Modernism from la frontera

Modernism from la frontera: The U.S.-Mexico Border in The 42nd Parallel and George

Washington Gómez

Introduction

This chapter makes the case that Américo Paredes’s George Washington Gómez (1990)

and John Dos Passos’s The 42nd Parallel (1930) adapt modernist stylistic practices in their

respective portrayals of the early 20th century U.S.-Mexico border and in doing so generate a set

of representational strategies named “border modernism.” As the chapter shows, each text’s

iteration of border modernism re-conceptualizes the legacy of 1848 by variously challenging the

spatiotemporal iterations underpinning U.S. colonial and imperial modernity. Specifically, in

these versions of modernity the acquisition and regulation of territory unleashes a set of

temporalities meant to justify the modernizing project as progress and subordinate those

communities that do not subscribe to totalizing notions of time and space. Significantly,

however, each text challenges the paradigms of expansionism through their respective

foregrounding of what, adapting Enrique Dussel, this dissertation names trans-temporality: the

idea that the border is not exclusively colonial but also stages contrasting peripheral modernities

characterized by their own time-spaces. Whereas George Washington Gómez does so by

narrating the arrival of a new wave of colonial modernity in a local border region and the 1915

armed rebellions against it, The 42nd Parallel expands the focus from the local to the hemispheric

scale, detailing the competing dynamics of labor reform during the 1910 Mexican Revolution

versus the capitalist articulation of a de-territorialized border as yet another outpost of a trans-

American U.S. empire. As in metropolitan modernism, both novels register the trauma of wars

that justify and stimulate formal experimentation, but in the place of World War One, these

works feature early 20th century revolutions on and south of the U.S.-Mexico border.

In George Washington Gómez the agricultural modernization of a local South Texas

border is the concrete expression of north-south asymmetries rooted in the coloniality of 1848.

Paredes’s border modernism is marked by combining realism’s focus on objectively rendering

external details with modernism’s non-chronological structures and shifting narrative modes.

This combination traces how the consciousness of the title character is developed by the reconsolidation

of borders and the different generational attitudes to this process. As newly

mechanized Anglo farming displaces older ranchero practices, the 1915 Seditionist Rebellion is

waged as a counterconquest by the older generation of “border Mexicans” that potentially will

transmit their revolutionary ethos to the new generation “Texas Mexicans.” The protagonist is

thus born into a double-bind situation between adopting seditionist values or assimilating Anglo

beliefs. Ultimately, what the text reveals is not that “Guálinto” devolves into the assimilated

“George” simply because of an inability to manage the modernist crisis of consciousness, in this

case divided between traditional mexicano values on the one hand and the ideals of Anglo

modernity on the other. Rather, the text, in particular its conclusion, stages the impossibility of

mapping out George’s consciousness onto a space whose only coordinates are territorial.

Throughout the novel third-person descriptions of a landscape regulated by Anglos are set

against internal flashbacks via free indirect discourse to a time before the consolidation of Anglo

control; and it is these two narrative strands, associated with space and time respectively, which

ultimately collide at novel’s end. In this way, the irreconcilability of George’s private memories

of mexicano insurrection with the material present-day realities of his profession as a border

security agent enact the fallibility of cleaving the temporal, specifically a historical reckoning of

the border, from the spatial.

By contrast, in The 42nd Parallel the border is figured less as a territory to be secured than

as one in an emerging series of hemispheric imperial coordinates during the rise and spread of

U.S. market capitalism. The style of what is referred to as Dos Passos’s “montage modernism,”

which this chapter shows is actually the literary distillation of Mexican mural aesthetics, is

comprised of four narrative modes: “Camera Eye,” a set of stream-of-consciousness narrations;

“Newsreels,” which are headlines, speeches, and song lyrics in pastiche; fictional biographies;

and character sections. This chapter focuses primarily on character sections and “Newsreels” in

order to show how language is used as a reproductive technology by which the U.S.-Mexico

border becomes a key site in U.S. efforts to export market capitalist structures. By arguing for

the role of Mexico in this latter regard this chapter draws from but updates Michael Denning’s

analysis of U.S.A., and in particular The 42nd Parallel. The chapter follows Denning’s insightful

lead that the trilogy narrates the story of “a republic that became an empire” in documenting the

conflict between labor and capital (168). However, unlike Denning, this chapter argues that

Mexico is central rather than peripheral in Dos Passos’s fiction. Specifically, the chapter tracks

the conflict between the labor sympathizer and prospective revolutionary Mac versus the

advertising agent, and novel’s symbol of capitalist interest, J. Ward Moorehouse. Significantly,

while they do so for different reasons, each character travels to and crosses over the U.S.-Mexico

border, eventually squaring off in Mexico City, during the period of the 1910 Mexican

Revolution. Further, as the chapter demonstrates, the novel’s narrative structure is characterized

by this very dialectic, the conflict between labor and capital whose point of intersection is the

U.S.-Mexico border. By narrating the disintegration of revolutionary politics in the face of

economic dependency relations the text foregrounds how the construction and regulation of the

border as the latest stage of imperial modernity results in its de-historicization. Consequently,

even as Mac and Moorehouse recede from the narrative what remains constant is the

universalization of time and space centered around a newly configured U.S. empire. Unlike

George Washington Gómez’s uneven power relations by way of agricultural modernization, in

The 42nd Parallel border asymmetries are enacted via economic hierarchies. In this way, the

border is de-territorialized yet remains fundamentally a spatial divider between nations. Modernism from la frontera: The U.S.-Mexico Border in The 42nd Parallel and George

Washington Gómez

Introduction

This chapter makes the case that Américo Paredes’s George Washington Gómez (1990)

and John Dos Passos’s The 42nd Parallel (1930) adapt modernist stylistic practices in their

respective portrayals of the early 20th century U.S.-Mexico border and in doing so generate a set

of representational strategies named “border modernism.” As the chapter shows, each text’s

iteration of border modernism re-conceptualizes the legacy of 1848 by variously challenging the

spatiotemporal iterations underpinning U.S. colonial and imperial modernity. Specifically, in

these versions of modernity the acquisition and regulation of territory unleashes a set of

temporalities meant to justify the modernizing project as progress and subordinate those

communities that do not subscribe to totalizing notions of time and space. Significantly,

however, each text challenges the paradigms of expansionism through their respective

foregrounding of what, adapting Enrique Dussel, this dissertation names trans-temporality: the

idea that the border is not exclusively colonial but also stages contrasting peripheral modernities

characterized by their own time-spaces. Whereas George Washington Gómez does so by

narrating the arrival of a new wave of colonial modernity in a local border region and the 1915

armed rebellions against it, The 42nd Parallel expands the focus from the local to the hemispheric

scale, detailing the competing dynamics of labor reform during the 1910 Mexican Revolution

versus the capitalist articulation of a de-territorialized border as yet another outpost of a trans-

American U.S. empire. As in metropolitan modernism, both novels register the trauma of wars

that justify and stimulate formal experimentation, but in the place of World War One, these

works feature early 20th century revolutions on and south of the U.S.-Mexico border.

In George Washington Gómez the agricultural modernization of a local South Texas

border is the concrete expression of north-south asymmetries rooted in the coloniality of 1848.

Paredes’s border modernism is marked by combining realism’s focus on objectively rendering

external details with modernism’s non-chronological structures and shifting narrative modes.

This combination traces how the consciousness of the title character is developed by the reconsolidation

of borders and the different generational attitudes to this process. As newly

mechanized Anglo farming displaces older ranchero practices, the 1915 Seditionist Rebellion is

waged as a counterconquest by the older generation of “border Mexicans” that potentially will

transmit their revolutionary ethos to the new generation “Texas Mexicans.” The protagonist is

thus born into a double-bind situation between adopting seditionist values or assimilating Anglo

beliefs. Ultimately, what the text reveals is not that “Guálinto” devolves into the assimilated

“George” simply because of an inability to manage the modernist crisis of consciousness, in this

case divided between traditional mexicano values on the one hand and the ideals of Anglo

modernity on the other. Rather, the text, in particular its conclusion, stages the impossibility of

mapping out George’s consciousness onto a space whose only coordinates are territorial.

Throughout the novel third-person descriptions of a landscape regulated by Anglos are set

against internal flashbacks via free indirect discourse to a time before the consolidation of Anglo

control; and it is these two narrative strands, associated with space and time respectively, which

ultimately collide at novel’s end. In this way, the irreconcilability of George’s private memories

of mexicano insurrection with the material present-day realities of his profession as a border

security agent enact the fallibility of cleaving the temporal, specifically a historical reckoning of

the border, from the spatial.

By contrast, in The 42nd Parallel the border is figured less as a territory to be secured than

as one in an emerging series of hemispheric imperial coordinates during the rise and spread of

U.S. market capitalism. The style of what is referred to as Dos Passos’s “montage modernism,”

which this chapter shows is actually the literary distillation of Mexican mural aesthetics, is

comprised of four narrative modes: “Camera Eye,” a set of stream-of-consciousness narrations;

“Newsreels,” which are headlines, speeches, and song lyrics in pastiche; fictional biographies;

and character sections. This chapter focuses primarily on character sections and “Newsreels” in

order to show how language is used as a reproductive technology by which the U.S.-Mexico

border becomes a key site in U.S. efforts to export market capitalist structures. By arguing for

the role of Mexico in this latter regard this chapter draws from but updates Michael Denning’s

analysis of U.S.A., and in particular The 42nd Parallel. The chapter follows Denning’s insightful

lead that the trilogy narrates the story of “a republic that became an empire” in documenting the

conflict between labor and capital (168). However, unlike Denning, this chapter argues that

Mexico is central rather than peripheral in Dos Passos’s fiction. Specifically, the chapter tracks

the conflict between the labor sympathizer and prospective revolutionary Mac versus the

advertising agent, and novel’s symbol of capitalist interest, J. Ward Moorehouse. Significantly,

while they do so for different reasons, each character travels to and crosses over the U.S.-Mexico

border, eventually squaring off in Mexico City, during the period of the 1910 Mexican

Revolution. Further, as the chapter demonstrates, the novel’s narrative structure is characterized

by this very dialectic, the conflict between labor and capital whose point of intersection is the

U.S.-Mexico border. By narrating the disintegration of revolutionary politics in the face of

economic dependency relations the text foregrounds how the construction and regulation of the

border as the latest stage of imperial modernity results in its de-historicization. Consequently,

even as Mac and Moorehouse recede from the narrative what remains constant is the

universalization of time and space centered around a newly configured U.S. empire. Unlike

George Washington Gómez’s uneven power relations by way of agricultural modernization, in

The 42nd Parallel border asymmetries are enacted via economic hierarchies. In this way, the

border is de-territorialized yet remains fundamentally a spatial divider between nations.

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