From Herman Melville’s Queequeg to Ken Kesey’s Chief Bromden, primitive characters have played key roles in literature and have generally emerged as enduring and sympathetic figures. In this book, Gina M. Rossetti focuses on works by Jack London, Frank Norris, Eugene O’Neill, Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Nella Larsen, arguing that primitive literary characters reveal complex and culturally based assumptions.
In the period of 1895 to 1929, Rossetti asserts, the primitive serves as a literary figure whose presence might link naturalism and modernism. Defining the primitive as “the dominant culture’s projection of its internal fear, anxieties, and attractions,” Rossetti explores how the working class and racial and ethnic minorities came to occupy the position of “primitives” and the degree to which more privileged individuals imagined themselves through the lens of this sometimes denigrated and sometimes romanticized Other. For the selected naturalist authors, the primitive is rendered in a Darwinian context, representing a figure whose presence will jeopardize American cultural identity by being evolutionarily inferior.
In modernist literature of the twentieth century, however, the primitive separates from Darwinism and becomes aestheticized. In much of the literature from this period, the primitive functions as a naive posture for the artist to assume in order to escape the complications of modern life.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a time of growing concern for the “vanishing Anglo Saxon,” and the primitive figure is often linked with theories of race. In this context, the racial primitive reflects the culture’s need for, and perpetuation of, a racial Other who gives body and shape to American identity. The final evocation of the primitive combines both the naturalists’ preoccupation with race-based notions of personhood and the modernists’ desire for a romantic escape.
Whether the primitive is invoked positively or negatively, Rossetti argues, it delineates the limits of American identity and, in the time period covered, often induces a double-edged response. The primitive’s marginality suggests the degree to which authors, privileged and otherwise, rely on its embedded presence in our national literature. Rossetti ultimately demonstrates that the primitive is not static but rather inconsistent and transformational, the source from which many naturalist and modernist texts project their concerns, fears, and contradictions.
Tony C. Brown examines “the inescapable yet infinitely troubling figure of the not-quite-nothing” in Enlightenment attempts to think about the aesthetic and the savage. The various texts Brown considers—including the writings of Addison, Rousseau, Kant, and Defoe—turn to exotic figures in order to delimit the aesthetic, and to aesthetics in order to comprehend the savage.
In his intriguing exploration Brown discovers that the primitive introduces into the aesthetic and the savage an element that proves necessary yet difficult to conceive. At its most profound, Brown explains, this element engenders a loss of confidence in one’s ability to understand the human’s relation to itself and to the world. That loss of confidence—what Brown refers to as a breach in anthropological security—traces to an inability to maintain a sense of self in the face of the New World. Demonstrating the impact of the primitive on the aesthetic and the savage, he shows how the eighteenth-century writers he focuses on struggle to define the human’s place in the world. As Brown explains, these authors go back again and again to “exotic” examples from the New World—such as Indian burial mounds and Maori tattooing practice—making them so ubiquitous that they come to underwrite, even produce, philosophy and aesthetics.
Although primitivism has received renewed attention in recent years, studies linking it with Latin America have been rare. This volume examines primitivism and its implications for contemporary debates on Latin American culture, literature, and arts, showing how Latin American subjects employ a Western construct to "return the gaze" of the outside world and redefine themselves in relation to modernity.
Examining such subjects as Julio Cortázar and Frida Kahlo and such topics as folk art and cinema, the volume brings together for the first time the views of scholars who are currently engaging the task of cultural studies from the standpoint of primitivism. These varied contributions include analyses of Latin American art in relation to social issues, popular culture, and official cultural policy; essays in cultural criticism touching on ethnic identity, racial politics, women's issues, and conflictive modernity; and analytical studies of primitivism's impact on narrative theory and practice, film, theater, and poetry.
This collection contributes offers a new perspective on a variety of significant debates in Latin American cultural studies and shows that the term primitive does not apply to these cultures as much as to our understanding of them.
Paradise Subverted: The Invention of the Mexican Character / Roger Bartra
Between Sade and the Savage: Octavio Paz’s Aztecs / Amaryll Chanady
Under the Shadow of God: Roots of Primitivism in Early Colonial Mexico / Delia Annunziata Cosentino
Of Alebrijes and Ocumichos: Some Myths about Folk Art and Mexican Identity / Eli Bartra
Primitive Borders: Cultural Identity and Ethnic Cleansing in the Dominican Republic / Fernando Valerio-Holguín
Dialectics of Archaism and Modernity: Technique and Primitivism in Angel Rama’s Transculturación narrativa en América Latina / José Eduardo González
Narrative Primitivism: Theory and Practice in Latin America / Erik Camayd-Freixas
Narrating the Other: Julio Cortázar’s "Axolotl" as Ethnographic Allegory / R. Lane Kauffmann
Jungle Fever: Primitivism in Environmentalism; Rómulo Gallegos’s Canaima and the Romance of the Jungle / Jorge Marcone
Primitivism and Cultural Production: Future’s Memory; Native Peoples’ Voices in Latin American Society / Ivete Lara Camargos Walty
Primitive Bodies in Latin American Cinema: Nicolás Echevarría’s Cabeza de Vaca / Luis Fernando Restrepo
Subliminal Body: Shamanism, Ancient Theater, and Ethnodrama / Gabriel Weisz
Primitivist Construction of Identity in the Work of Frida Kahlo / Wendy B. Faris Mi andina y dulce Rita: Women, Indigenism, and the Avant-Garde in César Vallejo / Tace Megan Hedrick
In this book, Robin Hackett examines portrayals of race, class, and sexuality in modernist texts by white women to argue for the existence of a literary device that she calls “Sapphic primitivism.” The works vary widely in their form and content and include Olive Schreiner’s proto-modernist exploration of New Womanhood, The Story of an African Farm; Virginia Woolf’s high modernist “play-poem,” The Waves; Sylvia Townsend Warner’s historical novel, Summer Will Show; and Willa Cather’s Southern pastoral, Sapphira and the Slave Girl. In each, blackness and working-class culture are figured to represent sexual autonomy, including lesbianism, for white women. Sapphic primitivism exposes the ways several classes of identification were intertwined with the development of homosexual identities at the turn of the century. Sapphic primitivism is not, however, a means of disguising lesbian content. Rather, it is an aesthetic displacement device that simultaneously exposes lesbianism and exploits modern, primitivist modes of self-representation. Hackett’s revelations of the mutual interests of those who study early twentieth-century constructions of race and sexuality and twenty-first-century feminists doing anti-racist and queer work are a major contribution to literary studies and identity theory.