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Clockwise from left: contemporary salsa dancers (courtesy of Jack Vartoogian); letter from the conquistador Pedro de Valdivia to Emperor Charles (July 9, 1549); Tupac Amaru II, leader of the largest revolt against the Spaniards in Peru during the Colonial Period; women from the Equadorian highlands

continued from cover history and culture.

"History as a discipline has always been important to society, helping us to understand who we are, where we come from, and how we have evolved – geographically, politically and culturally," says Valdés. "It helps us to uncover the cultures of the past and make sense of the way things are in the present."

But Valdés and Hutcheon argue that the production of history – retelling

stories and even choosing which stories to tell – is not an objective exercise. Instead, they say, history is created through the eyes of a particular historian at a particular time. "Much of history offers a narrow view of reality," says Hutcheon, "one that is filtered through the historian’s own perspective, and therefore determined on the basis of race, ethnic background, gender, sexual orientation, social class, ideology and language."

This project aims to widen that view, to offer new ways of understanding how culture works. And, in essence, to rewrite the cultural histories of two major regions – Latin America, and Central & Eastern Europe. It is what Valdés calls, "a history of literary culture."

Unlike literary history, which usually explores the literature of a particular nation by decade, period or author, comparative literary history explores various kinds of literature within a particular region and focuses on the interaction between them. So, instead of a national anthology of literature, comparative literary history digs a little deeper, to uncover how literature both affects and is affected by the culture around it.

This current project takes comparative literary history a step further still. Bucking the tradition of focusing almost exclusively on the great canons of literature, Rethinking Literary History – Comparatively also explores pop culture – comic strips, soap operas, sermons, scientific essays. By casting their net a little wider, researchers hope to form a better understanding of how this wider body of literature is both created and received, and how it has an impact on the cultures in these areas over time and across geographical regions.

This eclectic mix of literature reflects what Valdés calls "the cultural imaginary" – how average people see themselves and make sense of the world around them in a given time and place. "Literary history is not usually considered history," Valdés observes. "But this project aims to become as important for the historian as it will be for the literary scholar."

The project will also take into account relevant political, anthropological,

economic, geographic, historical, demographic, and sociological research in order to understand the full context of a community’s literature.



Latin America was given the most attention in the project
primarily because other kinds of historical investigations in the area have barely scratched the surface. "It’s not just Spanish and Portuguese Brazil," says Valdés. "It’s also some 800 indigenous languages that are very much alive."

The three volumes devoted to Latin America cover the last 500 years. Working with cultural geographers, researchers analyze how cultures have moved across geographic areas over time.

These volumes offer a comparative analysis of literature (written, but also oral, ritual and performed) in both European and Indoamerican languages in order to uncover the relationship between indigenous and European cultures.

While collaborators are careful to note that these volumes offer only a snapshot of the diverse body of Latin American literature, this project highlights unique cultural perspectives that have never before received academic attention.


he project leaders chose this area because, says Valdés,it has been a "No Man’s Land" for over 200 years. "There is the Islamic influence from the south, the German influence from the west, the Russian influence from the east, and in between a region where the languages and nationalities keep changing – yet there is a very strong culture there that never gets into literary history because it’s too compartmentalized."

Comprising one volume in the series, this project covers the last 200 years, and is based on a model of cultural "nodes." These nodes – which could be a place, a person, a time, or a historical event – represent the point at which cultures come together and overlap. They also highlight the variety of elements needed to represent the complexity of the past. "Nodes offer a snapshot of this part of the world at a particular time," says Valdés, "which is important in a region that has many local literary cultures existing in virtual isolation."Collaborators argue that the production and reception of literature

in Central & Eastern Europe has been – and continues to be – shaped by the many layers of political, religious, linguistic and cultural experiences. This volume aims to uncover the ways in which the region is affected by these layers of cultural affiliation.

 

Clockwise from bottom left: Zapatista Sub-Comandante Marco, a contemporary revolutionary soldier in Chiapas, Mexico; 16th-century map of the Amazon region; Santa Rosa de Lima, the first saint canonized in America by the Roman Catholic church; a detective novel from Argentina; a poster distributed in Mexico, which reads, "My father is 'very macho'. If only he were a man."

"Nowhere in the world has a project of this size and scope been undertaken in comparative literary history," says Hutcheon. "And the approach we take is completely unique to the field, promising to offer a totally new way of studying literature in all its forms."

Ultimately, Rethinking Literary History – Comparatively promises to open entirely new avenues for research and teaching in literary history and beyond. Its radical rethinking of the ways we define and explore literature may reshape literary history and possibly even history curricula in the future.

"This project places U of T on the cutting edge of humanities research and teaching, both nationally and internationally," says Carl Amrhein, Dean of Arts & Science. "Ultimately, there are implications not only for how we, as academics, view the world around us, but also how students are taught to appreciate the impact of literature on our culture and our consciousness as a society."

The initiative – which will culminate in five volumes of work that are slated to be published in 2001 – reflects an enormous organizational effort, which was necessary to ensure the close international collaboration that is rare in the field of comparative

literary history. "If you don’t get people together to discuss, argue and debate," insists Valdés, "then it’s just another collection of essays. What we’re doing holds the promise of something much more."

International collaborators met several times in Toronto over a three-year period in order to produce over 8,000 pages of research. Most texts were in French, Spanish and Portuguese, with only a few in English, so translation was a huge job. Five research assistants were hired to complete the bibliographic information for manuscripts that didn’t follow standard academic publication guidelines. All this, even before the daunting task of editing could begin. "The enormity of this project was overwhelming," admits Valdés. "No one was sure it could be done – but now we’re reaching the end, and we’ve achieved it."

To express their gratitude for the extraordinary financial support behind the project, Hutcheon and Valdés are donating the publishing royalties to the Robarts Library at U of T. "There are only two or three libraries like Robarts in the world – we couldn’t have completed this project without its resources," says Valdés. Publishing proceeds will be used to purchase much-needed journals from Latin America to round out the library’s collection. Books and material accumulated during the project will also go to the library.

As with so many innovative research initiatives today, the key to the project’s success – and to its future impact – is its multi-disciplinary nature. The collaboration of a variety of researchers in the humanities and social science disciplines has offered a whole new perspective on the past – a new chapter in cultural history. "We’re not blurring disciplinary lines or creating an academic melting pot," Valdés insists. "But we are suggesting that if we strategically pool a wide variety of specialists, we’ll be able to understand an important aspect of history in an entirely new way."

The significance of the project was confirmed when the prestigious Oxford University Press agreed to publish the five volumes, stating, "This is the only way in which literary history could be written in the 21st century."


Valdés and Hutcheon proved to complement each other perfectly on this project. Beyond co-producing the first volume – which outlined the theory behind the model – and taking equal part in all meetings, each then contributed their particular talents to the rest of the project. Taking advantage of his fluency in Spanish and Portuguese, Valdés immersed himself in the Latin American side. He also oversaw the collection and organization of the texts from researchers. Meanwhile, Hutcheon has the daunting task of editing all five volumes."Linda was absolutely
vital every step of the way," says Valdés, "but she’s indispensable in these final stages." • Valdés and Hutcheon share a history of collaboration that began long before this project was conceived. In fact, Hutcheon was Valdés’s graduate student and, under his direction in 1975, was the first Ph.D. graduate in comparative literature at U of T. Valdés hints at the strong camaraderie the two have developed over the years. As this project reaches an end, he observes, "the fact that we’re as good friends now as we were when we began really says something about our relationship. No matter how heavy the workload became, we were always able to communicate on a personal level."


Mario Valdés - Dedicated researcher, teacher in demand

A faculty member since 1963, Valdés is cross-appointed to comparative literature and the department of Spanish and Portuguese. In 1995, he received a Nortel professorship which allowed him to travel throughout Latin America to further his research. "Thanks to Nortel, I had the funding and the freedom from a heavy teaching load to devote myself full time to the project."

Valdés, 66, officially retired from the university in July of 1999, but this

hasn’t slowed him down. At the request of the comparative literature department, he continued to teach in the 1999—2000 academic year, and he is slated to teach one final graduate half course in the fall of this year. "But at the end of this calendar year," insists Valdés, "my physical and teaching presence at U of T will truly end."

Despite his continued teaching responsibilities, Valdés is staying focused on the project at hand, spending 14 hours a day, seven days a week in his office. Despite this gruelling schedule, the routine has become something of a family affair. His wife, Maria Elena, herself an academic focusing on Latin America and women’s studies, is also the archivist and associate editor for the project, and the couple’s Siberian Husky, Nanook, keeps them company on the long days at the office.

Once the project is complete in early 2001, Valdés will finally be able to explore other initiatives in "retirement." He and Maria Elena already have plans to continue their research in Latin America, and Valdés is fielding offers to lecture in Latin America, the U.S. and Denmark.



Linda Hutcheon - respected scholar, master of many trades

Throughout this project, Linda Hutcheon has continued a full-time teaching schedule, and manages to supervise unprecedented numbers of doctoral theses each year. "She is an incredibly organized and hardworking scholar," says Valdés.

A University Professor – the highest rank U of T gives its faculty members – Hutcheon is considered one of the most respected and best-known Canadian scholars in the humanities today.

Hutcheon’s teaching duties are on hold this year while she assumes the post of president for the Modern Language Association (MLA). In the MLA’s 112 years, Hutcheon is only the third Canadian, all of whom were faculty at U of T, to head this prestigious international organization. The others were Valdés and Northrop Frye.

Despite her busy schedule, Hutcheon found time recently to indulge her passion in opera. She and husband Michael Hutcheon – a professor of medicine at U of T – collaborated on another SSHRC-funded project that culminated in the well-received book, Opera: Desire, Disease and Death, published in 1996


 
 
     
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