- The Aesthetics of Our America:A Response to Susan Gillman
Susan Gillman has charted for us a learned and imaginative path that will allow us to move toward a conceptually rich comparative literary history of the Americas.1 Through a close reading of two essays by Roberto Fernández Retamar, Gillman reveals how he recuperates the figure of José Martí as central to an oblique, somewhat hidden literary history of the Americas. It was Martí's translation of Helen Hunt Jackson's Ramona (1884) that led Fernández Retamar to the revelation that Martí had indeed provided us with a method for thinking of a revolutionary literary tradition in the Americas. Fernández Retamar brings together four nineteenth-century feminist sentimental novels of reform: two from the US (Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin  and Jackson's Ramona ), one from Cuba (Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda's abolitionist Sab ), and one from Peru (Clorinda Matto de Turner's Aves sin nido ), and in doing so reveals a feminist hemispheric literary history centering around "the struggle against the enslavement of blacks and against the brutal treatment of indigenous Americans" (qtd in Gillman). Gillman argues that "Martí himself is the ultimate in this line of adaptation, both agent and object, founding father and missing link of a cultural genealogy not yet completed, that finds the past histories of Calibán in the future of Nuestra America." Here, then, is the essence of Gillman's project: a desire to produce a revolutionary, transformative concept of literature and culture in the Americas.
This is a different project for the study of the Americas than what American studies had been producing. Indeed, in her recently published essay, Gillman notes how American studies has perhaps exhausted its focus on empire and imperialism.2 Like good leftist [End Page 210] academics, American studies practitioners have exposed the soft underbelly of the US. They have revealed that the very foundation of the US, its celebration of democratic rhetoric, rests upon a masculinist, imperialist, racial ideology.3 But Gillman seeks to do something different. Instead of tearing apart the object of study, she seeks to be productive. She wants to be constructive rather than deconstructive, and she wants to bring together symbols, novels, and traditions rather than tear them asunder. Implied throughout her essay is a desire to move away from a focus solely on the pernicious history of the US. Instead, she would like to work toward a vision of our Americas that is critically celebratory.
The method Gillman advocates is that of adaptation. She cautions us against the perils of traditional "comparative studies," explaining how it inevitably posits linear histories of development, histories where Europe and the US become the standard for comparison to which the rest of the world so desperately needs to catch up. Instead, she suggests that adaptation offers "a different perspective, [one] based on uneven development and incommensurability. . . . [It] allows for thinking, simultaneously, of the multiple, formal interrelations between and among texts, along with other, different kinds of 'outsides' more conventionally associated with historical and social contexts." More specifically, in the case of the feminist literary tradition that Martí inaugurates—or, rather, perhaps we should now refer to the tradition inaugurated by the syntagm "Martí-Fernández Retamar-Gillman"—the various incarnations of Ramona (the translations, stage adaptations, etc.) "[look] backward, via Martí's prologue, to the shadow text of Uncle Tom's Cabin and the historical context of US slavery/abolition, and forward, via Fernández Retamar's 1973 essay, to a hemispheric women's reform tradition that doesn't emerge until later, in the context of the racial and gender politics of post-revolutionary Cuba" (12). The goal here is not so much to recover ignored texts—though she acknowledges the value of this work—as it is to work both diachronically and synchronically, to think historically and imaginatively, within and across time and space.
Martí is the perfect symbol for this method and project, and especially so his introduction to and translation of Helen Hunt Jackson's Ramona. Gillman notes how Fernández-Retamar sees the translated Ramona as a product...