Quick notes on some current/recent reading

Engraving by Samuel Stradanus, c. 1615, the earliest known pictoral representation of miracles attributed to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Known depictions of the apparitions and the miracle of the image would not appear until 1648. Image found here.

The recent reading: Stafford Poole, C. M., Our Lady of Guadalupe: The Origins and Sources of a Mexican National Symbol, 1531-1797. I am about done with my Virgen de Guadalupe kick, my reader(s) will probably be pleased to learn. For those who want a thorough, Occam’s Razor-based examination of the historical record regarding the apparitions and the accompanying tradition, though, Poole’s book is definitely the place to start. It could use an update, seeing since its publication some additional documents concerning Juan Diego emerged during the process leading to his canonization. But it remains extremely valuable, especially for such things as providing the ecclesiastical context in both Spain and Mexico during the colonial era and the vagaries of Nahuatl poetry (chief among them, the fact that Nahuatl was a spoken and written language vital to aiding in the conversion and education of indigenous peoples up till almost the end of the colonial era). Here’s the thumbnail summary of Poole’s conclusions:

From 1531 (the year the apparitions are said to have occurred) till the 1550s, no written records of any sort exist which refer to Juan Diego or the apparitions;

beginning in the 1550s, there begin to appear references–not all of them positive–to a chapel (ermita) at Tepeyac (the hill in present-day Mexico City where the Virgin is said to have appeared) and the veneration of an object or objects there;

by 1615 (the year of the Samuel Stradanus engraving above), a pictoral tradition depicting miracles attributed to the Virgin had arisen, thus indicating the existence of an oral tradition that had given rise to them;

in 1648, there suddenly appeared (re Poole) the first narratives regarding Juan Diego and the apparitions and the miracle of the image on his ayate, accompanied by the admission of no prior written records of these narratives but that they had been perpetuated via the memory of those whose relatives or familiars had known Juan Diego;

from 1650 on, the Virgin was vigorously promoted as a sign that God had shown His favor on Mexico and, thus, on criollos (those of Spanish blood born in Mexico), and less-vigorously promoted as a means of evangelizing to the Indians.

As to the veracity of the story and image as currently-received tradition has it, Poole is careful to say that the currently-existing historical records–their words and, as importantly, their silences–don’t support that tradition . . . which is not the same thing as saying that they are untrue. Still, Poole’s incredulity that something as momentous as the apparitions and the miraculous image would go completely unmentioned in Church documents for over 100 years speaks for itself. As to the Virgin’s image’s link to casta paintings, which I speculated on here, Poole doesn’t address either those paintings or even, for that matter, the Virgin’s mestiza appearance. Still, in his thorough examining of sermons that establish a link between the Virgin and the affirmation of crilloismo, Poole helps provide tangential independent confirmation of that connection.

Speaking of casta paintings . . . I also had a look at Painting a New World: Mexican Art and Life 1521-1821. It contains some examples of these paintings, one of which is the first image you see in this earlier post of mine. From its discussion of that painting, written by Ilona Katzew:

Tobacco and chocolate [depicted in the painting] were staples of the New World. Featuring these typical American products in paintings whose subject was miscegenation–believed to be especially widespread in the New World–offered a highly mediated view of life in New Spain, one that casts the colony as the producers of goods and people. (245)

Yes. And add to this Katzew’s observation elsewhere that the enactment of the mid-18th century Bourbon Reforms, among other things, sought to insist more firmly on rules based on New Spain’s racial hierarchy (casta paintings would begin to be numbered accordingly); yet, in this painting and in others depicting all but the very lowest castas, the families would be shown as prosperous and anything but the moral degenerates that the casta system implicitly claimed the less-than-pure were. The casta paintings thus became, in this argument, somewhat akin to Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter: they honored the letter of the law but violated its spirit. They, along with the Virgen de Guadalupe in a parallel course (which is to say, these traditions seem not, or only rarely, to intersect), came to be manifestations of criollo pride rather than its official inferiority relative to Spain.

There is more to say about this.

Current reading: George Washington Cable, Strange True Tales of Louisiana (1888, 1889). Over at good old Blog Meridian, I recently posted on the potential dark side of literary regionalism, of which Cable is definitely a part, but it seems to me that he himself doesn’t fall prey to that dark side, either here or in The Grandissimes. Strange Tales is a collection of (so far) linked stories that Cable claims are based on actual memoirs and diaries that have come into his possession about life in antebellum New Orleans and southern Louisiana plantation life. Let’s just say I have my doubts about those claims, but that does nothing to lessen their interest for me. [UPDATE: Via this article (.pdf), I’ve learned that Cable indeed did use a combination of actual letters and diaries, along with contemporary newspaper accounts, to produce these stories. But the collection has, overall, a unified feel not unlike Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses.] And let’s just say as well that I think Edna Ferber read this book fairly attentively, but that that and other matters will have to wait for a fuller airing later on.

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“In the direction of system”: Two passages from The Grandissimes

Aurora aurora-and-clotilde-nancanou-receive-joseph-frowenfeldand Clotilde Nancanou receive Joseph Frowenfeld. Illustration by Albert Herter from an 1899 edition of The Grandissimes. Image found here.

George Washington Cable’s most famous novel (1880) is sneaky with regard to its examination of Creole New Orleans in those years just prior to and just after the Louisiana Purchase: strident when the reader expects (but does not necessarily want) it to be; wry, even sly, when the reader does not expect it. Consider these two brief examples involving Aurora and Clotilde Nancanou, the mother and daughter whose genteel destitution figures prominently in this novel.

The first passage provide a glimpse of the domestic dynamics of the Nancanou household:

[Aurora and Clotilde] sat down opposite each other at their little dinner table. They had a fixed hour for dinner. It is well to have a fixed hour; it is in the direction of system. Even if you have not the dinner, there is the hour. Alphonsina [their black cook] was not in perfect harmony with this fixed-hour idea. It was Aurora’s belief, often expressed in hungry moments with the laugh of a vexed Creole lady (a laugh worthy of study), that on the day when diner should really be served at the appointed hour, the cook would drop dead of apoplexy and she of fright[. . . .] Not that she felt particularly hungry, but there is a certain desultoriness allowable at table more than elsewhere[.] (216-217)

“In the direction of system” strikes me as both a marvelously evocative turn of phrase on its own terms and one that also speaks to the strange combination of surface rigidity and domestic compromise–perhaps even an unspoken resignation–at work in a world that we today rightly characterize as brutalizing and dehumanizing toward people of color, whether freedmen or not. System–structure, rules, codes–must be in place, even if those whose actions are ostensibly most governed by that system are “not in perfect harmony with” it. Moreover, as the concluding sentence makes clear, the system referred to is intended for public visual consumption; the novel’s later brief public scandal of Joseph Frowenfeld (the American who serves simultaneously as the author’s mouthpiece, the novel’s moral center, and Clotilde’s romantic interest) being seen leaving a mulatto woman’s house with a head wound is a scandal precisely because it is public.

[The dynamic at work here, by the way is strikingly similar to that regarding the establishing and (lack of) policing of the dress codes (and the reasoning behind them) depicted in Mexican casta paintings from the colonial era. The intent behind the dress codes was to make one’s class–and, indirectly, one’s caste–more publicly certain. Implicit in the code was the assumption that lower-caste members, no matter their skin color, tended not to be financially successful. But some lighter-skinned members of those lower castes inevitably did make money, as artisans, as merchants, etc., and it is all but certain that some of those with the means tried and succeeded in passing as higher-caste members. The dress code therefore provided them with a legally-sanctioned disguise.]

These public displays in the direction of system, in combination with domestic desultorinesses, can lead to some rather odd musings in the face of the more awkward consequences of the Peculiar Institution, as is the case with this second passage:

That same morning Clotilde had given a music-scholar her appointed lesson, and at its conclusion had borrowed of her patroness (how pleasant it must have been to have such things to lend!) a little yellow maid, in order that, with more propriety, she might make a business call. (205)

While Clotilde is a very young woman whose mother seems to have protected her from situations in which she would have come to understand that the mulatto girl’s existence might not have been a source of much pleasantness at her student’s house, it’s still hard not to recall this famous passage from Mary Boykin Chesnut’s Civil War diary: “[L]ike the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives & their concubines, & the Mulattos one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children-& every lady tells you who is the father of all the Mulatto children in everybody’s household, but those in her own, she seems to think drop from the clouds or pretends so to think-” (source).

Such a world is one of tacitly-sanctioned virtual disguises even more impenetrable than the clothes one wears, a world of very odd public dances on whose strangeness no one comments. Thus, it is no accident, given Cable’s characters’ preoccupation with appearance (in all its senses) and underlying identities and entangled family roots of plantation families (just as one example, two men in the novel are named Honoré Grandissime, one a Creole, the other his mulatto half-brother), that his novel’s opening scene is a masked ball.