The New World of the Gothic Fox: Culture and Economy in English and Spanish America
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.”1 Today Bolton’s address makes disappointing reading; but it has the great merit of raising a question which has refused to lie down and die—the question of how far the Americas share common characteristics and a common history. Bolton saw a series of what he called “larger historical unities,” like the frontier experience, as transcending the differences between British and Iberian America to create the distinctive civilization of a “Greater America,” which awaited (and indeed still awaits) its historian. Others, less persuaded of the transforming characteristics of the American environment, have insisted on the extent to which the New World societies retained the imprint of the European societies from which they sprang. The new societies were “fragments of the larger whole of Europe,” whose historical destinies were programmed by their time and place of origin.2
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.”3 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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.