Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Mary Peabody Mann's Juanita: Cuba and US National Identity

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Mary Peabody Mann's Juanita: Cuba and US National Identity

Article excerpt

Mary Peabody Mann's recently recovered novel Juanita: A Romance of Real Life in Cuba Fifty Years Ago (1887) is a sentimental, oftentimes Gothic excoriation of 1830s Cuban slavery. After traveling from her native New England to Cuba, the novel's protagonist Helen Wentworth confronts the horrors of Cuban slavery. These horrors include the moral degeneration of Helen's childhood friend Isabella following Isabella's marriage to a Cuban planter, as well as the tragic romance between Isabella's son Ludovico and the family's Moorish servant Juanita, a romance impeded by Cuban strictures against interracial union. Juanita has recently garnered critical attention as a compelling domestic abolitionist novel. (1) However, this criticism has generally neglected to examine one of the novel's more curious aspects: its unusual composition and publication history. Mann conceived Juanita during her 1833-35 visit to Cuba, where she and her sister Sophia went in hopes of renewing the invalid Sophia's health. During the stay, Mann took notes on Cuban slavery that she intended to use in an abolitionist novel. She began writing after she returned to the States and finished a draft prior to the Civil War. However, according to her sister Elizabeth's explanatory afterword, Mann delayed publication because she feared the novel's unflattering portrayal of Cuba would offend her former hosts. After their death, she returned to the novel and planned for publication, but it remained unpublished when she died in 1887. Elizabeth oversaw the novel's publication later that year. (2) Its appearance after emancipation occurred in both Cuba and the United States seemingly makes it an abolitionist novel without a purpose. It thus contains awkward anachronisms and narratorial tensions. Its sentimental and gothic literary conventions and abolition theme reflect mid-century sensibilities and concerns, while its title and some of its narratorial commentary look back on these issues from the late nineteenth century (see Ard xii). How are we to historically contextualize and make sense of the purpose of such a novel?

The case becomes clearer when Juanita is placed in the context of US-Cuban relations as they evolved during the nineteenth century. While its abolitionism seems out of place for a novel published after both US and Cuban emancipation, its representation of Cuba registers issues spanning its mid-century composition and late-century revision and publication. Mann likely thought the novel could speak to these issues both when she began writing and, perhaps even more so, when she returned to the novel. This is true particularly of such issues as they relate to the intersections between US slavery and expansionism. During the antebellum period, various US interests sought the US annexation of Cuba. Such projects were generally spearheaded by Southerners eager to enlarge the number of slave states. In its representation of such proposals, Juanita's criticisms of Cuban society often suggest the benefits Cuba might experience from union with the United States; the novel, though, rejects antebellum annexationism on antislavery grounds. However, the United States continued to entertain annexationist proposals and imperial ambitions during the postbellum period, after slavery's demise in the United States. These ambitions culminated in the Spanish-American War, when US expansionists successfully argued that the United States should become an imperial power and wrest colonial possessions from Spain. Mann's novel was published shortly before this climax. Mann likely decided to publish at this time because she believed the novel lent clarity to developing US-Cuban relations. Although the fact that she had written most of Juanita before the Civil War suggests that she only minimally revised the novel to attune it to postbellum concerns, she may have believed that it could function as a historical narrative that could explain the foundations of Cuban society to US readers. …

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