MOBILITY & MODERNITY: PANAMA IN THE NINETEENTH-CENTURY ANGLO-AMERICAN IMAGINATION by Robert D. Aguirre, Reviewed by Luz Elena Ramirez
 

MOBILITY & MODERNITY: PANAMA IN THE NINETEENTH-CENTURY ANGLO-AMERICAN IMAGINATION
By Robert D. Aguirre
(Ohio State, 2017) x + 205 pp.
Reviewed by Luz Elena Ramirez on 2017-12-09.

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Mosquito Coast or tropical paradise? With the introduction of transportation technologies that reshaped the emerging republic in the late 1800s and early 1900s, this was one of the many binaries that drove Anglo-American ways of imagining Panama. Using a variety of photographs as well as literary texts, Robert Aguirre documents the collision between rural life and modern innovations such as the steamer, which sped up transatlantic and hemispheric oceanic travel, and the Panama Railroad, which stimulated commerce and tourism by accelerating the hitherto tortuous journey across the isthmus. These innovations culminated in the crowning achievement of U.S. engineering: the Panama Canal, finished in 1914 with a system of locks, breakwaters, and dams. A project that subjected its workers to floods, mudslides, malaria, yellow fever, and exhaustion, the forty-plus mile Canal allowed goods and peoples to steam between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, eliminating the 8000-mile passage around Cape Horn.

In its interdisciplinary, historicist approach, this book follows the empire studies of Edward Said, transportation studies such as Enda Duffy's The Speed Handbook: Velocity, Pleasure, Modernism (2009) and Alison Byerly's Are We There Yet: Virtual Travel and Victorian Realism (2012), and the growing field of transatlantic studies launched with such books as Mary Louise Pratt's Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (1992). Part of a new wave of twenty-first century scholarship, Aguirre's new study also follows his first book, Informal Empire: Mexico and Central America in the Nineteenth Century (2005), my own British Representations of Latin America (2007), Matthew Brown's Informal Empire in Latin America: Culture, Commerce and Capital (2008), Cannon Schmitt's Darwin and the Memory of the Human: Evolution, Savages, and South America (2009), Rebecca Cole Heinowitz's Spanish America & British Romanticism, 1777-1832 (2010), Joselyn Almeida's edited volume, Romanticism and the Anglo-Hispanic Imaginary, and her Reimagining the Transatlantic, 1780-1890 (2011).

What does Aguirre's book add to this long list? Adopting a transatlantic perspective, he juxtaposes the travel writing of John Lloyd Stephens and Anthony Trollope, the photography of Eadweard Muybridge, and the poetry of James Stanley Gilbert. Each plays his own part in Aguirre's complex argument. While Victorianists interested in Latin America may link Trollope with the Anglo-Mexican scandal played out in The Way We Live Now (1875), Aguirre highlights his career as a British postal agent who proposed efficiencies in Caribbean and Central American routes. Muybridge's interest in the region was at first much more personal: having shot his wife's lover in 1875, he followed a well-traveled path of individuals who could flee ignominy and reinvent themselves to work in Latin America. There he skillfully photographed the evolution of modern technologies such as railways and canals, which offer an important contrast to his frame-by-frame filming of swift-moving animals. Aguirre also showcases two American writers: Stephens, who in the mid-1800s had "discovered" ancient Mayan sites such as Chichen Itza and Tulum in the Yucatan peninsula, and Gilbert, author of Panama Patchwork (1901), a collection of poems about expatriate life on the Isthmus. Taken together, these four men contemplate the simultaneous rejection and celebration of modern technologies such as the steamer, rail, and lock-system canal in a region that not only faces two oceans but also links the North and South.

Aguirre's book asks two overarching questions: "How did British and U.S. cultural and political figures make sense of this newly important place, and what implications did such representations have for British and U.S. political interests in the period before Panama separated from Colombia and the United States began construction of the Canal?" (5). To answer these questions, Aguirre contends that "by defining pre-canal Panama as a site of traversal, a location in between," men such as Stephens, Trollope, Muybridge, and Gilbert "laid the discursive ground for incorporation into a world transport system whose centers of command lay elsewhere" (5).

Recalling the astute archaeological analyses of his first book, Aguirre impressively excavates unique images, texts, and related materials that animate the questions he poses. Besides explaining how the four figures mentioned above represented Panama, he also shows how Latin American writers grappled with issues of autonomy and national identity as they shook off the mantle of Spanish colonialism. To illustrate Latin American attitudes toward development, foreign occupation, and Panama's uncertain future, the introduction surveys the work of two notable Panamanians: Justo Arosemena Quesada (1817-1896), a leading statesman as well as lawyer and writer, and Tomás Martín Feuillet (1832-1862), a poet. In embracing the project of Panamanian nationhood, Aguirre explains, both of these writers exposed the expansion of the U.S.--its technologies, insistence on English, and sometimes irritating self- assurance--as a threat to cultural autonomy.

To contextualize this discussion, Aguirre might have cited Jose Martí's famous essay of 1891, "Our America," which complements the critiques of Arosemena and Feuillet. A Cuban poet and revolutionary, Marti readily apprehended the racial complexity of the Americas, the different ways of life in rural and urban areas, and the threat and inevitability of the "great" neighbor of the North. Anticipating the kind of postcolonial critique Aguirre makes, Marti's "Our America" enlists his fellow Americans--what the U.S. now calls Latin Americans--to create a culture of their own rather than imitating Europe and the U.S.

This was no easy task. First of all, as Chapter 1 explains, the development of the Panama Railroad and the formation of "the Yankee Strip" in the late 1800s and early 1900s was a two-edged sword: a means of "communication"--a way to get from one place to another--but also "a nationalist vehicle for U.S. control over the isthmus, the extension of Yanquismo southward in a larger design for hemispheric dominance" (32). Examining Stephens's study of Amerindian archaeological sites as well as his travel writing about the isthmus, Aguirre contends that "U.S. antiquarian research incorporated the lost Maya monuments into a narrative of advancing Western modernity, carefully detaching contemporary Maya and Creole elites from any stake in their own past. It enlisted the ruins in a story of ascendant U.S. greatness" (37). But while Stephens envisioned a canal cutting across Nicaragua, the U.S. demonstrated its ingenuity by building the Panama Railway and Panama Canal. Nevertheless, as Aguirre makes clear, it was Stephens's early archaeological work--illustrated by English artist Frederick Catherwood--that set the stage for modern interventions. Aguirre thus opens a rich line of inquiry that Victorian scholars might further pursue.

In Chapter 2, Aguirre shows how the railway and the steamer helped Trollope make the British postal service more efficient in new territories. He also sets Trollope's West Indies and the Spanish Main (1859) within a transatlantic context by citing such diverse works as Mary Seacole's Wonderful Adventures in Many Lands (1857) and Charles Dickens's reflections on society in Britain and beyond in Household Words (1850-59). Yet while Aguirre elsewhere excels in explicating literary texts, he glosses disappointingly few details in Trollope's travelogue. Instead, he broadly identifies what it reflects: "The Americas' complex racial landscapes; advancing U.S. territorial ambition in the hemisphere; and above all the increasing importance of Panama to transoceanic mobility in a rapidly growing world" (55).

Aguirre's thesis, however, is perhaps best illustrated not by any text but by Muybridge's photos of life in the tropics: Panamanian girls washing clothes; a young boy standing on a tree trunk propped over muddy terrain; a full-breasted woman supporting a large bowl on her head accompanied by what is presumably her young son. These images say as much about the English gaze of Muybridge as they do about their subjects, who are meant to contrapose the Anglo-American self and Latin American "other," male and female, isolated and connected, "primitive" versus technologically advanced.

At one point Aguirre detours into a treatise on Muybridge's anthropological studies and human locomotion. But once he returns to the topic of Panama, he offers one of the most striking photos featured in the book: five naked men standing together at the Pacific Mail Steamship Wharf and staring somewhat defiantly at the camera. It is here that Aguirre's insights about mobility and immobility crystalize. Is this yet another posed picture, like those in which half-naked Panamanian women balance huge bowls on their heads? Or does it capture a spontaneously typical moment of transition in the late 1800s, when a slow, rural, and "primitive" Panama became a fast, urban, mobile, and modern nation state? If both answers are correct, the photo supports Aguirre's thesis that Panama was represented as an ambiguous space, a site of contradiction and paradox.

In chapter 4, Aguirre finds further paradox in the "tropical melancholia" of Gilbert's Panama Patchwork, a volume of conventional poems that capture the rhythms, characters, and images of the isthmus. Taken together, the poems variously represent Panama as a site of corruption, a backwater, an insufferable paradise, and--through the implementation of modern technologies--a demonstration of U.S. greatness. Perhaps more interesting than his account of Panama Patchwork, however, is Aguirre's discussion of Picturesque Panama: The Panama Railroad, The Panama Canal (1928), by U.S. expatriate Jean Heald. This book briefly rehearses the history of the region, bringing the lens of inquiry back to Columbus and Spanish settlement as well as the eighteenth-century arrival of pirates and buccaneers. Heald then moves swiftly to crisp portraits of Colon, Gatun, and developments such as the railway and canal in the early 1900s. In both her writing about the region and her photographs of it, Heald aimed to stimulate tourism and travel, if not expatriate settlement.

In its provocative and well-researched account of the Panama Canal, Aguirre's epilogue brings the entire book to a satisfying conclusion. He also prompts other specialists in transatlantic culture to link the materials of this book with other literary works about the modernization of Central America. In Conrad's Nostromo (1904), for instance, General Pedro Barrios wryly urges his English-speaking audience to modernize Costaguana. "Señores," he says, "have no apprehension. Go on quietly making your Ferro Carril--your railways, your telegraphs. Your--There's enough wealth in Costaguana to pay for everything--or else you would not be here . . . Sí, señores! Fear nothing, develop the country, work, work!" (Conrad 160). Likewise, Trollope's satiric treatment of a Mexican railway project in The Way We Live Now chimes with Stephens's campaign to revolutionize travel in Panama as well as with Trollope's own interest in making transportation and communication more efficient. Lastly, Aguirre's portrait of the Canal anticipates the rhetoric of twentieth-century works such as Graham Greene's Panamanian memoir, Getting to Know the General. Taken together, these representations of development enable scholars to understand why Panama's "progress" elicited such ambivalence as well as leading up to the U.S. handing over of the canal to the government of Panama in 1999.

In its postcolonial, historicist approach, its use of archival photographs, and its analysis of literary representations of Panama in the 1800s and early 1900s, Aguirre's Mobility and Modernity is undoubtedly a critical achievement and significant contribution to transatlantic studies.

Luz Elena Ramirez is Professor of English at California State University, San Bernardino.


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