Going Baroque

The New World of the Gothic Fox: Culture and Economy in English and Spanish America

by Claudio Véliz
University of California Press, 254 pp., $35.00

In a famous presidential address delivered to the American Historical Association in 1932, Herbert Bolton challenged his fellow historians in the United States to move beyond national history and write an “Epic of Greater America.”

For those to whom America means the liberation of its peoples of European origin from the constraints of their collective past, the history of Iberian America has always posed something of a problem. For in those remote and often turbulent societies south of the border, the past has seemed almost oppressively present. American exceptionalism and manifest destiny somehow appeared to have stopped at the Rio Grande. Partly perhaps for this reason, Bolton’s plea for the history of a “Greater America” fell largely on deaf ears. It was hardly possible to envisage a Greater America when the disparities between North and South America were so glaringly apparent.

In the years following World War II, as questions of economic development moved to the center of the stage, those disparities, which seemed, if anything, to be growing more acute, became the subject of close attention and discussion among economists and historians alike. It was in the hope of reducing the disparities that President Kennedy launched his Alliance for Progress, an initiative preceded and followed by countless analyses of the Latin American “problem.” The nature of the problem was summarized by Stanley and Barbara Stein in the opening words of their influential study, The Colonial Heritage of Latin America, published in 1970. “The most striking feature of contemporary Latin America,” they wrote, “is its economic dependence, underdevelopment, or backwardness with respect to the North Atlantic World,” and they went on to confess that they viewed Latin America “as a continent of inadequate and disappointing fulfillment.” If their analysis was sharper and much more historically informed than that provided by most of the contemporaneous attempts to explain the North-South divergence, their point was the same. Judged by the standards set by North America, South America was a failure.

The most obvious practical response in the US was to refashion South America in the image of the North, and, in the process, make Greater America a reality at last. In the …

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The ‘Gothic Fox’ November 17, 1994