restricted access Chapter 5. An American Mediterranean: Haiti, Cuba, and the American South
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96 5 CCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCC An American Mediterranean Haiti, Cuba, and the American South MATTHEW PR ATT GUTER L A line from the Delta of the Orinoco to the east end of Cuba is but a thousand miles long; and yet, to the west of it, lies this magnificent basin of water, locked in by a continent that has on its shores the most fertile valleys of the earth. All and more, too, that the Mediterranean is to Europe, Africa, and Asia, this sea is to America and the world. —Matthew F. Maury, “Gulf of Mexico” (1854) Octavia Walton was a classic Southern “belle.” She was also widely regarded as “one of nature’s cosmopolites, a woman to whom the whole world was home.”1 The granddaughter of Virginian George Walton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Octavia had been raised in the polyglot surrounds of Pensacola, a frontier naval port in the Florida territory, and schooled in a half dozen languages and literatures by an “old Scottish tutor.” She grew up with the children of Anglophone colonists, Spanish settlers, Haitian exiles, mulattoes, slaves, and Seminoles, and earned great fame in the South for her internationalist orientation, her “linguistic versatility” in Spanish, Italian and French, and her “sympathetic and assimilating faculty,” which allowed her great rapport with others, and enabled her to find comfort in any location or cultural setting.2 Henry Clay, Lafayette, Washington Irving, and Fredrika Bremer—a varied group, to be sure—found her utterly enchanting, and marveled at her social dexterity and her global wit. As a young woman, Walton was an object of excitement, it seems, largely because these “talents” accompanied her maturation at that place along the Gulf Coast where the residues of French, Spanish, and English empires were blended. She was, people assumed, a reflection of the near future of the American South, as former colonies and tribal lands were subsumed into the expanding slaveholding region of the United States, and as various AN AMERICAN MEDITERRANEAN 97 cultures and languages and races came together in new and unpredictable ways. In 1836, after moving to Mobile, Alabama, another port city drawing ships, people, and commerce from around the world, she married Henry S. Le Vert, a young French émigré and surgeon, and thereafter styled herself as “Madame Le Vert.” As the quintessence of Southern cosmopolitanism, she possessed an extraordinary measure of “social sovereignty,” and became, as her contemporaries remembered it, the appointed arbiter of high culture along the outer rim of the Gulf of Mexico.3 Her carefully orchestrated sitting room “Mondays” were sophisticated affairs, drawing weekly visits from the most polished sorts of people in Mobile, as well as guests from Europe, from the West Indies, and from across the South. In between social appointments, Le Vert labored to translate Cuban poetry into English, corresponded with poets and politicians, and traveled the world.4 She was, in sum, a peerless exemplar of the hemispherics of the mid-century South—at home in the world of ideas, fluent in myriad languages and literatures, and a literal product of the slaveholding world of the American Mediterranean. In 1857, after two decades of aristocratic prominence, Le Vert collected her intimate letters—most of them written to friends and family while she was abroad—and had them published with the unassuming title of Souvenirs of Travel. Published in Mobile, Souvenirs was a rare Southern travelogue, and offers a precious glimpse into the antebellum travels of elite white women. The book was well received, or at least Le Vert’s considerable vanity allowed her to claim such a reception. Her missives, when arranged in sequence, provide a rich portrait of her two trips to popular historic sites in Europe, and demonstrate her familiarity with European literature and culture, and her personal friendships with Continental glitterati. Madame Le Vert, it seemed, knew all the right people. In its efforts to document this intimate knowledge of important things and royal personages, then, Souvenirs reveals itself to be a part of the pronounced nineteenth-century Southern effort to redefine the region as intellectually serious and cultured, with stronger links to Europe than to the literary nationalism of Emerson, and to overturn its reputation as a crude and uncivilized backwater through the establishment and promotion of ornamental soirées and literary circles. Southerners imagined themselves, Michael O’Brien writes, as “the custodians of empire,” and drew deeply from European history and culture to provide “order” for...


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Subject Headings

  • Migrations of nations.
  • America -- Intellectual life.
  • American literature -- History and criticism.
  • Latin American literature -- History and criticism.
  • Ethnic groups in literature.
  • America -- Civilization.
  • America -- Study and teaching (Higher).
  • Western Hemisphere -- Study and teaching (Higher).
  • United States -- Study and teaching (Higher).
  • America -- Race relations.
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