The recent comparative literary study of the Americas has produced innovative literary histories that have forced us to rethink the relationship between literature and nation-formation. The brief though significant period of trans-American literary camaraderie in the early decades of the nineteenth century aimed at producing an inspiring aesthetics for the Americas. Poets, both Spanish and Anglo-American, read and translated one another’s work.1 This was a moment of great possibility, matched as well by the flourishing of scientific explorations of the Americas where Spanish and Anglo-Americans, who now simply referred to themselves all as “Americans,” shared with one another their knowledge of their vast territories. But by the 1830s [End Page 184] this spirit of brotherhood quickly gave way, on the one hand to US imperial interest and, on the other, to the fragmentation of Spanish America into competing nations. Yet the epistemological work entailed in the making of nations required, first, a vaster, far-reaching rethinking of the cosmos, one about which Spanish and British America had, from the very outset of their colonial periods, already diverged. In short, it required viewing the world not as an immutable order in which everyone and everything had its particular station but as a world that was imagined and actively produced by humans. In this, the poetry of the revolutionary Spanish American José María Heredia and his Anglo-American translator William Cullen Bryant reveals the metaphysical crisis in the making of the modern world. It’s through translation, as we’ll see, that the pathos of disenchantment is best expressed.
The late-eighteenth-century Hispanic world—both Spain and Spanish America—was embroiled in a variety of struggles that sought to ameliorate the impoverished conditions of the Hispanic Atlantic. But just as it appeared that the programs of reform would perhaps transform conditions, a world-shattering event occurred that would forever alter the course of reform and revolution.2 In May 1808, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Spain and deposed the king. For centuries, the trinity of God, king, and language had sutured the Hispanic world, serving as the foundation for an imagined community. But now, overnight, they had lost their sovereign, a loss that forced Hispanics to rethink the nature of sovereignty. Ensconced in the tradition of Catholic political thought, a legacy now all but forgotten, Hispanics created Spain’s first modern parliament and, by 1812, its first liberal constitution. But the restoration of the king in 1814 brought an end to this brief period of creative experimentation. The king tore the constitution to shreds, disbanded parliament, and reinstated authoritarian rule. The Hispanic world would soon thereafter erupt in a global civil war. In Spanish America, the civil war would, over the course of the 1810s, become wars of independence.
Historians have addressed the political history of the wars of independence. But what has been discussed less has been the existential turmoil in which Spanish Americans lived. Many were left with great uncertainty: if the king could be deposed, then what would go next— God? In effect, within a short decade, the Hispanic world was forced to confront its torturous process of disenchantment, of seeing the world not as a received order but as a produced order. The case for British America is much more familiar. In short, the process of dislodging the authority of God took more than a century, from the sixteenth-century [End Page 185] Reformation and the 1688 Glorious Revolution through the late-eighteenth-century British American struggles for sovereignty. Their histories may have diverged with the Reformation, but now, with independence, their paths had met once again.
It is in this context that the trans-American revolutionary poet José María Heredia arrived in Boston in 1823. Following in the footsteps of other exiled revolutionaries from throughout the Atlantic world, Heredia fled his native Cuba when authorities discovered his participation in a planned insurrection. Born in Santiago de Cuba in 1803, Heredia spent most of his life throughout the circum-Caribbean: in Santo Domingo, Venezuela, Cuba, and Mexico. An apparent prodigy, by the age of six he could translate Horace. By sixteen he had published his poems in...