- Maria Gowen Brooks, In and Out of the Poe Circle
May I rise from the flames and fragments of her who is deplored, even as a phoenix, though less brilliant.—Idomen; or, The Vale of Yumurí (1838)
The fictional account of the making of a woman poet offered in Maria Gowen Brooks's 1838 novel Idomen is unusually concerned with reception, reputation, and the construction of posthumous authorial legend. Idomen Burleigh's tragic life is recounted in fragments to one Herman Albrecht, a sensitive German living in Cuba who sees in her a rare talent, one whose burning desire to write great poems vies with her equally impassioned devotion to the wrong man. Idomen in a related poem dismisses a rival in love with a verse containing this scornful epithet: "She burns but with a common flame."1 But with literary and bodily passions thwarted, Idomen—the uncommon flame—has no air left to burn: in a kind of self-immolation that reiterates an earlier suicide attempt, she contracts a tropical fever that drives her toward the river, where she drowns. Albrecht attempts to reconstruct her, reading the documents she left behind and guessing at the contents of those she burned in hopes of resurrecting a "phoenix" from her "flames and fragments," which have passed through various hands and different languages. The difficult life, and pointedly difficult-to-get-at afterlife, of the fictive Idomen appears to fit neatly into a powerful nineteenth-century figuration of the Poetess "as improvisatrice, as statue or art [End Page 75]
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object produced for man's pleasure, as abandoned woman"—to borrow Linda Peterson's characterization of Leticia E. Landon ("L.E.L.").2 The novel's preface hints, moreover, that Idomen, like L.E.L.'s History of the Lyre (1829), comes "from life," and Brooks's own construction of an exotic authorial persona—she published all her mature works as Maria del Occidente—would seem to perform the same coquettish gesture at truth behind a veil.
As I will argue here, however, the reception history of Brooks's work labors under an overfidelity to the presumed truth-value of that novel, leading to the common misrepresentation that she did not participate in the periodical-driven literary marketplace of her time because of her protracted residence in Cuba, and thus remained relatively unknown. But a larger oversight rests in criticism's failure to register the pointed hopelessness of Albrecht's effort to reconstruct the "flames and fragments" of his idolized genius into a stable subject—and the implications of that failure for our understanding of Brooks's authorship. Although Idomen represents a recognizable type of the nineteenth-century Poetess—an unhappy figure struggling to sublimate her own emotional overflows into confessional lyric—that type does not in fact correspond to the persona cultivated by the novel's author. Through a closer examination of the circulation of both Brooks's texts and the persona of Maria del Occidente, I want to contribute to the growing body of work on the construction of the Poetess—"less a person than a persona that emerges during a time when poetry is increasingly defined in terms of its personifying function," as Yopie Prins reminds us. Prins and Virginia Jackson have importantly described the Poetess as "an increasingly empty figure: not a lyric subject to be reclaimed as an identity but a medium for cultural exchange, a common name upon which much depends, including the definition of lyric as a genre."3
Brooks threw off her married name to occupy the figurative body of Maria del Occidente yet inevitably was grouped with others under the common name of Poetess. Some very specific cultural transmissions took place through her persona in the form of nationalist rivalries and transatlantic visions, the in-between site of her "Occidente" (a western province [End Page 77] of Cuba, and by extension the dawning West) laying claim to a new space of poetic production. What she published was...