Messenger writers: author position, the international left, and the cold war



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My dissertation tracks the international formation of critical “author positions” during key moments of the Cold War. Specifically, I investigate historical novels about Caribbean slave uprisings, written in East Germany by Anna Seghers and Cuba by Alejo Carpentier, both of which appeared in 1962 and explore an author position as the revolutionary teller of history. Later, first-person accounts of Nicaragua after the Sandinista triumph, written both by West Germans and by Nicaraguans, advanced notions of what a critical author’s social role as the eyewitness of history should be. In order to explore how these texts enact various responses to the same world-historical moment, I use Walter Benjamin’s theories of historical materialist practice and the author’s historical position, as laid out in the “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940) and “The Author as Producer” (1937). This framework allows me to characterize how these works execute historical interventions by weighing in on what the social position of an author is or should be. Through these case studies I examine the possibility of reconceptualizing, or re-historicizing, literary history. First, I argue for the possibility of reading literary works from different national literatures as coeval responses to a world-historical context, not merely in terms of national histories or national parameters. Second, I call for a historical understanding of literary production that operates not only by identifying a work with a particular period or nation, but rather views it in terms of its function within the historical context of the social relations of literary production, what Benjamin called the literary “apparatus.” Thus the dissertation situates these works as participating within an international literary sphere, not just a “European” or “Latin American” one. I read these texts— written about the same issues, at the same historical moment, and employing similar narrative strategies— together, thereby gaining insight into the contours of authorial position in the second half of the twentieth century.