Monday, December 15, 2008

Gertrudis and Sab

I'm not sure where I got this copy of the University of Texas Press omnibus edition of Sab and Autobiography by the 19th century Cuban writer Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda y Arteaga (1814-1873). Occasionally I notice a book that's been on the shelves unread for a while, and that I don't have any clear take on, and add it to the Stack. Part of the way that the Stack (actually it's a shelf, actually it's books between bookends on top of a bookcase) works is that books come up to be read six months or so, I think, after I add them, I can't say exactly why I feel that pre-programming my reading in this way is a good practice but I do. It subtracts some willfulness from the activity, or something like that.

Anyway, what we have here is an anti-slavery novel written by a disaffected, expatriate, upper-class Cuban woman and published in 1840, early enough to be of some historical significance (although it is hardly, as a blurb-writer for the jacket states, "without a doubt one of the most important works of fiction in the nineteenth century," even if we limit our scope to Latin America). In its didacticism and formality it reminds me of W. E. B. DuBois' Dark Princess (1928). We value this kind of politicized cultural artifact more for what it represents, or for the fact that it simply exists, than we do for its purely literary merit.

Not that that is true of all historical writing with a strong social agenda, by any means. I don't think that Uncle Tom's Cabin (published, as the jacket points out, eleven years after Sab) is a great work of literature but it measures up to a lot of more popular fiction of its time. This edition of Sab has a photo of a black man posing in the stocks from 1850s Cuba, but don't look here for any unflinching depiction of the physical brutality of slavery. Rather this is essentially a romantic novel about a noble and competent "mulatto" (the author's word), a cousin in fact of the minor gentry to whom he belongs, and his doomed love for the planter's daughter - that sort of thing. The story does not even end in the violence with which the real-life version inevitably would have; the broken-hearted man just dies of a mysterious something.

Really, for the non-specialist, the only really essential period literature of 19th century slavery are the slave narratives themselves, the English-language ones have been well-excavated (although I'm sure there's more), and there is undoubtedly more than one undiscovered treasure written in Spanish or Portuguese, where there is much more work to be done.

What made this read most interesting to me was the inclusion of Autobiography, a short sketch of the author's life written close in time to Sab. Gertrudis Gomez has many admirable qualities, as we already know from the simple facts that she was appalled by slavery even though she was raised at the top of a slavery society, and that she resisted and in fact escaped arranged marriages and hypocritical respectability, and that she made her way to the literary salons of Europe where she promoted herself and enjoyed some recognition during her own life. But it's the less attractive, more contrary, more damaged side of Gomez that is more interesting to the reader. She has a strong pattern of becoming involved with men and then "discovering" that they are not what they seem: of poor character, manipulative, and false in love, is the basic indictment. She cycles through this pattern enough times that one comes to realize that she is her own issue. The Bronte sisters romanticized this type of alienated woman (and rightly linked her to social inequities of the time), but with Gomez we see her unvarnished, vain and difficult (more like the wonderful real-life Grimke sisters). This awareness (Autobiography is placed before Sab in the book) makes the text much more interesting, both politically and psychologically.

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