stated that he was avenging the rape of his wife, murder of his brother, and flogging of himself.

Like others using oral history and family memory, she uses these sources to compare with others, and to bring in context. With regard to Murrieta, she discusses what family memory says about him, and how that relates to broader historical trends. For example, in discussing the move of Joaquín and his wife Rosa to California from Sonora, she notes that Sonoran men, more often than others, did not travel to the gold fields alone but brought their wives. Thus she is using family memory to add a personal detail and illuminate a broader story.

At the same time, Johnson treats family memory, along with written sources, with a rightful degree of skepticism–more than many other authors do. This in large measure reflects Johnson’s concern–not just with the history but how the story came to be told. That raises the question of how transparent we should all be with our skepticism of our sources. Is this because of her focus–that she is taking a strongly textual analysis approach to these stories? Is this because she’s asking particular questions about history and memory, and thus interrogating how the idea of a “white” Gold Rush came to be?

I would say that this is the case–and that it made me think more about how I use my sources in my own work. We all interrogate our sources as we use them, acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of each and the purposes for which we can and cannot use them. But are we being transparent enough about that process? Would that bog down the stories we try to tell?

Furthermore, will the need for transparency and discussion about sources, especially family memory like Johnson uses, recede as anthropological methods of using oral history to learn about the distant past become more mainstream in history? Is the need to explain these sources a byproduct of them not being as accepted in the historical profession and in the world at large? Or is it more a part of the cultural turn in history?

For lack of a compelling conclusion to my series of questions, all that I can say is, I look forward to discussing these issues further in class!


This week I commented on Nick’s blog post.

AmWest Post #3: Roles of Indians in North American Politics

This week’s reading of Brian DeLay’s War of a Thousand Deserts, as well as Bernard DeVoto’s abridged version of Lewis and Clark’s journals (digital version of the entire set here), coincided for me with a trip to Minnesota for the American Association for State and Local History’s 2014 conference. The timing could not have been better, as some sessions at the conference–particularly the keynote by Dr. Anton Treuer at the Awards Banquet–related extremely well to DeLay’s themes.

One of the recurring themes through DeLay’s book is the importance of understanding decisions by various Native American groups as political decisions–rooted in culture and economics, yes, but in the end political decisions. For him, rightfully, the only way to understand Comanche decisions to go to war against Mexico in the 1830s and 1840s is through the lens of politics. Raids on an increasingly large portion of Mexico did certainly yield economic benefits. But Comanches destroyed what they couldn’t take; for DeLay, this was a calculated political move, meant to demonstrate Comanche power.

He also yields insights on why Comanches chose to make war on northern Mexico and not on the United States or the Republic of Texas: They knew Mexico’s state was weaker, and their treaties had fallen apart. In other words, they knew how to play the political game.

Additionally, DeLay argues for the importance of what he calls the War of a Thousand Deserts–his name for this series of raids–on the outcome of the U.S.-Mexican War. The raids had so weakened northern Mexico, and the Mexican state generally, that they paved the way for the U.S. victory.

Treuer’s talk at the AASLH conference detailed another such story from less than two decades later: The role of Hole in the Day, an Ojibwe leader in northern Minnesota, during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. He raised the important point that we cannot simply look at United States versus Indians when discussing these relationships.

Rather, Treuer showed what he called a “web of relationships”–a term that applies to what DeLay discusses, as well. In 1862, Dakotas in southern Minnesota had attacked white settlements throughout the region. The U.S. government, which had already sent two regiments away from fighting the Confederacy to fight the Dakota, was desperate to keep the Ojibwe out of the war. So Hole in the Day won significant concessions from the U.S. government by threatening to intervene. This war was not a pan-Indian effort (indeed, almost none of the so-called Indian wars were) but rather a war between one Native American group and the U.S. government, which another group used to its advantage. Hole in the Day made a political decision with his people (the Ojibwe, not all Indians) not to intervene. Treuer also focused on political dynamics among various Ojibwe groups that played into that decision.

For both Treuer and DeLay, then, politics within and among Native American groups were paramount in the outcome of these wars. Decisions by Comanches, Kiowas, Apaches, and other groups to trade, raid, and deal with the United States, Mexico, and the Texas Republic made all the difference in the U.S.-Mexican War. Ojibwe decisions not to join the U.S.-Dakota War made all the difference in that war’s outcome, and perhaps even in the U.S. Civil War; what would have happened had more U.S. Army regiments been diverted to Minnesota in 1862?


This week I commented on Ben’s, Doug’s, Megan’s, and Carol’s blog posts.

To Learn More

Here is a condensed version of the talk Treuer gave at the AASLH conference:

And below is my Storify of his talk.

AmWest Post #2: “Well, I knew it wasn’t the East”

This afternoon I attended a meeting of the Potomac Corral, a group of people in the Washington region interested in the history and culture of the American West. Everyone went around the table to introduce themselves. The icebreaker question: What is your connection to the West? What drew you here?

In part because of the readings for class this week, I listened intently to how people responded. Most of us talked about growing up in places that this week’s authors would or wouldn’t define as the West (some of which have my hometown of San Antonio in, and others out), or a close affiliation, such as attending college or one’s studies. One answer particularly struck me, though: One attendee mentioned going to college in California, and that she guessed that it was the West. I said, half-jokingly, “What makes somewhere the West?”

Her response: “Well, I knew it wasn’t the East!”

Although this was far from a scientific poll–really just an anecdote that we didn’t discuss further (it was an icebreaker before the main event, after all)–it provided, to me, an interesting definition, one that dovetails with this week’s readings that contain many ways of defining just what the West, and Western history, is.

Frederick Jackson Turner, the man whose name continually pops up in the interrelated fields of Western, borderlands, and frontier history, leads off the order. For him, the West and the frontier meant the same thing: the line of “white” (term used loosely) settlement (term also used loosely, in my case). For the U.S. Census from 1790 to 1890, this was a literal line, separating where settlement of U.S. nationals (vis-a-vis Native Americans) lived at a density of at least two people per square mile. For Turner, then, Western history was frontier history–the history of the place where the frontier happened to be at a given time, and the process by which those places ceased to be frontiers. Thus, going to the point that Limerick took pains to refute in last week’s readings, according to Turner Western history ended in 1890.

I had only read Turner’s famous 1893 thesis, and in high school at that. Rereading that, and then the rest of his book, I was amazed at just how much his ideas of what the frontier was, and its phases, have influenced U.S. history–and not just Western U.S. history. For a paper in my previous round of graduate school, I read through several New England town studies, which were popular in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of them followed a mode I now recognize as Turnerian: People of European descent show up, they found a town, the town develops. Sometimes Indians figured into the story, but most often not. The sequence of events in these stories reads like chapter 2 of The Significance of the Frontier.

These studies also relate to the revision of Turner in historiography. There was a small revival of town studies in the 1990s, in which Native Americans played much more prominent roles, reflecting a redefinition of frontier happening at that time. That term, in the North American context, took back what Turner calls its European meaning: A meeting place between peoples, rather than Turner’s line between civilization and savagery.

So for Turner, the West is a place defined by a particular process. But others, both historians and not, consider the West a place. Colin Calloway defines his West as the trans-Appalachian western part of North America for his magisterial One Vast Winter Count, which covers the region’s history from the arrival of the first humans to the arrival of Lewis and Clark. Limerick, meanwhile, focuses on the trans-Mississippi West, noting that as a controversial definition.

Then came this week’s most precise, creative, and logic-driven definition of the West: that of David Emmons in a 1994 Western Historical Quarterly article. He bases his definition on the areas that could be considered beyond the Census/Turner definition of frontier in 1843, when the historian Hubert Gutman argues that the United States (as a rough date) turned from a “preindustrial” to “industrial” country. Emmons argues those regions formed “a separate West not because it was so environmentally different but because it was settled at a different time and under the rules of market capitalism and national states” (445). Because the United States incorporated these places after that time, they can be seen, according to Emmons, as having a unified history and can truly be considered a region.

So, taking these together, what is the West? What is this place we are studying this semester? Is it a place, or a process, or both? Does a place need to have a unified history to make it worthy of study as a cohesive place? That, for me, is the biggest question–one that remains unresolved–to come out of this week’s readings. It’s one thing to say that the West is the place that’s not the East, or that it’s the trans-Applachians, trans-Mississippi, trans-98th meridian. But do those places constitute one region, with a unified overarching story with a host of particulars? Do they need to in order to make an object–or class–of study? Not to mention, how does the changing notion of frontier discussed above fit into this picture? I look forward to discussing these questions in class–I’m now even less sure of my own answers than I was before…


This week I commented on Allyson’s blog.

AmWest #1: View from the East vs. View from the South

For the few people following along at home: I’m now taking a Western U.S. History class with Dr. Paula Petrik. This is the first in a series of weekly posts about our readings.

Our first reading assignment is, perhaps, not surprising for such a course:

Limerick, Patricia Nelson. The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.

Originally published in 1987 (the version I’m using includes a 2006 preface), this work has deservingly been one of the most influential on the subsequent development of Western history. Although I think I had heard of it before, it really popped to my attention originally in a fall 2009 forum on the book’s legacy in the public history field (JSTOR link).

I’ll leave commenting on that forum–including personal experience working at a contested site of Western history–for a later week, when we specifically discuss historical memory in the West. Instead, this week I’m turning my focus to Chapter 7 of The Legacy of Conquest: “America the Borderland,” discussing the role of people of Hispanic origin (perhaps the best term for a disparate grouping) in the history of the trans-Mississippi West.

Having studied borderlands history, a separate but related field, I especially found this chapter fascinating. I was particularly happy that Limerick, as in the rest of her work, showed the continuity of the past of the trans-Mississippi West–not breaking it arbitrarily at either the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 or the “closing” of the frontier in 1890, a la Frederick Jackson Turner.

However, I couldn’t help but to think that this chapter, even in discussing pre-1848 events, took a “view from the East” (to use the title of Dr. Petrik’s NEH summer seminar), rather than a “view from the South.” As did David Weber in his seminal The Spanish Frontier in North America (1992), Limerick focused on events north of the Guadalupe Hidalgo and Gadsden treaty lines. She did attribute causality for these events to south of that line, showing that this region represented the northern expansion of New Spain and, briefly, Mexico’s “Far North,” as did Stanley Green in his The Mexican Republic: The First Decade (1987). But in reading that portion of the chapter, it still felt as if events in that region were isolated from those in the rest of New Spain.

Georgetown historian John Tutino‘s two recent books, Making a New World (2011) and Mexico and Mexicans in the Making of the United States (2012), meanwhile, brought, to me, more satisfying explanation for Spanish expansion. I recently read the latter, so this was fresh on my mind as I read Chapter 7. (Here’s an excellent podcast interview that summarizes the arguments of these complicated works.)

In Limerick’s synthesis–likely reflecting the approach of the time–imperial rivalries drive Spanish expansion into New Mexico, Texas, and later California during the course of the 16th through 18th centuries. Tutino, meanwhile, while not discounting the motive of imperial rivalry, linked these regions into the economic and social system he called “Spanish North America.”

He defined this system as beginning in the central Mexican region of the Bajío, northwest of Mexico City, and extending its tentacles northward. This was, he argued, a capitalist region, defined by mostly free labor, working for wages, and owners of large mines and haciendas accumulating and investing capital. This wealth accumulation was based on the silver mines of the Bajío, which provided the capital for the Spanish Empire’s imports from China, and the haciendas and ranches that fed those mines.

This stood in stark contrast with “Spanish Mesoamerica,” a land where Spaniards found already densely-settled native populations and essentially placed themselves at the head of these social formations. In Spanish North America, Native populations were typically nomadic, and many (like the Comanches that we’ll discuss in later weeks) maintained their independence throughout this period. Those that integrated into the Spanish system did so in ways that vastly changed their identities in new mission and ranching communities.

In this formulation, Spanish colonists pushed into New Mexico, Texas, and California not merely to fend off potential imperial rivals (although that was a motive), but to extend this economic system further. The integration of these regions into the wider economic system of Spanish North America is missing in Limerick’s chapter, and in much other writing on this region’s time under Spanish rule.

This is a small quibble here (one I hesitate to call a quibble, since it’s based on work two decades later), and indeed, Legacy of Conquest is one of the most cited works in Mexico and Mexicans. Thus, that work built upon Legacy of Conquest to provide a more full explanation. I wanted to bring attention to this point because it more fully supports Limerick’s analysis of the unbroken past in the trans-Mississippi West: Tutino and his co-authors in Mexico and Mexicans argued that this system of mining, farming, and grazing continued well after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and in many places continues to this day.

This explanation thus also provides a more significant cause for Spanish northward expansion than imperial rivalry, and shows one of the dangers of depicting the history of this region in relative isolation. As Limerick stated, the present-day Southwestern United States forms one ecological region with the Mexican North. As Tutino and his coauthors showed, it formed a unified economic region, as well.


This week I commented on Allyson’s, Carol’s, and Diane’s  blogs.

Cartography: (Hopefully) Final Map Draft

Well, my friends, this is the end of our journey into the unknown world of maps, with only maps to guide us. Oh wait. Seriously, though, it’s been a great journey.

And with reaching the end, we are near the end of our final projects. I’ve done another run-through of mine. I took Sheri’s feedback from last week and kept the “old-style” look to the maps. I also went back through the text, and hopefully brought out the “so-what” a bit more.

So, here it is. Any feedback before tomorrow night, to give me time to make changes and print before class Thursday, would be most appreciated. Thanks!

LatAm Readings: Hegemony and Dependency


The journey is almost done!

Because many of the readings this semester have addressed dependency theory and Antonio Gramsci’s concepts of hegemony (in addition to world systems theory, which we read earlier in the semester), this week’s readings to close out the semester went to the sources of these concepts themselves.

Books read

Cardoso, Fernando Henrique, and Enzo Faletto. Dependency and Development in Latin America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.

In a seminal, vastly influential work, Cardoso (who later served two terms as president of Brazil) and Falleto lay out their reading of the history of economic, social, and political development in Latin America, looking at class formation in particular countries, arguing that the economic–and related social and political–options that each country faced was rooted in its place in the global economy. For them, this is the overarching–or underlying–scheme of Latin American history since independence: the deep story (the longue duree?). They specifically formulated this theory as a counterbalance to modernization theory, which suggested that countries passed through set stages of development, as if each country progresses in a vacuum and not tied to a broader global system.

Gramsci, Antonio, Quintin Hoare, and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. Selections From the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. New York: International Publishers, 1972.

Based on section 3 of this syllabus from a course on Gramsci, I read pages 206-76 of Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Additionally, I checked the index for references to hegemony, and read some of those portions as well. These selections covered a wide range of topics–some of them very specific in time and place, others very broad. This was definitely a reading through which I struggled–and which I’d like to unpack some more, particularly in light of the other readings for the course. Admittedly I’m having a hard time even summarizing this section! Largely, this section discusses the state and societies–not one and the same.

Bringing it all together: Discussion questions

Relationship of hegemony, dependency theory, and world systems theory

As I read both of these books, in relation to the others from the semester, I was thinking about the relationship among the concept of hegemony (can we call it a theory), dependency theory, and world systems theory. As I can discern so far (and will look forward to discussing on Thursday), here are some comparisons:

The obvious point: All three are based on a Marxian reading of history–that is, at its base, a view placing economic relations among classes at the base of history.

Dependency theory is based specifically in Latin American history–as the authors put it, intersecting political, social, and economic history. Both it and world systems theory come out of the same intellectual milieu–the left of the 1960s-1970s, seeking to understand global economic relations and counter modernization theory. In some ways, world systems theory seemed to me to be dependency theory writ large. Both suggest that a country’s course of development is, in part, determined by whether it is peripheral, semi-peripheral, or core to the world capitalist system. Cardoso and Falleto, however, break this down on a country by country level, and argue that while the options available to a country are in part determined by their place in the global economy, this is not all that determines their level of development. Indeed, the authors argue that political dynamics within each country–that is, actions by internal actors, not solely external forces–also helped to determine a country’s course of development, within a set of constraints typically coming from the outside world (particularly the United Kingdom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States thereafter). Perhaps because they were looking at a more granular level, Cardoso and Falleto see more room for individual countries to maneuver than Wallerstein does.

I was happy to read the actual main work about dependency theory because I feel like I’ve seen it caricatured plenty. Yet, it was a lot more nuanced than I expected it to be–indeed, in their postscript, Cardoso and Falleto refer to what they see as caricatures of what they originally said. I also realized how much my understanding of modern Latin American history was informed by dependency theory because my undergraduate Modern Latin America professor structured his class around this understanding–each unit of the syllabus was based on the periods that Cardoso and Falleto use: export capitalism, national capitalism, cosmopolitan capitalism. At the same time, it is perhaps too overarching of a theory. I look forward to discussing critiques, particularly those raised by other authors we have read this semester.

Cardoso and Falleto, as well as Wallerstein, both refer to Gramsci’s theory of hegemony to explain their ideas of how the economic system is tied together(?). After reading the selected readings, I fully admit that I’m still struggling with this concept–I feel like I understand better how others have characterized the concept, rather than how Gramsci himself does. Perhaps part of this is the nature of the writings–these are short musings that are difficult to tie together. So I’d like to discuss these further, and specifically applications to Latin American history. Some of Gramsci’s understandings seemed very specific to their time and place. At the same time, I found myself writing marginalia with applications of these concepts to Latin American history. Where did the authors we read go to for their understandings–and critiques–of Gramscian hegemony? Over the next couple of days, I will look back to those other works, and look forward to discussing these in context–especially as we prepare the minor field exam questions!

Minor field exam

As we discussed last meeting, these concepts really seem to tie together the works we’ve read. So along those lines, here’s a possible minor field exam question: How do the works we have read use and critique the concepts of cultural hegemony, world systems theory, and dependency theory to explain the place of the region today called Latin America in the world, 1492 to present? How do these concepts help illuminate that relationship? What do they obscure in the process? What are the authors using as substitutes and/or complements for these concepts?

Cartography: Atlas Pages, Draft 2

Since I have an advisory board meeting for the project I’m doing at work this week, I won’t be in class on Thursday night. However, nonetheless I’m submitting a second draft for the hivemind to critique.

Actually, I’m submitting two second drafts. For reference, here’s the assignment. They are identical, except that I changed the map colors for each. In one version, I use the default Ortelius template colors, as I did in my first draft. In the other version, I’ve taken some colors from my pictures to try (perhaps unsuccessfully) to replicate a 19th-century map feel. What do you think? Does that color scheme work, should I modify it (perhaps by lightening the colors), or should I stick with the default?

Otherwise, I made changes based on last week’s helpful comments. I spread the title across the first page. I added my sources–in this case, on the first page, because of spacing. I tried to make more of a case for why these journeys mattered–I’d especially appreciate feedback there. I played with the design a bit more–for example, expanding my DC map. I also played with the tonality of images, particularly the lithograph of Montreal.

Since I have two minor field exams between December 2 and 16, I’m hoping to get this project mostly wrapped up a bit earlier. So please comment!

Cartography: Final Project Draft

And thus the ride nears its end…

For my final atlas pages project, I decided to produce maps that I might well use in my dissertation: the journeys of three Mexicans through the United States in the 1830s. The three individuals were high officials:

  • Lorenzo de Zavala: Former governor of Mexico State and an author of Mexico’s progressive 1824 Constitution, Zavala fled after President Vicente Guerrero was overthrown in 1829. He traveled through the United States, later writing an influential memoir.
  • José María Tornel: Appointed minister to the United States in 1829, Tornel suffered an odd fate: After Guerrero’s overthrow, the new president, Anastasio Bustamante, tried to force Tornel to resign by cutting off his salary. Tornel refused to do so, living in Baltimore for a year. Tornel later published a memoir of his time in the United States.
  • Antonio López de Santa Anna: President of Mexico, Santa Anna had taken a leave of absence to suppress a rebellion in the northern region of Texas. After capturing the general, Texas rebels sent him on a diplomatic mission to the United States.

You can learn more by checking out the atlas pages here (in low resolution due to upload file size constraints). As can be seen, it is a work in progress. I need to polish up the writing, add my sources, and run down a couple of image permissions. Also, I need to work more closely on my base map–specifically merging northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan into Michigan Territory. That’s the first priority for the final project! Any feedback my classmates (or anyone else) can provide would be most appreciated!

For me, plotting out the journeys on the map–especially seeing points of commonality–was extremely helpful. In my eventual dissertation, I plan to look at these three visitors and their recollections of the United States, and also how U.S.-Americans perceived them. This exercise gave me good places to look as I assemble my sources.

I had already researched Santa Anna’s journey, but I had not done much work with Zavala’s or Tornel’s. This gave me the chance to look more closely at a published work about Tornel and at Zavala’s memoir.

I’ll look forward to hearing what others have to say in class tomorrow night… Oh wait, it’s past midnight, so tonight… Guess I should get to bed…

LatAm Readings: United States & Latin America


Last spring, I took a fascinating Latin America and the United States course with Dr. Matthew Karush. We read a series of works (syllabus PDF) that looked primarily at the cultural relationship, exploring themes of transnationalism and generally complicating the picture; in fact, our class joke was “It’s complicated.”

So for this week, we felt it important to complement those readings with two overviews–one, written more like an undergraduate textbook, that focuses on the diplomatic and political relationship, and the other, an edited volume, that focuses on the cultural. I’m glad we did, as both of these books proved strong complements for the monographs from the class.

Books Read

Smith, Peter H. Talons of the Eagle: Latin America, the United States, and the World. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

This book provides an overview of U.S.-Latin American relations, synthesizing recent research. Smith divides the relationship’s history into three eras: Independence to 1930s, 1940s-late 1980s, and 1990s-today. These three eras represent three what he terms “regimes”–that is, predominant ways that the relationship worked, predominant patterns: Imperialism, Cold War, and post-Cold War. The pattern of each era was not unique to the Americas, but rather inter-American relationships reflected broader patterns. While Smith discusses the first era, he primarily focuses on the second two. This left me with the question of whether the long Imperialist era that Smith describes should be broken up further. While I could see the value of lumping U.S. actions and Latin American responses in this era together under a common rubric, especially in consideration of the broader international system, I wonder if this long of a period is a bit of a stretch. Perhaps more focus on that era would have allowed greater nuance. Nonetheless, Smith should be praised for not telling a one-sided story with this work–he does an admirable job of covering the variety that is Latin America, and focusing on not just what was happening in the United States but what was happening in Latin America, without losing sight of the unequal nature of the relationship. So, all in all this book provided a good synthesis and framework for the diplomatic and political side of the relationship.

Joseph, G. M, Catherine LeGrand, and Ricardo Donato Salvatore. Close Encounters of Empire: Writing the Cultural History of U.S.-Latin American Relations. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998.

This book, in some ways, represents the other side of the coin from Smith: the cultural side. It is a collection of essays on different aspects of the U.S.-Latin American relationship, presaging (published in 1998) the culture-focused works that we read in the Latin America-U.S. class (the earliest was published around that time). I especially paid close attention to the introductory and concluding essays, which provided a great overall framework not just for the case study articles included in the volume but recent historiography of the relationship, and indeed helped me synthesize the works we’ve read this semester (discussed more below). Even though the book is 15 years old, I’d still recommend it for the framework it provides alone.

Tying Things Together: Discussion Topics


Once again, this theme comes up–it seems to be inevitable in discussions of Latin America’s relationship with the rest of the world. Smith, for example, defines the term as “the capacity of an actor–or nation–to impose its will on others without challenge” (5). He acknowledges Gramsci’s sense of hegemony as proscribing the courses of action that others can take–and their acceptance of those limits–but chooses not to use the term in that sense. In his essay in Close Encounters of Empire, though, Steve Stern uses that definition, in reprise of his previous work. I’d like to discuss this concept further–perhaps it should even form part of a minor field exam question. How do the different works define hegemony, and what difference does it make in how they portray the roles of “inside” and “outside” actors, for lack of a better term, in Latin American history? Depending on what other gaps we have to fill, perhaps it might be worth reading some Gramsci for the final week.

Dependency Theory & Developmentism, Relation of Each to World Systems Theory

Dependency theory figures prominently in Close Encounters of Empire, and slightly in Smith. In Close Encounters of Empire, both dependency theory and its foil, developmentalism, come in for rightful critique. I’d like to discuss further how each viewpoint illuminates–or doesn’t–both the topics discussed in these books, and the wider field as we’ve defined it. Perhaps some Prébisch or Cardoso might be in order for the final week, as well.


Smith divides his work into the three eras discussed above. Stern, in his introductory essay in Close Encounters of Empire, offers a similar periodization, but in this case for Latin America’s relationship with the rest of the world: 1540s to 1750s, 1750s to 1930s, and 1930s to today. But within that, he separates 1890s-1930s (the main focus of the book). I’d like to discuss these periodizations further, especially in how they differ from the more traditional periods that break at independence. Are these periodizations more reflective of an approach of looking at Latin America and the world, or do they hold up otherwise (if such an untangling can even occur)?

Latin America and the World as a Subset of Latin American History?

Along those lines, I’d like to discuss a broader question: The degree to which a discussion of Latin America and the world is separate from, a subset of, or an integral, impossible to separate part of Latin American history, at least since circa 1500. Is Latin American history since Columbus a history of imperial interventions and deepening ties with the rest of the world? To put it another way, is a discussion of the history of Latin America and the World really a discussion of Latin American history, period?

Means of Empire

Much discussion of the United States’s role in Latin America is focused on the concept of “informal empire”–after the Spanish-American War, the United States did not build a “direct” empire in Latin America, and even quickly at least formally freed one of the territories–Cuba–it conquered in 1898. Instead, the United States exercised other means of control that could be said to constitute an empire. I’d like to discuss some parallels and differences with Spanish and Portuguese means of empire, especially in light of recent historiography (e.g., Kamen) debunking the idea of a centrally-controlled Spanish Empire. Obviously there are a lot of differences, but are the similarities more than meets the eye? Was the U.S. method of rule through local elites not that different from Spanish methods?

Transnational Views

Recent historiography has emphasized how impossible it is to untangle what is “local” versus “foreign.” Transnational approaches are rightfully in vogue. I’d like to discuss such approaches–prominent in Close Encounters of Empire, particularly how they differ from comparative history, and even from the way that Smith tells his story, jumping by chapter between the United States and Latin American responses. Could his history be considered transnational? I’m not saying that’s a bad thing if it’s not–but it does raise the question of how the story would be different.

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