Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Sophia Peabody Hawthorne's "Cuba Journal": A Link between Cultures

Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Sophia Peabody Hawthorne's "Cuba Journal": A Link between Cultures

Article excerpt

My dearest Mother, a brilliant dawn attracted me out of bed and to a very early ride this morning, and the singing of the birds in the orangery were the only audible sounds of thanks giving; the only sound that broke the sabbeth [sic] stillness of nature. The dews are so heavy here that the world seems just made every morning. At the tip of every leaf hangs a jewel, which if value were to be measured by beauty should not be mentioned with the diamond, and every green thing looks polished and new & the inexpressibly [sic] claritude of the atmosphere allows you to penetrate further into the infinite above and around than it is possible to do in our climate. (19 Wedy, Badaracco 58) (1)

The passage is taken from the letter Sophia Peabody Hawthorne wrote to her mother on March 19, 1834, from La Recompensa, the plantation in Cuba where she stayed from December 1833 to May 1835, recording her personal impressions and feelings, which were later collected in the "Cuba Journal." The lines are themselves an introduction to Sophia's approach to the island. They give voice to the author's very special observations about its attractiveness and about her own absorption of its features, translating them for her audience in terms of visual as well as of sensuous significance.

The tone of the description is one of absolute wonder: nature in Cuba is so strikingly beautiful that it transcends ordinary imagery. Just as Columbus's "Journal of the First Voyage to America" (2) reads as an archetype of the first encounter of a European with the effulgence of the American landscape, so Sophia Peabody's "Cuba Journal" reads as an archetype of an encounter of a New Englander with another America. Her Puritan upbringing, her artistic goals, and her education were met with a world that, on the one hand, stood in opposition to her previous experiences, and on the other, fulfilled her artistic aspirations. In colonial Cuba, social conventions and customs were radically different from those of her austere Bostonian background, and, as we shall see, it was precisely because of such differences that she was able to widen her horizons beyond the intellectual climate of her own environs. Notwithstanding its sophisticated and enlightened cultural development, her milieu did suffer from a self-referential ethos, biased as it was towards the affirmation of its Puritan American identity and, at the same time, a still lively fascination for European culture. Cuba offered Sophia the touch of an unknown leisurely tenor of life, which she reported in great detail, thus stirring the curiosity of her Bostonian friends, who were enthralled by her descriptions. The unexpected attractiveness of the island aroused in her a passion for depicting its nuances in letters and drawings of singular care, both reflecting the delicacy of her sensibility and artistic bent, her adherence to the spirit of the transcendentalist tenets she cultivated, and her desire to absorb wider realities than those in which she grew up. Nature in all its tropical splendor offered her a tangible experience of Emersonian philosophy. In describing a sunset and subsequent thunderstorm, she wrote:

Such a sunset!!! Alas! How unspeakably magnificent. It has all come suddenly too--as if from the overflowing horn of Infinite beauty had unawares poured out the very effervescence of the cup--There has been a thunderstorm--truly tropical--I could think of nothing but the battle of the angels described by Milton [...]--The rattling, crashing, growling claps were sometimes overpowered by one long peal afar off--& that seemed the voice of GOD heard above the din of combat. (Tuesday 8th, Badaracco 117)

She thus depicted a communion between her emotional perception of nature's "Infinite beauty" and her intellectual and religious beliefs, singularly connecting her North American persona with that of the Caribbean world.

Turning toward a softer climate

The sojourn in the tropical island was undertaken to cure Sophia from the headaches which had plagued her for a decade, and which had developed into an almost chronic ailment from 1829 on. …

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