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  • Archive
  • Danielle C. Skeehan

Archive, Empire, Queer Theory, Lieutenant Nun, New Spain, Monroe Doctrine, Nineteenth-Century America, Print Networks, Autobiography, Sexuality, Book, Hemispheric, Atlantic

The synopsis of The Lieutenant Nun: Memoirs of a Basque Transvestite in the New World promises readers that they are about to encounter “one of the earliest known autobiographies by a woman.” What follows is “the extraordinary tale of Catalina de Erauso, who in 1599 escaped from a Basque convent dressed as a man and went on to live one of the most wildly fantastic lives of any woman in history. A soldier in the Spanish army, she traveled to Peru and Chile, became a gambler, and even mistakenly killed her own brother in a duel. During her lifetime she emerged as the adored folkloric hero of the Spanish-speaking world.”1 It turns out, however, that the “autobiography” of one of early America’s first queer figures disappeared from the Spanish imperial archives some time in the late seventeenth century—if, in fact, it ever existed at all. Rather, the 1996 English-language edition of The Lieutenant Nun represents an assemblage of copies of texts lost in various archives in Europe and the Americas over the course of several centuries: it is a translation of a Spanish-language text printed in Paris in 1829 that claimed to be an authentic reproduction of a 1784 handwritten copy of Erauso’s original autobiography found among a now lost manuscript collection documenting Spanish-indigenous colonial relations compiled by the former director of the marine hydrographic department.2

I begin this essay on the keyword Archive with the story of the Lieutenant Nun because it invites us to think about archives as sites of loss and erasure rather than as sites of recovery. This is an archive story about a lost object and a found subject and the relationship between them: that is, this is a story about the nature of archival evidence when it comes to writing about queer lives in early America. As Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner note [End Page 584] in their now classic essay, “Sex in Public,” “The queer world is a space of entrances, exits, unsystematized lines of acquaintance, projected horizons, typifying examples, alternate routes, blockages, [and] incommensurate geographies.”3 Scholarly interest in Erauso has centered largely on their queerness: the nature of their relationships with women and the personal, social, and political motivations that led Erauso to wear male clothing and pursue careers available to men in the seventeenth century.4 Rather than using the archive to recover “typifying examples” of the literary histories of queer lives in earlier periods, however, I ask how archives and their contents respond to and order queerness—how they structure the blockages, routes, geographies, horizons, and lines of acquaintance Berlant and Warner discuss. The Lieutenant Nun—as an archival story—challenges the organizing tools available to the archivist and methods animating researchers. If anything, it is an archive story about the failure of archives to replicate the historical past and, yet, at the same time about their success at structuring how we understand the history of sexuality.

In recent decades, of course, historians and literary scholars have worked continually to revise our understanding of archives, the work archives do, the work we do in archives, and the relationships among archives, print cultures, and power in early America. We no longer take for granted that archives and their objects offer unmediated access to the past; rather, archives themselves have become the object of study. For instance, Ann Laura Stoler, Diana Taylor, and Kathryn Burns consider the role archives and archiving play in constructing colonial and imperial power.5 With a deepened understanding of how archives structure power relations in the Americas, scholars of black Atlantic history such as Lois Brown and Saidiya Hartman challenge our use of the records of black lives as they appear in documents kept by white enslavers.6 In turn, artists such as Fred Wilson [End Page 585] experiment with ways of decolonizing archives so as to reimagine American histories, visual art, and literature from perspectives that decenter the experiences of settler colonists. Still other works have been devoted to analyzing...


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pp. 584-590
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