- States of Recollection:How Seventeenth-Century Women Thought about Recovery and the Atlantic World
In “The Tenth Muse: Gender, Rationality, and the Marketing of Knowledge,” Stephanie Jed asks important questions about the practices and institutions of European “discovery” at the moment when museums and curio cabinets were proliferating as depositories for New World artifacts and wonders, but she also asks important questions about recovery. In urging us to think about how the works of America’s “Tenth Muses”—Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Anne Bradstreet—circulated transatlantically, she also urges us to suspend for a moment our own marveling at the genius and resilience of these early American women poets and look more closely at the roots of that wonder. At the end of her essay, Jed imagines a seventeenth-century “‘natural history’ of literature from the ‘New World’” (206). Here she likens the collecting of Tenth Muses to Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo’s description in his Historia general y natural de las Indias of the iguana that he shipped in a barrel of earth to the chancellor of the Signoria in Venice in order to find out if it ate dirt. (Apparently it did not.) Jed implies that the works of extraordinary women in the Americas likewise circulated as objects of inquiry, deracinated and apt to dry out and die in their new archival homes. In order to breathe new life into these texts, productively to engage, as she puts it, in “the feminist project of producing new forms of relations and knowing,” she urges us to recognize the power relations structuring the “taxonomic ‘f-acts’” attributed to these texts and extending to present-day endeavors like the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (208).
Jed’s argument that Tenth Muse should be understood as a taxonomic category was groundbreaking, though it also risked overemphasizing the powerlessness of women writers once their writings enter the world. Texts are not iguanas, and the writers of texts, even colonial dames and nuns, are engaging [End Page 25] the discourses and power structures within which their texts circulated in a way that the poor iguana cannot, even if it were far more vicious than Oviedo reports. But what if we take Jed’s fiction of a “‘natural history’ of literature from the ‘New World’” as a challenge and explore how women in the seventeenth century can be understood to engage in corollaries to modern recovery projects? Women reported on the New World, helped shape emerging scientific discourses, and understood themselves as agents within both commercial and religious global enterprises. Sometimes they reported on other women, and often they represented these women as unknown or forgotten. By examining how seventeenth-century women practiced recovery—that is, by considering the efforts of women that came long before the far more familiar post-Enlightenment endeavors of the nineteenth-century women we are more apt to see as our scholarly precursors—we see how they not only participated in hermeneutical practices similar to our own but also helped to shape the development of these hermeneutics. We gain a better critical perspective on their activities while bringing into focus some of the colonial and imperial roots of our own discoveries and recoveries.
The spiritual diary of Ursula de Jesús, an Afro-Peruvian mystic, in many ways exemplifies seventeenth-century recovery. Enslaved until the age of forty, Ursula took vows as a donada, a convent servant, about a year after her manumission. She was already well known for her visions and had amanuenses assigned to record her diary; they occasionally offered asides in which they confessed, whether with humility or exasperation it is hard to say, their failures in recording all that Ursula said. In 2004, Nancy van Deusen produced an English edition with ample apparatus aimed at classroom use. For this recovery project she both transcribed the neglected manuscripts from the Convent of Santa Clara in Lima and translated and contextualized them for an English-speaking audience.1
Ursula is therefore the subject of recovery, and for those of us who collect early American women she is quite a find. But she also participated in these discourses. Constrained physically by both...