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
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."
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 historians
own perspective, and therefore determined on the basis of race, ethnic
background, gender, sexual orientation, social class, ideology
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
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
The project will also
take into account relevant political, anthropological,
historical, demographic, and sociological research in order to understand
the full context of a communitys literature.
Latin America was given the most attention in the projectprimarily
because other kinds of historical investigations in the area have
scratched the surface. "Its not just Spanish and Portuguese
Brazil," says Valdés. "Its 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.
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
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
he project leaders
chose this area because, says Valdés,it
has been a "No Mans 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
because its too compartmentalized."
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.
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."
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.
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."
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
"If you dont get people together to discuss, argue and debate,"
insists Valdés, "then its just another collection of
essays. What were doing holds the promise of something much more."
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 didnt 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 were reaching
the end, and weve 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 couldnt 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 librarys
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 projects 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. "Were 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, well 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
every step of the way," says Valdés, "but shes
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 Valdéss 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
the two have developed over the years. As this project reaches
an end, he observes, "the fact that were 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."
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
officially retired from the university in July of 1999, but this
him down. At the request of the comparative literature department, he
continued to teach in the 19992000 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
studies, is also the archivist and associate editor for the project,
and the couples Siberian Husky, Nanook, keeps them company on
the long days at the office.
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.
Hutcheon - respected
scholar, master of many trades
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,"
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.
teaching duties are on hold this year while she assumes the post of
president for the Modern Language Association (MLA). In the MLAs
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