- The Case of the Ugly Suitor and Other Histories of Love, Gender, and Nation in Buenos Aires, 1776-1870
Although it is the courtship of Francisca Canicoba and her ugly suitor Gumersindo Arroyo that provides both the title and the narrative thread of this book, no less pronounced in it is the presence of Alexis de Tocqueville. Inspired by de Tocqueville's observation that the rise in democracy in the United States had weakened the power of the father within the family, Jeffrey Shumway sets himself the task of determining the relationship between nationhood and family structure in Argentina, Buenos Aires in particular, between 1776, when the city became the capital of the newly created viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata, and 1870, when the nation of Argentina, which had become independent in 1816, adopted its first civil code. How did family life and gender relations change, Shumway asks, during the transition from colony to nation?
In framing the broad question of his book in this way, Shumway eschews the traditional periodization of Argentina's past, one based on political criteria that privilege the shift from colony to independent nation to trace, instead, continuities and ruptures in family and gender, the shifting contours of which may or may not correspond to such political watersheds. The sources Shumway uses to answer this question, as well as the manner in which he privileges the voices of those whose testimonies, pleas and letters he encounters in the archives, echoes the concerns of many social and, more recently, cultural historians to give voice to those previously not given a prominent place in stories told about the nation. Finding both continuities and ruptures between the colonial and national period, Shumway argues that traditional ideals of family, along with gender norms and race and class discrimination confronted Enlightenment ideals, aspirations for change on the part of women and the legal community, and a need to imagine this new entity, the nation, in new ways. Although traditional ideas about family life and patriarchal power over wives and children lingered, society also became more secular. Women took a more active role in society's affairs, and couples received increasing support from the civil courts to override parental opposition, and social and racial prejudices, to marry the spouse of their choice. The need for stable families to people the nation with new and suitably motivated citizens trumped traditional attitudes. As Shumway concludes, [End Page 668] during the period between 1776 and 1870, Argentina moved toward a "more modern nationhood" at the same time that those living in Buenos Aires moved toward "a more modern family structure" (p. 141).
As may already be apparent, the interpretive framework adopted in this book is premised upon the juxtaposition of a series of dichotomous terms. Tradition confronts the modern; the real contrasts with the ideal; and continuity and/or change characterize the shift from old to the new. Although Shumway never proposes a simple linear transition from one of these terms to the other (he is interested in both what changed and what remained the same), such a framework nevertheless limits the kinds of conclusions he is able to draw. Distinguishing between the "real" and the "ideal," for example, leads him to treat his sources—which include disensos, child custody cases, divorce proceedings as well as newspapers, paintings and other literature—as "windows" that present "better-than-fiction" stories about those whom he chooses to treat. Such sources, like perhaps most others, seem to offer a murkier and obscured glimpse of attitudes, beliefs and practices rather than the clear view of the open window posited by Shumway. What is clear, however, is that Shumway has taken great care not only in setting out and supporting his argument but also in crafting a highly readable and accessible book. The men and women—parents, children, friends and lovers—whose stories introduce each chapter, are more than narrative devices; they are the...