Kornweibel on García, 'Gothic Geoculture: Nineteenth-Century Representations of Cuba in the Transamerican Imaginary'

Ivonne M. García
Karen Kornweibel

Ivonne M. García. Gothic Geoculture: Nineteenth-Century Representations of Cuba in the Transamerican Imaginary. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2019. x + 170 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8142-1395-7.

Reviewed by Karen Kornweibel (East Tennessee State University) Published on H-LatAm (March, 2020) Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54404 

The political, economic, and cultural relationship between the United States and Cuba is a long and fraught one. The nineteenth century in particular saw an increasing fascination with Cuba on the part of its northern neighbor, a fascination heightened in the context of slavery and Manifest Destiny. From a US perspective, Cuba was a coveted, but complicated, bit of real estate, particularly as the conflict over slavery intensified. Many Cubans—particularly those in exile in the United States—had strong and varied opinions about the benefits and dangers of relationships the island might have with the United States. From the perspective of Cubans hoping to throw off the Spanish yoke, the United States had varied potential as a model, or ally, or nation to join, or threat to future sovereignty. The United States played a crucial role in how versions of Cuban identity were developed in the nineteenth century even as the island played a significant role in how US identity was renegotiated during the same period.

In her book, Gothic Geoculture: Nineteenth-Century Representations of Cuba in the Transamerican Imaginary, Ivonne M. García details representations of Cuba from the literary archive from the 1830s to 1890s. García’s study builds on the foundation of a growing body of scholarship that furthers our understanding of the literary and historical realities of the Americas by moving beyond national literatures to examine how shared experiences in the “New World,” like colonialism and slavery, led to analogous complexities in the way systems of race, gender, and nation developed. Positioning herself within this conversation, García employs the term “transamericanity” to capture this idea and her work is based on the “transamerican imaginary” that is most notably characterized in the nineteenth century by the geoculture of slavery. Her title, Gothic Geoculture, refers to what she effectively argues is the gothic nature of the representations of Cuba in the nineteenth-century transamerican imaginary. As she explains in the introduction, “Gothic Geoculture focuses on the juncture where the gothic and transamericanity meet, and where slavery, race, gender and nationality become imbricated discourses that not only serve to explain and justify, but also to challenge, US imperialist expansion in the region” (pp. 13-14).

García effectively situates her study in the historical and cultural context. Focusing on a number of different genres including travel guides, letters, novels, short stories, and essays, she explores how cultural production by both US and Cuban writers during this period drew on gothic themes such as “monstrosity, doubleness, corruption, possession, and infection” to represent Cuba as dangerous and/or imperiled (p. 5). García then discusses what these representations reveal about the political and cultural relationship between the island and the United States, and the breadth of genres covered lends strength to her overall argument. Although she frames the chapters as case studies—the first four of which focus on nuanced and apt close readings of pairs of texts by different authors, with the final one dedicated to several works by José Martí—her analysis has a clear arc as she demonstrates the way in which the nature of the gothicization of Cuba changed over time, most notably toward the end of the nineteenth century.

Each of García’s chapters develops a central aspect of gothic geoculture to further delineate the gothicization of Cuba in the transamerican imaginary over the course of the nineteenth century. The travel narratives of William Cullen Bryant and Nathaniel Parker Willis, García demonstrates, depict Cuba as a “corruptive gothiscape,” an unhealthy and often monstrous environment that threatens to infect or destroy visitors. Her close reading of the texts highlights how, from the perspective of the traveler from the north, the island functions as a destabilizing location where both climate and inhabitants can corrupt, particularly due to the blurring of categories (of race, gender, etc.) and the impact of the “Black Legend” that served to “weld the geoculture of slavery onto the Cuban landscape and people” (p. 41). García then develops the idea of “gothicized souths,” examining abolitionist works by Martin R. Delany and Louisa May Alcott. In one of her most interesting arguments, García shows how Delany and Alcott depict the island as being even more dangerous than the US South—“as a kind of south of the South” (p. 47). This serves the abolitionist stance of these authors by reinforcing the island’s dangerousness and demonstrating how southerners, like Cubans, are implicated in slavery and corrupted by it. Chapter 3 continues with the idea that Cuba is a threat because its people and geography have been corrupted by slavery. García explains that Sophia Peabody’s Cuba Journal (w. 1833-5) and her sister Mary Peabody Mann’s Juanita: A Romance of Real Life in Cuba Fifty Years Ago (1887) express “transgressive hauntings” brought about by their experiences on the island. Clearly indicating the extent of the threat posed by the island in these instances of the transamerican imaginary, García notes that “the novel suggests that US principles are not invulnerable and must be protected against Cuba’s corruptive influence” (p. 86). Thus she shows how Cuba becomes an important part of both pro-, and in this case anti-, imperial arguments in the United States. In turning her critical eye to the “gothic emplotments” in Cirilo Villaverde’s Cecilia Valdés (1839) and The Story of Evangelina Cisneros, Told by Herself (1898), García demonstrates a transition from threatening associations of Cuba with monsters and infection in Villaverde’s novel to works like Cisneros’s that employ the gothic to cast Cuba as the damsel in distress that should be rescued by US imperialism. The chapter on José Martí presents a late version of nineteenth-century gothic geoculture where the United States becomes the threat and the Cuban observer goes “inside the monster,” presenting a “decolonial transamericanity” as a counterdiscourse to US imperialism (p. 121). While her reading of Martí is not her most groundbreaking argument, his work is essential to understanding Cuba in this context, and García’s discussion of Martí’s use of monstrosity and other gothic themes offers further evidence of his anti-imperialism and commitment to Cuban independence.

In her conclusion, García notes that by documenting the literary gothic in the transamerican context, her study helps to decolonizie the gothic, which had long been understood using US- or British-centered models. While García’s work does present new readings of the gothic that others might engage to productively complicate our understanding of the genre, this work does not explicitly engage in a rethinking of the genre. Ultimately, Gothic Geoculture is most significant for how it enriches our understanding of nineteenth-century representations of Cuba, offering what García calls a “literary ‘prequel’ to historical and cultural scholarship on representations of Cuba immediately before and after the Spanish American War” (p. 15). This prequel highlights the “vexed” nature of the relationship between Cuba and the United States in the nineteenth century (p. 146). Understanding more of this story contributes to a deeper understanding of the current, and no less “vexed,” relationship between the two nations.

Citation: Karen Kornweibel. Review of García, Ivonne M., Gothic Geoculture: Nineteenth-Century Representations of Cuba in the Transamerican Imaginary. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. March, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54404

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