Brady Harrison. Agent of Empire: William Walker and the Imperial Self in American Literature. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004. x + 238 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8203-2544-6.
Reviewed by Ralph Lee Woodward (Emeritus Professor of History, Tulane University)
Published on H-LatAm (July, 2005)
The Imperial Ghost of William Walker
Few figures in Latin American history have attracted more attention from North American biographers than the mid-nineteenth-century filibuster William Walker. This restless product of the Tennessee frontier studied medicine and law in the United States and Europe before turning to journalism in New Orleans in 1849. A tragic romance contributed to his decision to leave the Crescent City to join the rush to California in 1850. Neither law nor business nor journalism satisfied him there, however, and he soon became involved in filibustering schemes, first to Mexico and later to Central America.
Before a Central American national army defeated him in 1857, Walker had made himself military commander and president of Nicaragua, and embarked on a conscious policy of "Americanization" and "democratization" of that state's institutions. Expelled, he conspired repeatedly to return to Central America, only to die before a Honduran firing squad in 1860. Most of the details of the Walker episode were long ago published by Central and North American historians. Few works, in fact, have improved upon William O. Scroggs, Filibusters and Financiers (1916). Yet new volumes on the man and his times continue to appear. The work presently under review, however, is not just one more biography. Instead, it analyzes the presence of the William Walker story in American literature as a reflection of the recurrent strain of imperialism in American culture.
The author, Brady Harrison, is an associate professor of English at the University of Montana. He makes no pretense of offering a comprehensive study of the frequent representations of Walker in American literature. Rather, he has focused on fewer than a dozen works to demonstrate the ongoing but changing representation of Walker as evidence of the American imperial self. Harrison writes:
"Through Walker run many of the major currents of his day--Jacksonianism, expansionism, Young Americanism, annexationism, idealism, evolutionism, Puritanism rewritten as American exceptionalism, and more--and writers have turned to his adventures as a means to plumb the furious, often competing energies of the mid-nineteenth century. In a single historical figure, they have access to many of the contradictory impulses in American culture; his story weaves together utopian sensibilities and land-lust, beneficence and rapacity, romanticism and industrialization, progressive politics and militarism.... Walker's adventures serve as a means for poets, romancers, and filmmakers to sound the expansionist desires and actions of Manifest Destiny and the foreign policy and adventures (or misadventures) of their own eras and the intervening years" (p. 13).
Harrison finds Walker resurfacing in American literary and popular culture whenever U.S. foreign policy and interventionism heat up or meet with disaster. The varied retellings of the Walker story reveal the self-righteous biases of American culture in each new American foreign policy crisis. Although sometimes rather repetitious in his arguments, Harrison makes a strong case for the persistence of the Walker model as a representation of the American imperial self, which is itself a product in part of literary romances.
Harrison believes that Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman strongly influenced Walker's imperial self in the 1840s and 1850s. He admits that Emerson's and Walker's visions could hardly be more antithetical. "In Emerson, we have one of the most important theorists of the imperial self; in Walker, we have the literal, cold-blooded converse to the Emersonian ideal." Moreover, Harrison argues that Walker, in The War in Nicaragua (1860), "reveals the ethically and ideological warping momentum of imperialism: in Walker's case at least," he writes, "it overruns its agent, transforming him from a moderate abolitionist and believer in political and cultural 'regeneration' into an advocate of slavery and a destroyer of Granada, Nicaragua" (pp. 29-30).
Next, Harrison identifies Bret Harte's The Crusade of the Excelsior (1887), the first full-length romance novel reflecting Walker's exploits, as establishing the model for the mercenary romance. He gives Harte credit for creating the standard plot and cast of characters for most American novels and films set in Central America. Harrison points out that there was a rising chorus of people who thought Americans abroad could do for those foreign peoples what is good for them. Harte created the genre of the mercenary romance that would do much to encourage imperialism. Yet, "although the mercenary romance may serve as a means to satisfy the reader's desire for action, mystery, and exoticism," Harrison alleges, "it also embodies some of the darkest currents in American culture," notably racism.
"Latin Americans, these works tell us, cannot govern themselves, cannot rise above bribery and corruption, cannot change leaders without violence, cannot run commercial enterprises, cannot separate church and state. These people--a deplorable mix, the writers often lament, of Europeans, Africans, and Indians--must be organized from above" (p. 71).
The "most significant" of the Walker rewrites for Harris were those of Richard Harding Davis. His best-seller Soldiers of Fortune (1897), the fictional account of an American soldier of fortune (Robert Clay) in the mythical republic of Olancho, helped build enthusiasm for American imperialism in Cuba and beyond, and contributed to the popularity of Davis's friend, Theodore Roosevelt. Inspired by Walker's adventures and reflecting all the negative stereotypes of a Caribbean republic, Davis emphasized American masculinity and intertwines Walker's story with that of Roosevelt. In Harrison's eyes, "In less than fifty years, the ambitions of Walker and the freebooters became the policies of McKinley and Roosevelt: Davis could see that many of the extraterritorial desires of Manifest Destiny and the 1850s were about to be realized in the Spanish-American War and the 1890s" (p. 82). Davis became a prominent journalist and wrote some twenty novels, histories, and travelogues, including his ridiculous Three Gringos in Venezuela and Central America (1896). Harrison acknowledges that he was "a bit silly and overblown" (p. 83) and that many criticized him, but insists that he had an enormous influence on American attitudes toward overseas expansion and masculinity.
Just five years later, however, Davis offered a bleaker view of imperialism in Captain Macklin (1902), where American and European filibusters run into serious trouble in Guatemala. Harrison explains:
"This darker vision anticipates the tone of many later works about U.S. interventionism in Central America, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere around the world. As the empire ages, as the human costs become more apparent, Harte's tentative cheer and Davis's first shout seem out of touch with the sometimes brutal workings of imperialism and the imperial self. The mercenary romance takes a seemingly permanent turn toward doubt and despair, and representations of the imperial self become increasingly violent and less and less noble" (p. 117).
Thus, he sees this work as a watershed in the literatures of U.S. imperialism. Even more important to this watershed, Harrison tells us, was the parody of Davis's work by O. Henry (pseudonym of William Sydney Porter) in his only novel, Cabbages and Kings (1904). Henry mocked the conventions of the mercenary romance, joked about the already lost American abroad becoming caught up in revolutions, coups, and counter-coups in the imaginary Central American republic of Anchuria (obviously Honduras) and generally condemned the U.S. role in creating banana republics as he offered an unattractive, if hilarious, caricature of the mid-nineteenth century freebooters.
From Davis's and Henry's "Soldiers of Misfortune," Harrison leaps forward a half-century to the Cold War. In two negative views of America's imperial self by Darwin Teilhet (pseudonym of Cyrus Fisher) and the Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal, Harrison turns to questions of gender and sexuality as well as imperialism. Teilhet was a somewhat obscure adventure novelist of the 1950s, whose The Lion's Skin (1955) raised questions of Walker's masculinity and whether American men were up to the task of building and maintaining an empire. Cardenal's poem, "With Walker in Nicaragua" (1952), was bitterly critical of U.S. expansionism and also challenged Walker's masculinity. Harrison sees these two works as examples of the anxiety found in American Cold War literature:
"In their different ways, Roosevelt and Davis worried about American masculinity and the imperial self.... If the fin de siecle agents of empire had their doubts, then their Cold War counterparts positively tremble and gnash their teeth with anxiety. Not only may real men be too weak, but they may not be real men at all. They may be, in our contemporary parlance, queer; they might conceal their true natures and thereby corrupt the body politic from within. They may be homosexual, but worst of all, they might be women disguised as men" (p. 143).
Roosevelt had planted the ideal of the masculine imperial self in American culture in his classic essay "The Strenuous Life" (1899), in which he champions American manhood and imperialism. Fears that American men may not be up to that standard "manifest themselves in Teilhet in effeminate, queer, or androgynous representations of the imperial self" (p. 146). Others have acknowledged that Walker was an early champion of women's rights and Teilhet repeats Nicaraguan poet Pablo Antonio Cuadra's assertion that Walker had a Nicaraguan mistress by whom he left children there. At the very least, Teilhet cannot make sense of Walker's performance of gender. "If he was the 'gray-eyed man of destiny,' why did he look and sound like a woman? If he was a freebooting agent of empire, why did he not drink whiskey and chase women?" (p. 157). Thus, Harrison explains, Teilhet blamed Walker's homosexuality (perversion) for his defeat, and this was very much in tune with the anti-homosexuality attitude of the U.S. government in the 1950s and with a sense that U.S. foreign policy was failing because of lack of masculinity in the American culture.
Harrison justifies inclusion of Cardenal in a study of "American" literature because if few Americans recall Walker, he is still one of the most well-known and vilified gringos in Central America and has been the subject of many isthmian histories, novels, plays, and poems. Cardenal's narrative poems are among the very best of these. Cardenal also studied for some time in the United States and was deeply influenced by Ezra Pound and Walt Whitman. He had translated many American poems and written about Lincoln and other American figures. Harrison points out that Cardenal relied heavily on Clinton Rollins's "Filibustering with Walker" (1909-1910), a work that Alejandro Bolanos Geyer later showed to be the fictitious fabrication of Henry Clinton Parkhurst. Neither Cardenal nor Harrison appear to have been aware of this hoax. Cardenal "portrays Walker as less than human, as an isolated, yet vicious machine dedicated to death. The soldier of fortune's 'woman's voice' amounts to one more incongruous feature of his seemingly unaccountable personality. He seems not to see, or value, the life around him" (p. 163). Yet Cardenal holds out hope for the Americans. Less pessimistic than Tielhet, Cardenal was an admirer of Lincoln:
"If the United States could battle its way out of slavery and toward equality between the races (and, later, between the sexes), then perhaps it could battle its way out of empire-building and toward a more constructive, less violent and bullying relationship with its less powerful neighbors. The United States may have its latter-day Walkers--Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Minor Keith, Sam Zemurray, Lee Christmas, and many others--but it also, Cardenal hopes, may have some Lincolns" (p. 169).
Finally, Harrison turns to two works that mirror the pessimism of the Vietnam era, when "in less than one hundred years, the United States had gone from imperial ascendancy to imperial desolation, and the stage was set for the freebooter's return" (p. 170). He focuses especially on Joan Didion's novel, A Book of Common Prayer (1977) and Alex Cox's film, Walker (1987), but also points out other representations of Walker in darkly negative tones in Robert Houston's The Nation Thief (1984), Albert Guerrard's The Hotel in the Jungle (1966), Robert Stone's A Flag for Sunrise (1981) and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian (1985). Harrison now sees Walker, who had been "a star of nascent imperium in the 1850s, and a star again in the booming 1890s, ... as the grim grandfather or mad ghost in the imperial machine in the post-Vietnam era." In radically different ways, both Cox and Didion:
"dive into the darkest currents in American culture and represent American imperialism as a spiritually and ethically twisted and deforming process. Whereas the freebooter once served as an exemplum of imperial pluck and triumph or of imperial energies gone slightly astray, he now serves as an emblem of imperial catastrophe and American excess and savagery" (p. 171).
It is a scathing condemnation of Ronald Reagan, Oliver North, and the Contra War of the 1980s. Didion offers a more subtle and complex revision than Cox, not only of the mercenary romance and Walker narrative, but also of literary representations of the American imperial self, as she describes the experience of two women in the imaginary Central American republic of Boca Grande (obviously Nicaragua and El Salvador). For Harrison, Didion blames American imperialism not only for the incessant violence in the isthmus, but also for the ethical dissolution and brutality rampant in the United States. "The savagery of the imperium and its agents has backlashed on the culture," he writes, "leaving its citizens dazed and death haunted. The ambitions and schemes of Walker, Roosevelt, and their successors have led, Didion intimates, to ruin" (pp. 178).
Harrison's account of the representations of Walker is a strong indictment of U.S. imperial policy in the late-twentieth century, not only in Central America, but in Vietnam, and finally in Iraq. Harrison adds that even though Walker periodically resurfaces in American literature, he is not better remembered because his story is too painful for Americans. It tells a story of failure and destruction that Americans do not want to hear about themselves. Walker tells "the painful truths of imperialism; an agent of empire, his story makes too plain the nature of the nation. He perpetually fades from public memory because his tale tells what cannot be told; nevertheless, the repressed tries to return to the surface" (p. 197).
This is a provocative and stimulating study, of real relevance to those interested in the links between popular culture and foreign policy. The lack of a bibliography and an inadequate index are unfortunate technical flaws in this work, but as a critical essay on American foreign policy it will have lasting value.
. Alejandro Bolanos Geyer, El filibustero Clinton Rollins (Masaya, Nicaragua: Self published, 1976).
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Ralph Lee Woodward. Review of Harrison, Brady, Agent of Empire: William Walker and the Imperial Self in American Literature.
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