Nineteenth-Century Abolitionist Literature of Cuba and Brazil Criticism: Overview - Essay

Criticism: Overview

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Schulman, Ivan A. “The Portrait of the Slave: Ideology and Aesthetics in the Cuban Antislavery Novel.” In Comparative Perspectives on Slavery in New World Plantation Societies, edited by Vera Rubin and Arthur Tuden, pp. 356-67. New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1977.

[In the following essay, Schulman argues that Cuba's nineteenth-century abolitionist novels, though few in number, set the stage for emancipation in Cuba and were the earliest and most influential critiques of the island's long tradition of slavery.]

La primera tarea que se impuso nuestra literaturea … [fue] … la preocupación social de orden ético …

Augusto Roa Bastos1


The origins of the novel in Cuba are irrevocably linked to the internal contradictions and inconsistencies of the institution of slavery, the repressive policies of the colony, and the polar dynamics of Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Realism, Costumbrismo and Eclecticism. As a consequence, an exclusionary analysis of the early narratives, that is, their examination from either a purely literary, philosophic, socioeconomic or political perspective is bound to yield distorted and fragmentary results2; whereas a comprehensive methodology, even of the limited disciplinary scope provided in this study, will hopefully clarify some of the more perplexing genetic questions raised by their reading and provide a foundation for the further study of the special nature of their attitudes, concepts, perspectives, themes, language and style.

The first Cuban novels, largely historical, sentimental or antislavery in theme,3 have attracted scant critical attention.4 With respect to literary chronology, the antislavery narratives date from 1838, the period to which the first stirrings of the island's Romantic literature can be traced, and thus, there is a tendency to consider them products of the aesthetics of Romanticism. However, Cuban Romanticism must be examined in conjunction with other literary traditions, particularly, with a contemporary, intertwined, self-conscious, critical costumbrista expression whose significance, insofar as the antislavery novels are concerned, cannot be divorced from the history of the period. It seems to us especially significant, for example, that they first appeared in 1838, the year which, according to Ramiro Guerra, signaled the defeat, dispersal and, ultimately, the silence of the liberals and reformists of the island.5 Their growing fears of personal reprisals for acts of opposition or even thoughts of disconformity in the face of ever more restrictive colonial edicts gave rise to a generational concern for human freedom6 whose expression was sometimes veiled, at times distorted, in order to escape the vigilant eye of the viceroyal censors. Richard Henry Dana established the origins of this oppressive atmosphere even earlier—1825—from which time forward,

… vestiges of anything approaching to popular assemblies, juntas, a jury, independent tribunals, a right of voting, or a right to bear arms, have vanished from the island. The press is under censorship; and so are the theatres and operas. When “I Puritani” is played, the singers are required to substitute Lealtà for Libertà, and one singer was fined and imprisoned for recusancy; and Facciolo, the printer of a secretly circulated newspaper, advocating the cause of Cuban independence was garroted. The power of banishing, without a charge made, or a trial, or even a record, but on the mere will of the Captain-General, persons whose presence he thinks, or professes to think, prejudicial to the government, whatever their condition, rank, or office, has been frequently exercised and hangs at all hours over the head of every Cuban.7

This stifling milieu, a critical costumbrista tradition, the incipient polemic over Romantic aesthetics aired (1838) in El Album and the Diario de la Habana, dissatisfaction with the colonial regime on the part of the enlightened criollos, as well as their humanitarian concerns and economic anxieties over slavery, produced a narrative representing a countercolonial statement in support of human liberty: the antislavery narrative which depicted the slave pitted against an inalterable fate in an unjust social order.8


If one views the archetypical thematic constructs of these novels in a vacuum, and misjudges, for example, their emotional tone or their striking distortion of the slave's character, it would be logical to identify them as nothing more than a product of Romanticism's early sway. To defend this facile, simplistic attribution, however, one would have to ignore the novel's economic, political, philosophic, moral and literary contexts.

To begin with, the antislavery novels, from both an aesthetic and ideological viewpoint, were largely the product of Domingo del Monte's literary tertulias. They were commissioned by him, owed their inspiration to his leadership, and, more often than not, were modified in response to his criticism. Anselmo Suárez y Romero, Felix Tanco y Bosmeniel, José Jacinto Milanés, José Antonio Echeverría, Juan Francisco Manzano, Ramón de Palma and Cirilo Villaverde were major writers of this generation, and devotees or disciples of Del Monte on whom they relied, to varying degrees, for guidance in the writing of their prose or poetry. Suárez y Romero, whose novel Francisco provides an abundant source of prototypical exemplification, in an 1839 letter to Del Monte, establishes Francisco as a commissioned work; begs his mentor to tell him frankly “the defects of my novel … to correct those errors which lend themselves to correction,” and finally, invites his correspondent to “consider my novel yours and dispose of it as you wish”.9 Elsewhere he describes how Del Monte encouraged young writers with his patience, his firmness, his elegance and his firm criticism.10

On the basis of this as well as other testimonies, it is abundantly clear that we are dealing with a literature which, in large measure, represented a community of shared interests and talents. For this very reason, many of the antislavery novels of the early period must be viewed as works that reflect in a very conscious way the prevailing ideologies and aesthetics of the period, that is, those of Del Monte and José Antonio Saco, the pillars and catalysts of the educational and cultural development of this generation.11


Del Monte's influence in questions of literary sensibility was decisive. He was a defender of the cultural and linguistic unity of Cuba and Spain; a Neoclassic at heart, yet acquainted with Romantic literature; he espoused spiritual, moral, Christian values; and was one of the island's major disciples of Victor Cousin's Eclectic philosophy. Whenever possible he attempted to channel creative efforts in the direction of a didactic, moral literary expression closer to the canons of Neoclassic than to Romantic art. In 1838, he developed these very ideas in El Album, where he wrote of the poet's debt to society, underscoring his primary responsibility: He is a man before he is a poet, “and as such he will use all the sources of his talent to cooperate with all the other artists and philosophers of the century … to improve the conditions of his fellow man, spreading among them exact and wholesome ideas of morality and religion.”12 He asked for an almost militant spirit in the service of mankind, for otherwise literature would be, as Bentham claimed, a puerile and useless game.13

This insistence on a moral, elevating, social expression meshes with the strain of costumbrista literature, alluded to earlier, generating a socially-conscious aesthetic and ideology, too frequently neglected in evaluating the figure of the slave in the novel. It is more common to draw the conclusion reached by Portuondo that the amorous dialogues and constant tears in a novel such as Francisco belong to the purest traditions of the Romantic school.14


One is tempted to question just how much in these novels is “pure Romantic tradition” and how much an artfully conceived, veiled counterstatement, an encoded reaction to the stifling, repressive environment in which these writers lived and wrote.15 Del Monte himself, though a patrician of no mean privilege, suffered at the hands of the colonial censors who struck eight lines of antislavery sentiment from his Romances cubanos. Having experienced this painful blow, is it not conceivable that while in theory he preferred a novel based on reflected reality, that is, a tortured slave, he was prepared to accept the turning of “pure Romantic” conventions to the social purpose of evoking sympathy for the figure of an idealized protagonist, given the fact that only a nonrealistic portrait would be acceptable to the official censors or the conservative criollos? If one studies the slave's Rousseauean nobility, his pacific nature, his sometimes excessively passionate character, his pastoral, idealized romances; in short, if one studies such allegedly Romantic traits against the ideological, philosophic and political aspirations of Del Monte and his contertulianos, or traces the evolution of the slave's depiction against a chronological schema of the Cuban slave system's vicissitudes, insights that transcend the simplistic Romantic characterization come into focus. Moreover, with regard to the antithetical pull of Realism and Romanticism, it is important to keep in mind that the costumbrista tradition, as Portuondo suggests, was a “process of Romantic literature” which on the one hand represents “the satisfaction, the pleasure of painting oneself … and on the other … correcting certain social errors, certain customs, for the benefit of the same class.”16

It is not surprising therefore, as Francisco González del Valle observed, that “young writers [of 1836-1840] wished to reform customs by placing the social evils of their time in bold relief,” nor that “a moralizing tendency … dominated the youth even to the prejudice of art.” It was “essential to improve customs, to awaken the sentiments of goodness and justice, and to that noble task the noble and generous souls who wished to see the slave trade and slavery abolished devoted themselves.”17

González del Valle exaggerates in lumping abolition with suppression of the trade. For while early examples in support of abolitionism are to be found in Cuba's literature on slavery, even Francisco de Arango y Parreño's prudent 1816 “Ideas sobre los medios de establecer el libre comercio de Cuba y de realizar un empréstito de veinte millones de pesos,” frightened most in his period. So negative was the consensus of opinion on the question, that as late as 1841, El Lugareño wrote that the state of affairs in Cuba was so miserable “that not even in a rational way was it possible to speak [freely of abolition], because one is labelled an insurgent, or an abolitionist, which is worse than an insurrectionist.”18 Thus, up to 1860, and certainly until the conclusion of the Escalera affair, the aim of the antislavery writers, given their ties with the economic interests of the plantation owners, was a gradual, forward-looking and humanitarian policy of limiting the growth of slaves through the enforcement of the slave traffic treaties. Translated into artistic terms, this attitude suggested the advisability of encouraging a mild rather than a bold or rebellious antislavery narrative, one in which the slave might draw tears from the reader rather than cries of fear or horror.

For all of these reasons, the Del Monte group, in developing the budding anti-slavery works, chose to temper Realism with Romanticism.19 They instilled in the novelists a concern for presenting reality faithfully; did not discourage idealized “exceptions”; but frowned upon the inflamatory, violent individualist tendencies of some of the European Romantic models.20 Their ideal was the negro racional,21 the criada de razón.22 But, if the slave was idealized in the early period, his portrayal as a being superior to his reality was, as already indicated, a socially-determined exigency and not the mere result of a derivative Romantic characterization.

In this idealization process, “white” ideals were imposed on the slave by the novelists in the interest of presenting a victim of society, unlikely to alienate the conservative elements of the sacarocracy that staunchly defended the principle of the slave's tyrannization—tiranizar o correr el riesgo de ser tiranizado23 and the continuation of the illegal slave trade. The resultant pathetic being would, it was hoped, not only win converts to the criollo's humanitarian cause, but also court the mercy and justice of foreign readers, especially the English,24 who, in turn, might bring pressure to bear on the Spanish crown to enforce the slave treaties. All in all, Del Monte and his followers hoped to use the literature of the first period to cure a social cancer, not through abolition, envisioned only in the second period, but by reversing or at least halting the growing imbalance of white to black population, which many feared could eventually bring a repetition of the Haitian rebellion to Cuba.


For Del Monte and his disciples, the docile slave was also a source of poetic inspiration, an exotic costumbrista component of a national tradition, or, as Milanés puts it (1836), a “mine of our best poetry.”25 Yet, if this was so, perhaps we need to scrutinize more thoroughly the contradictions raised by this view on the one hand, and Del Monte's insistence on stark realism on the other. Or, is it simply a case, once again, of social caution overriding literary convictions to the extent that, as Varela and Giner suggested in 1834, “in no other matter should there be more prudence than in the manifestation of truth”?26

A close examination of some of the controversial issues raised by Francisco may shed light on these quandaries. We know, for example, that Del Monte at one point was unhappy with Francisco's idealization and excessive docility.27 Responding to this criticism, Suárez y Romero, in his correspondence with Del Monte, reports an exchange of ideas with Milanés, the implications of which, in our view, constitute the nucleus of the basis for understanding the philosophic, ideological and literary complexities of the slave's characterization:

I wrote Milanés what you criticized in my novel, and he answered me among other things, the following, which I transcribe—“So you should have painted Francisco evil to have painted him with truth?28 Certainly slavery depraves the heart; but are we not counting on the temperate and pacific nature of the individual? Do we not see all the time slaves with a sweet nature who work tirelessly and contentedly without going beyond the circle of servile ideas in which they live? I do not believe you shortchanged on truth by painting Francisco of humble and melancholy disposition; for although his character is not very common, it exists and even its very exceptionality ought to excite a double interest in the work in which it shines.”29

Suárez's transmittal of Milanés' ideas suggests an early critical reaction to Romanticism30 among these writers, presumably in favor of Del Monte's espousal of Balzacian Realism. In addition, Milanes' reference to counting on the temperate nature of the slave, and to the notion of exciting interest, underscores the socially utilitarian aspect of the antislavery novel's characteristics. And, finally, the question of exceptionality, which is especially pertinent, represents a notion that can be equated either with individuality or with an antithetic principle whose existence in these novels is too frequently identified with Romanticism. In explaining its presence, it...

(The entire section is 6840 words.)