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Book Review


Murphy, Gretchen. Hemispheric Imaginings: The Monroe Doctrine and Narratives of U.S. Empire. (Durham: Duke University Press. 2005). 195 pp, $21.95.


     Over the course of the foregoing 184 years, the Monroe Doctrine "has meant different things to different people at different times in different places" (Donovan: p.9). Such ambiguity is contemporarily articulated by Gretchen Murphy who stresses that despite interpretation of the Doctrine as "a significant historical precedent with the power to interpret… current events, what exactly it stipulates is uncertain" (Preface: viii, pp. 94, 128 and 149).  

     Yet, the Taliban defied the Monroe Doctrine incontrovertibly in 2001 sponsoring murder in America's own hemisphere. As a corollary, President Bush took the fight to Afghanistan a month after the Islamists severed the skies of blue and clouds of white. Preventing terrorism from entering the borders of the United States may appear poles apart from preventing Europe from colonizing the Western Hemisphere, but the theories behind the two scenarios are very much cut from the same national security cloth. Bush's lineage possessed what Edmund Burke calls a moral imagination; the belief that there is right and wrong in the world. Both Roosevelts, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Reagan, and Bush accentuated hemispheric piety against the evils of autocracy, fascism, communism, or terrorism (what Niall Ferguson categorizes as "Islamo–Bolshevism": p.121) to safeguard "its" hemisphere (pp.1, 9). In contradistinction to the University of Minnesota–Morris professor, history illuminates just "what exactly it stipulates" and demands of its commander–in–chief. Murphy is not a historian and coupled with her provocations (pp.17–18), connoisseurs in the field will likely pen their frustrations illuminating her deficiency. 

     Undeterred, the assistant professor of English asserts that "the Monroe Doctrine cannot provide or legitimate a future direction for contemporary geopolitics" (p.158) for Murphy is incredulous to proscribing adversarial encroachment given that it advances, paradoxically, American expansion: (pp.6, 42, 47, 127 and 144).  For instance, the author cites José Martí who asked, "What is the use in invoking a doctrine that originated as much with Monroe as with Canning, to extend its domination in America in order to prevent foreign domination," (p.97).  Furthermore, the tutor's historiography questions the longevity of the Doctrine upon dissecting Max Boot and Patrick Buchanan's written hand. For she finds the duo beholds a "shared disregard for the spatial construct [which] suggests that perhaps the Western Hemisphere idea is finally dead" (p.154). This is a plausible argument given that "geographical morality is the U.S.–centered conception of the Western Hemisphere that grounds the Monroe Doctrine" (p.98).  

     The thirty page introduction is a consummate effort. "Writing the Hemisphere" (pp.1–31) provides a spellbinding cultural and historical inquiry into the hemispheric proprietor (p.6) formulated along the axis of New and Old Worlds (p.2).  Murphy writes that the Western hemispheric edifice was the midwife to American exceptionalism. In addition, we are fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to scan five images that exemplify just how popular cartography cemented this representation (pp.3, 8, 11, 21 and 25). Notwithstanding the itch to re–read an assortment of pages for greater comprehension, the narrative works tremendously well moving from a repertoire of ageless illustrations to pictorial analysis.

     The author identifies the transformation of divergent paragraphs in Monroe's 1823 Presidential Message to Congress into a "Doctrine" lay in the (Saidian–like) convergence of culture and politics (Preface: ix, p.10). Cogitating on the intersection of culture and politics does furnish insight that an emphasis on either culture or politics single–handedly does not proffer. And this is exactly what the author has in store for she elucidates that the "discourses in which writers engaged as politicians and literary men overlapped… responding to and influencing each other" (pp.14, 133). Astonishingly, Murphy posits that [John Quincy] "Adams in fact saw his speech as responding to literary questions" (pp.34, 36, 39 and 133). It is in the opening chapter ("Separate (Hemi)spheres": pp.32–61) where Murphy reveals the connections between Adams's speech and popular literature of the day: Lydia Maria Child's 1824 Hobomok (p.58) (a comparable exposé is demonstrated in Chapter Four "Gringos Abroad" recounting the events of 1895 between Grover Cleveland and Richard Harding Davis: p.119). In sum, we witness the demise of a wholly realist cum political–economic underpinning of the Monroe Doctrine and a welcome interruption from the third member of the axis of imperialism: cultural theory (coupled with domestic/feminine discourse: pp.36–37, 39 and 41). Though, Murphy's project does not strictly proceed along this axis but catalogues the development of a flexible ideology that "concealed U.S. imperialism inside the imagined confines of the Western Hemisphere" (p.26); for she later argues that the Roosevelt corollary "only made explicit what had been implicit all along" (p.144).

     Describing the advance of a doctrine so deep–seated in nineteenth–century national consciousness permits the essayist to transmit a "cultural phenomena not typically associated with U.S. foreign relations" (Preface: ix). Aside, attributing the primacy of culture in investigations of imperialism has come under fire as a new form of academic terrorism. Comparable with Edward Beasley's twin texts: Empire as the Triumph of Theory: Imperialism, Information, and the Colonial Society of 1868 (2005) and Mid–Victorian Imperialists: British Gentlemen and the Empire of the Mind (2005), this 200 page paperback "offers a new chronology for thinking about… empire" (Preface: p.x). Though does it? The fons et origo of Murphy's mind–set is incontestably Saidian philosophy supplementary owing intellectual debt to Dexter Perkins (pp.13, 64) and Amy Kaplan (pp.16, 18, 28, 44, 64 and 140).

     Unlike the Monroe Doctrine, the author incorporates Asia when mapping U.S. diplomatic relations in her second chapter ("Selling Jim Crow": pp.62–96). The Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan (1856) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851) comprise Murphy's mid–nineteenth century expansionist discourse. Such an election of texts illuminates the fractured reaction to empire where imperialism and anti–imperialism are locked in unending if intermittent combat (fast–forward fifty years and Murphy documents the Republican–Democrat division concerning the issue of imperialism in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines: pp.120–121). Analogous to the conclusion in The House of the Seven Gables were the families turned inward–rejecting progress–reasserting the United States' domestic institutions (in line with Andrew Carnegie's thinking linking chapter one's ethos of domesticity: p.129

     So then, chapters one and two admirably consider literary discourses of domesticity that conceal the tendency of the U.S. to extend outside "its" hemispheric precinct through its behaviour concerning Native American tribes and Perry's expedition to Japan. 

     All four chapters journey around a particular historical deployment of the Monroe Doctrine (whether it is isolation or expansion, anti–colonial hemispheric identity, or racist paternalism) to a literary illustration that demonstrates the utility of public sentiment in foreign policy (as if to prime its American audience). The circulating literature preceding both Adams' and Cleveland's addresses underline the worth of culture in foreign policy analysis that reflected the ideological struggles of the nineteenth century and helped shape those struggles for policy makers. Murphy's theoretical intervention into the field of world history serves as a caveat to those "realist" diplomatic historians who view culture as "an unwelcome and irrational intrusion" (p.17) that further abandonment would not only be erroneous but does not do justice to the Monroe Doctrine.

     The text offers a critical transnationalist tour d'horizon pertaining to the cultural history of the Monroe Doctrine reinterpreting the past in light of the present to unearth previously disregarded connections (p.155). Most perceptible are (what the reviewer detects as) the striking similarities between the (ostensible) orientalist conduct of American personnel in 1850s Japan and that conduct inday's Iraq some one hundred and fifty years on (pp.74-75).

     Gretchen Murphy surveys an extraordinary selection of cultural texts alongside significant developments in political and diplomatic history.  The fact of this being a "cultural history" ought not to deflect those non–specialists from obtaining a copy (though, despite Murphy's tome being a valuable reference, it should categorically not be confused with a vade mecum; for this often dense, meandering narrative makes it anything but an undemanding read). Readers will undoubtedly appreciate the books prose and Murphy's historically textured account of the Monroe Doctrine. What is more, students yearning to comprehend the cultural underpinning of the Monroe Doctrine need not require any further source(s).

     The brevity and self–sufficiency of each of the four chapters offer a tutor the possibility to divide the text among groups for critical engagement–for each stands on its own merit. When scribbling down key points, it would then be intriguing to see which work(s) are found to symbolize most the worth of culture in American foreign policy.  This task could then be coupled with an effort to locate twentieth century similarly natured texts in an attempt to fashion a comparative (cross–century) analysis and whether, with time comes the demise of the spatial construct. Considering its healthy length and noteworthy introduction alone, the reviewer sees no reason why this work would not be introduced to the reading list of high–school students.

Donovan, Frank. Mr. Monroe's Message: The Story of the Monroe Doctrine. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1963.

Ferguson, Niall. Colossus: The Rise and Fall of The American Empire. London: Penguin Books., 2005.



Lee P. Ruddin
Independent Scholar (UK)


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