[Editorial note: the following is a guest essay by Kahlil Chaar-Pérez]
A Trans-American Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Stowe Among Cubans
by Kahlil Chaar-Pérez
Through numerous translations, adaptations, and performances, sentimental communities across the world in the mid-nineteenth-century embraced Harriet Beecher Stowe’s appeal to “feel right” in defying slavery as “a system which confounds and confuses every principle of Christianity and morality.” During the 1850s, chattel slavery was still rampant in the U.S., Brazil, and the Spanish colonies of Cuba and Puerto Rico. Moved by the novel’s affecting depiction of the horrors of enslavement, a transatlantic public coalesced around the universalist values through which Stowe expressed her call for abolition in Uncle Tom’s Cabin: “See, then, to your sympathies in this matter! Are they in harmony with the sympathies of Christ? Or are they swayed and perverted by the sophistries of world policy?” In the pursuit of a “right” feeling determined by the universal spirit of “Christianity,” the ideal sympathetic subject transcends the artificial divisions fostered by the political sphere (“world policy”). Even as Stowe dedicates Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the people of the United States, her rhetoric invokes a public that transcends the boundaries of her country. The novel’s Protestant brand of sentimentalism strives to touch all hearts across the globe, beyond the “sophistries” of modern politics and capitalist production. In this sense, Uncle Tom’s Cabin continues the tradition of the sentimental novel, a genre that, as Margaret Cohen puts it, represented “the vanguard of formulating the notion of an affectively charged association among distanced readers.” Yet, as critics ranging from Hortense S. Spillers to Lauren Berlant have noted, the universalist thrust that connects Stowe’s abolitionist politics with the “sympathies of Christ”—embodied in the sacrificial spectacle of Uncle Tom’s passive death—erases the singularity of enslaved black subjects and occludes the history of chattel slavery itself.
Among the numerous figures from Latin America who intervened in the transnational network of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was Andrés Avelino de Orihuela, who wrote the first full translation of the novel into Castilian Spanish, only months after it was first published in book form. Orihuela’s translation circulated widely: editions were published in Argentina, Colombia, and Spain a year later. Born in 1818 in the Canary Islands, Orihuela lived his formative years in Havana, where he studied law and became active among local liberal and anticolonial circles, which led to his political exile. As he traveled through the U.S South, Spain, and France, and back again to Cuba, Orihuela engaged in debates about Spanish colonialism and slavery, writing pamphlets, novels, and poems where he often criticized colonial repression and supported the gradual abolition of slavery. He spent the last years of his life defending the republican cause in Spain, where it is presumed died in 1873.
In past weeks, we have begun to sketch out a project that takes seriously the emergence of Theory in the United States since the 1970s as a political project: an Epistemic Left. Virtually every aspect of this argument remains to be fleshed out and tested. Thus far, we have made the first steps in that direction by looking at the flagship journal of the American Epistemic Left, Social Text. (more…)
Caroline Winterer, American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason (Yale University Press, 2016)
Book Review by Lilian Calles Barger.
Here is a podcast conversation with Caroline Winterer hosted by Lilian Calles Barger.
Caroline Winterer’s latest book, American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason looks among eighteenth-century Americans for multiple answers to Immanuel Kant’s famous question: What is enlightenment? For centuries, enlightenment had a religious meaning of the soul awakening to divine light; however, by the 1700s it came to mean using reason and empirical evidence as guides and exchanging tradition and divine revelation for a humanistic and historical view of the world. The aim was nothing short of the pursuit of happiness, an idea connected to communal wellbeing and largely lost to us today. Winterer’s insightful book gives us a glimpse into how Americans, as the “first prophets of tomorrow,” thought of enlightenment—both what it meant and how to achieve it (2).
Last week was the seventieth anniversary of a meeting held in Columbia, South Carolina almost forgotten by history. Hosted by the Southern Negro Youth Congress, in October 1946 delegates from all over the world met in Columbia to plan out future strategies for fighting for civil and human rights. Among those who spoke there were W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson. The modern-day celebrations, put together by the University of South Carolina’s Center for Civil Rights, the History Center, and in conjunction with Historically Black Benedict College and the South Carolina Progressive Network, were about “usable pasts” and recovering a nearly-forgotten moment from Southern history. They were also, I found to my satisfaction, about the use of intellectual history in remembering a more radical vision of the past.
One of the papers I most enjoyed at the conference last weekend was Natalia M. Petrzela’s talk on the various origins of the wellness industry in California. A recent experience with teacher training in an idiosyncratic exercise medium had piqued my interest in this strange subculture, and Petrzela’s paper indulged my curiosity with an excellent review of the early history of women’s health clinics, yoga, and thinking on the mind-body connection.
I don’t want to go into too much detail about what, exactly, my experience consisted of – let’s suffice to say it contained an inordinate amount of “woo-woo” – but the awkwardness of being perhaps the only serious skeptic in the room pulled my thinking back to an old problem. Scholars of intellectual history obviously take ideas seriously – whatever our ideological persuasions, we can all agree on that. Yet in so doing, do we sometimes make the mistake of assuming, wrongly, that our human subjects also take ideas that seriously, even if we claim that such commitment takes place on a subconscious or structural level?
This week, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. This event is not without interest for intellectual historians of the United States.
Here, I set myself the task of reflecting upon one important dimension of Dylan’s contribution. A caveat: I will proceed without consulting any sources, and will rely on my own memories, faulty as they necessarily are. (more…)