Cirilo Villaverde Essay - Critical Essays

Villaverde, Cirilo


Cirilo Villaverde 1812-1894

Cuban journalist and novelist.

Credited with producing the first book published in Cuba, El espetón de oro (1838), Cirilo Villaverde expressed his intellectual and political activism through his writing. His novel, Cecilia Valdés (1839), is an exposé of the corruption of Spanish-ruled Cuba, and in its expanded 1882 version, an attack on the evils of slavery on the island's sugar plantations.

Biographical Information

Villaverde was born on October 28, 1812, in San Diego de Núñez, to doña Dolores de la Paz y Tagle and don Lucas Villaverde y Morejón, a doctor employed by the owners of a sugar plantation who also owned more than three hundred slaves. Villaverde's early exposure to the evils of slavery would provide inspiration for his major work, an antislavery novel. Although he began studying with the local priest at the age of seven, Villaverde's formal education did not begin until he was eleven when he went to Havana to attend the Antonio Vázquez school; this was followed by the study of Latin with his grandfather, attendance at Father Morales' school, and the Seminario de San Carlos where he studied philosophy and earned a law degree in 1834. He practiced law for a brief period but soon abandoned the profession, which he regarded as corrupt. He taught briefly in Havana and then left the capital to teach in Matanzas. He also began writing during this period and in 1837 produced four short novels which were published in a periodical. The following year, he wrote what is widely considered the first book published in Cuba, El espetón de oro, and in 1839, the first part of his most important work, Cecilia Valdés. In producing the novel, Villaverde was heavily influenced by the leader of Cuba's literary community, Domingo del Monte, who had an extensive library and regularly hosted a literary salon for young writers, advising them to abandon romanticism in favor of realism.

In 1842, Villaverde returned to Havana and from 1842 to 1848, he worked as an editor of El Faro Industrial, and began concentrating on political writing and activity, particularly the cause of Cuban independence from Spain. In 1848 he was arrested and fled to the United States the following year. He returned to Cuba in 1858, but was forced once again to take refuge in America later that same year. In the United States, Villaverde wrote for a number of journals and separatist magazines and worked as a teacher. In 1874 he founded a school in New Jersey. While in New York, he completed the second part of Cecilia Valdés, producing the definitive version of the work. He died in New York on October 20, 1894, and was buried in Cuba.

Major Works

Villaverde's most famous work is the novel, Cecilia Valdés, published as a two-part series in a magazine and then as a novel in Cuba in 1839. It was considerably revised and republished in New York in 1882; it is the later version that is considered an antislavery novel with vivid descriptions of the hardships and brutal treatment of Cuban slaves on a sugar plantation. The title character is a beautiful illegitimate woman of mixed race who unwittingly falls in love with her aristocratic half-brother, Leonardo Gamboa. Neither is aware that Cecilia is the product of a relationship between her slave mother and Leonardo's father, the owner of the plantation. Cecilia, learning that Leonardo is about to marry a white woman, arranges to prevent the marriage, but Leonardo is killed in the process and Cecilia is jailed for her part in the plot.

Villaverde's other works include El guajiro (1890), which describes the life of a rural Cuban peasant; El penitente (1889), a historical novel about the conquest of Florida; Dos amores (1858), a love story; and Excursión a Vueltabajo (1891), a two-part travel narrative. Many of his writings were originally published in periodicals and reissued in book form later in the nineteenth century.

Critical Reception

Critical attention to Villaverde's work has centered on Cecilia Valdés. Marshall E. Nunn praises the elements of naturalism and realism in the work, suggesting that “perhaps the most interesting feature in the novel … is the fact that there are present in it numerous naturalistic elements, which it is curious to find at so early a date in a Cuban novel.” William Luis has examined the three different versions of the novel, claiming that while the first two versions describe Cuban society in the early nineteenth century, it is only the final, definitive, version that exposes the evils of Cuban slavery. One of those evils is examined at length by Lorna V. Williams in her study of the character María de Regla, a slave on the plantation who must nurse her mistress's infant rather than her own. The mistress's demand “conforms to the accepted practices of a slave society, whereby ties of bondage are expected to take precedence over kinship ties among slaves, in Villaverde's account, the sociocultural assumes priority over the genealogical.”

Antonio Benítez-Rojo has studied Villaverde's two-part travel journal Excursión a Vueltabajo (1891; originally published in 1838 and 1842), and considers the work an attempt by the author “to legitimize his own Cuban origins,” and the “Cubanness” of his novels at a time when the Del Monte group was attempting to establish a Cuban national literature.

Principal Works

*El espetón de oro (novel) 1838

Excursión a Vuelt Abajo (travel essay) 1838

Cecilia Valdés, o La loma del ángel (novel) 1839; revised edition, 1882

La joven de la flecha de oro (novel) 1840

El guajiro (novel) 1842

Dos amores (novel) 1843

El penitente (novel) 1844

General López, the Cuban Patriot (biography) 1851

El señor Saco con respecto a la revolución de Cuba (essay) 1852

La revolución de Cuba vista desde Nueva York (essay) 1869

*Originally published in El Album.

†Originally published in two parts in the journal La siempreviva.


Marshall E. Nunn (essay date 1947)

SOURCE: Nunn, Marshall E. “Some Notes on the Cuban Novel, Cecilia Valdés.Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 24, no. 95 (July 1947): 184-86.

[In the following essay, Nunn discusses Villaverde's graphic representations of the lives and deaths of Cuban slaves between 1830 and 1840.]

Although Villaverde wrote the first part of Cecilia Valdés in 1838, it was not published until the following year. He immediately began his second part but did very little on it, for a variety of reasons. One was that he left Havana and went to Matanzas as a teacher. There he also wrote another novel, publishing it in 1841. After returning to the capital in the following year, he became one of the editors of El Faro Industrial until 1848, in which year he was arrested by the Spanish authorities. In 1858, on his return to the island after nine years in the United States, a publisher suggested his finishing and revising Cecilia Valdés.1 He planned the chapters in detail, and even wrote an introduction, but unfortunately had to leave Cuba again this same year, taking sanctuary once more in the United States. Occupied with revolutionary work and with earning a precarious livelihood, he had little time to devote to his novel. In his own words, “the most I could do was to write a chapter every fortnight and at times only every month, working some hours during the week and all Sundays.”2 The complete and revised novel was finished in 1878 and published one year later.

In his prologue he prides himself on being a realistic writer, but at the same time disclaims any influence from the realistic writers then in vogue. He states that he has read no novels for the past thirty years, save some by Scott and Manzoni. His novel, he maintains, is realistic in that he presents facts, scenes and characters just as they were. In his own words: “Far from inventing or making up characters and fantastic and unlikely scenes, I have carried realism, as I understand it, to the point of presenting the principal characters of the novel with all their minute details, as is commonly said, dressed with the clothes they wore in life, the greater part under their real names, speaking the same language that they used in the historical scenes in which they figured, copying as far as possible their moral and physical features.3

One critic has called Cecilia Valdés the Gone with the Wind of Spanish-American literature.4 Another has compared it to Uncle Tom's Cabin.5 The reason for its comparison with the former is that it pictures very vividly, and with great...

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William Luis (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Luis, William. “Textual Multiplications: Juan Francisco Manzano's Autobiografía and Cirilo Villaverde's Cecilia Valdés.” In Literary Bondage: Slavery in Cuban Narrative, pp. 82-119. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990.

[In the following excerpt, Luis discusses the three different versions of Cecilia Valdés: the two-part story published in La Siempreviva, the 1839 novel published in Cuba, and the 1882 version published in New York.]

Cecilia Valdés is the most important novel written in nineteenth-century Cuba and perhaps one of the most significant works published in Latin America during the same period. Elías...

(The entire section is 10418 words.)

Lorna V. Williams (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Williams, Lorna V. “The Representation of the Female Slave in Villaverde's Cecilia Valdés.Hispanic Journal 14, no. 1 (spring 1993): 73-89.

[In the following essay, Williams discusses the models of motherhood and nurturing imposed on female slaves by their white masters in Cecilia Valdés.]

In the antislavery narratives written by Anselmo Suárez y Romero, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, and Antonio Zambrana, the plot centers on the male protagonist's relocation to the countryside, which is motivated by the unequal struggle for sexual mastery between men from two radically different social spheres. In Cecilia Valdés, Cirilo Villaverde...

(The entire section is 7008 words.)

Doris Sommer (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Sommer, Doris. “Who Can Tell? Filling in Blanks for Villaverde.” American Literary History 6, no. 2 (summer 1994): 213-33.

[In the following essay, Sommer examines Villaverde's narrative strategy whereby he deliberately limits readers' knowledge of the title character's racial background in Cecilia Valdés.]

Very early in Cirilo Villaverde's Cecilia Valdés (1882), the truth of the title character's racially obscure background becomes clear to the reader. Yet the narrator, for some reason, blocks and delays an explicit revelation. That reason is, in my reading, to dramatize a certain resistance or inability to assimilate the enlightening information...

(The entire section is 8226 words.)

Antonio Benítez-Rojo (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Benítez-Rojo, Antonio. “Cirilo Villaverde, the Seeker of Origins.” In Coded Encounters: Writing, Gender, and Ethnicity in Colonial Latin America, edited by Francisco Javier Cevallos-Candau, Jeffrey A. Cole, Nina M. Scott, and Nicomedes Suárez-Araúz, pp. 255-62. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Benítez-Rojo discusses Villaverde's travel narrative Excursión a Vueltabajo within the context of an emerging Cuban national literature.]

Except for his novel Cecilia Valdés, the work of Cirilo Villaverde that interests me most is Excursión a Vueltabajo (Excursion to Vueltabajo). I present my...

(The entire section is 3871 words.)

Benigno Sánchez-Eppler (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Sánchez-Eppler, Benigno. “‘Por causa mecánica’: The Coupling of Bodies and Machines and the Production and Reproduction of Whiteness in Cecilia Valdés and Nineteenth-Century Cuba.” In Thinking Bodies, edited by Juliet Flower MacCannell and Laura Zakarin, pp. 78-86. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Sánchez-Eppler explores the relationship of slavery and mechanization on the sugar plantations of Cuba as they are represented in Cecilia Valdés.]

How to turn slaves into citizens? How to proceed from the ideological attribution of social death in the captured and sold African body to the incorporation of the...

(The entire section is 4251 words.)

Further Reading


Cudjoe, Selwyn R. “The Liberation Movement: Cecilia Valdés, The Early Life of the Negro Poet, The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave.” In Resistance and Caribbean Literature, pp. 90-115. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1980.

Analyzes the use of Caribbean literature as a tool of revolution in the works of Villaverde, Manzano, and Montejo.

Sommer, Doris. “Who Can Tell? Filling in Blanks for Cirilo Villaverde.” In Writing the Nation: Self and Country in the Post-Colonial Imagination, edited by John C. Hawley, pp. 88-107. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1996.

Assesses Villaverde's narrator in Cecilia...

(The entire section is 199 words.)