- Calypso Magnolia: The Crosscurrents of Caribbean and Southern Literature by John Wharton Lowe
Constructing the South through a circum-Caribbean lens, John Lowe’s Calypso Magnolia calls us to expand our definitions of the South and Southern literature in much the same way that scholars such as Michael Bibler, R. Scott Heath, and others proposed in “Adjust Your Maps: Manifestos from, for, and about United States Southern Studies” in a recent issue of PMLA. Lowe’s study is “mindful of the complex history that has shaped and reshaped the circum-Caribbean and how the invention of national units has obscured a conception of a cultural and geographical region,” and he highlights the crosscurrents that bind the Caribbean, southern United States, and Mexico together in one contiguous region made up of varying [End Page 331] intersecting cultures (7). To trace this “complex history,” Lowe examines a wide range of texts spanning almost two hundred years and multiple geographic locales.
Through discussion of the “tropical sublime,” Lowe highlights the ways that writers from the contiguous U. S. Southern states wrote about their experiences and encounters with the Caribbean and Mexico during the Mexican-American War and its aftermath. Serving as a crucial event in regards to the relationship between the circum-Caribbean and the U. S. South, the Mexican-American War provided the nation with texts that presented Mexico and the Caribbean as “feminized in order to be ‘taken’ by her northern lover, the United States” in order to expand plantation slavery into new regions (21). The intersections with Southern ports, particularly New Orleans and its Spanish and French cultural history, prepared soldiers for their experiences during the war in Mexico and beyond. In his examination of Raphael Semmes’s and Arthur Manigault’s military/travel memoirs during the Mexican-American War and William Clark Falkner’s The Spanish Heroine (1851), Lowe shows how the war exposed Southerners to Caribbean culture. Semmes, Manigault, and Falkner all present the Caribbean and Mexico as spaces that must be tamed and “civilized”; however, as Lowe points out, the war also led to “a massive intercultural dialectic” between the regions (56). This is the most important aspect that leads us to an understanding of what Lowe terms the “South of the South,” an exchange of cultures across constructed nationalistic boundaries.
During the nineteenth century, Cuba, an island only about ninety miles off the coast of Florida, had long existed as a site where Southern slaveholders and others sought to extend the boundaries of the United States. Thomas Jefferson even claimed that it would make a great addition to the nation. However, the island also served as a space for possible revolution and insurrection against racial injustice and the institution of slavery. As such, Lowe explores these two aspects in regards to the “Cuban imaginary” by looking at Lucy Holcomb Pickens’s 1854 novel The Free Flag of Cuba and Martin Delany’s 1859 serialized novel Blake; or, the Huts of America: A Tale of the Mississippi Valley, the Southern United States, and Cuba. Deftly, Lowe uses Pickens’s and Delany’s novels to highlight the historical milieu leading up to the Civil War and to show how even someone like Delany can fall prey to becoming a colonizer. However, this does not diminish the fact that Delany’s text worked as a plow to plant the seeds of revolt in the South through its hemispheric representations of slavery.
While the nineteenth century saw Cuba as a space for expansion and/or revolution, Lowe concludes Calypso Magnolia with an examination of twentieth- and twenty-first-century Cuban American writers such as Virgil Suarez, Roberto Fernández, Gustavo Pérez Firmat, Christina García, and others as they seek to reconstruct Cuba as a homeland while living in exile. Here, Lowe looks at the works in relation to the sentiment of the “lost cause” that U. S. Southerners had after the Civil War, and well into the twentieth century. Like the U. S. South, texts by authors...