Born in the lower Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa (1942–2004) was a prolific writer, scholar, and activist. Her corpus of work includes essays, books, edited volumes, children’s literature, and fiction/autohistorias. Anzaldúa’s life and writing are at the forefront of critical theory as it interacts with feminism, Latinx literature, spirituality, spiritual activism, queer theory, and expansive ideas of queerness and articulations of alternative, non-Western epistemologies and ontologies. The geographical proximity to the US–Mexican border figures prominently throughout in her work, as does her theorization of metaphorical borderlands and liminal spaces. Her oft-cited text Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza is included in many university courses’ reading lists for its contributions to discourses of hybridity, linguistics, intersectionality, and women of color feminism, among others. Anzaldúa began work on her more well-known theories prior to the publication of Borderlands/La Frontera and continued to develop these theories in her post-Borderlands/La Frontera writing, both published and unpublished. After her sudden death due to complications of diabetes in 2004, Anzaldúa’s literary estate was housed in the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas, Austin in 2005.
Writer Gil Cuadros (1962–1996) composed an influential collection of short stories and poems, City of God (1994), that recounts the experiences of gay Chicano life in the age of AIDS. Learning he was HIV-positive after the death of his lover due to AIDS, he wrote to grapple with the enormity of his loss. Cuadros developed an aesthetic vocabulary for relating the richly complex experience of a seropositive queer Latinidad. Seeking to represent the unrepresentable, his work ranges from unflinchingly stark and minimalist to amorphously dark and surreal, exposing and exploring the cross-currents of race, violence, love, and sex ever haunted by an awareness of mortality. Concerned with making visible a queer literary chicanidad, Cuadros crafted poems and stories that are grounded in physicality and developed a vocabulary of sensation and sensuality. The stories reveal the body as a source of knowledge. While not the subject of extensive critical work, Cuadros’s writing is drawing more extensive attention. Earlier criticism focuses on the tension that Cuadros’s writing generates as it explores the racial and social ambivalence of queer Latinx desire. These analyses privilege the formation of queer mestizo subjectivity and read the body as a contested text. Following developments in queer theory, more recent critics foreground aesthetic and thematic ambiguity as part of a complicated dynamic between legibility and disciplinary social repression. Cuadros’s darkly ambivalent aesthetics perform what it means to be gay, Chicano, and living with AIDS, foregrounding new relations as aesthetics, politics, form, and content bleed into each other.
David S. Reynolds
The richest period in American literary history, the American Renaissance (1830–1865) produced Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Emily Dickinson. A distinction is traditionally made between the so-called light or optimistic authors (Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman) and the dark or gloomy ones (Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville), with Emily Dickinson, occupying a middle ground, shifting between the light and the dark. Optimistic themes included nature’s miraculous beauty, spiritual truths behind the physical world, the primacy of the poetic imagination, and the potential divinity of each individual. Pessimistic ones included haunted minds, perverse or criminal impulses, doubt, and ambiguity. Americans probed these themes with special intensity largely because of the nation’s Puritan heritage. Calvinist preachers from John Cotton through Jonathan Edwards had devoted their lives to probing ultimate questions about death, God, and human nature. When this metaphysical impulse collided with 19th-century skepticism and secularism, the result was literature that ranged from the exhilarating to the disquieting, from Emerson’s affirmations to the ambiguities of Hawthorne and Melville. The American authors were strongly influenced by foreign literature, from the ancients to the Romantics. This transnational influence mingled with the styles and idioms of an emerging popular culture that was distinctively American, divided between conventional, sentimental-domestic writings and sensational or grotesquely humorous ones. Integrating themes and images from this variegated popular culture, the major authors also projected in their works the paradoxes of a nation that promoted both individualism and union, that touted freedom but tolerated chattel slavery, that preached equality but witnessed widening class divisions and the oppression of women, blacks, and Native Americans. These oppressed groups produced a literary corpus of their own that was once neglected but that has assumed a significant place in the American canon.