Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Simms's Vasconselos: A Multicultural Reading

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Simms's Vasconselos: A Multicultural Reading

Article excerpt

William Gilmore Simms's Vasconselos, A Romance of the New World (1853) provides a surprisingly multicultural perspective on the colonial process taking place in sixteenth-century Cuba and Florida. While ambiguous regarding his general treatment of subaltern groups, Simms demonstrates unusually favorable representation of Native Americans in this novel. Its conclusion, in particular, which celebrates the marriage between the Portuguese hero Philip Vasconselos and the Indian queen Cocalla, permits the reader to envision a future hybrid American culture. Because this novel challenges the views of some critics, an examination of Vasconselos (1) from a multicultural perspective provides insight into Simms's interpretation of the colonial process and the future of America. On one level, we see Simms's ambiguity in his views of history and literature as these contribute to national progress. On another, we recognize that Simms's ambiguity reflects the time in which he writes. His literary and political themes seem, to some degree, to be in conflict. However, it is worthwhile to examine how Simms anticipates cultural hybridity, a theme that is still difficult to advance, even in some subaltern literature. Simms furthermore ridicules the intrusive, dominant Spanish culture, promoting the values of the marginalized cultures that the Spanish believed to be inferior.

Vasconselos, with its inclusion of various cultural encounters, concludes with a mediated cultural view. Often, it appears to be an anti-colonialist text as it exposes the practices of the Spanish in their mission of conquest. On numerous occasions, the narrator describes the characteristics of the Spanish conquistador in a negative light, concluding of many individuals, and the group in general, that they are characteristically greedy, with even the most admirable associated with them being capable of murder. In contrast, the symbolic marriage of Philip Vasconselos and Cocalla, representative of both patriarchal and matriarchal societies, indicates foresight in Simms's anticipation of the multicultural society that defines our nation today. From this perspective, the novel invites a postcolonial reading with emphasis on multicultural understanding.

Twentieth-century Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin's literary and cultural concept of heteroglossia might be summarized simply as "everything counts." (2) The time, place, persons, ethnicities, and sociopolitics in operation at the time of Simms's writing, and in the epoch which he re-creates, are all influenced by numerous forces determining the novel Simms produced and the ideas it conveys. According to Bakhtin, the novelist welcomes heteroglossia and cultural diversity. Oppositional forces, as it were, provide the novelist with the encounters and conflicts needed to produce the work, particularly in the case of historical fiction. Furthermore, Bakhtin insists. "we must deal with the life and behavior of discourse in a contradictory and multi-languaged world" (275). By "multi-languaged," Bakhtin means the language that each culture uses, and how various meanings and values are expressed by each. These present some of the matrices of forces in a novel such as Vasconselos, although they are often merged in the single, negotiated voice of the narrator. Keeping this notion of heteroglossia in mind, this essay will examine oppositional forces in operation in the novel in order to see how Simms ultimately negotiates them. The oppositions that Simms may either resolve or leave in conflict should provide us with his perspective on the "New World." It will therefore help to consider Simms's political view of the growing nation in relation to his treatment of subalterns in Vasconselos.

Undeniably, Simms was interested in the progress of the nation and the role that literature played in the writing of the country's history. David Moltke-Hansen provides the perspective that

   Progress was a fashionable concept in the nineteenth century. … 
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