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  • "More Heirs in Love than Law":Epic, Race, and Alternative Filiations in Byron's Don Juan
  • Joselyn M. Almeida

i. introduction

Conversations about the legacies of slavery and abolition in the United States and Great Britain have focused scholarship on the representations of enslavement, race, and national identity in Lord Byron's work.1 Unsurprisingly, Byron, "born for opposition," does not provide an easy answer.2 In his influential, "Race, Writing, and Don Juan," Mark Canuel reads him as less radical than Byron scholars have contended in the last two decades. He argues that "[c]entral to [Don Juan's] political aesthetic, then, is its refusal to establish any human or political relation that would allow any racial distinction from whiteness to be desired or known, if at least we understand knowledge to require extended attention."3 According to this reading, despite Don Juan's various challenges to orthodoxies of gender, class, and nation, Byron relies on racial hierarchies to achieve a reification of whiteness as a racial and aesthetic marker of value over non-white bodies.4 Canuel links Don Juan's aesthetics to phenotype and interprets the construction of Africa as unknowable to conclude "[b]eyond merely expressing a racist commitment, Don Juan embeds it within its most brilliant, beautiful, and engagingly comic elements."5

At the other end of the scale, Jared Hickman reads Byron's "poetic and personal titanism" and his Prometheanism as "aligned with the heretical abolitionism of the slaves themselves."6 He chronicles how black and white abolitionists across the Americas interpreted and appropriated Byron to write black struggle into the genealogy of the Promethean tradition through a meticulous reading of the lines in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage: "Hereditary bondsmen! Know ye not / Who would be free themselves must strike the first blow?"7 Hickman shows how in the work of African American authors and orators from James McCune Smith and Henry Highland Garnet to Frederick Douglass, "Byron's lines were clearly becoming a proverbial line in [End Page 997] the sand between two increasingly incomprehensible philosophies of abolitionism: the largely white advocacy of Christian suasion and the increasingly black support for Promethean political daring, including slave insurrection."8 Matt Sandler adds that "Byron's model suited the cultural and political ends of black liberation," and Deanna P. Koretsky deftly analyzes how Douglass appropriates Byron to "describe his newfound awareness of race as fiction and racism as ideology" in My Bondage and My Freedom.9 Hickman, Sandler, and Koretsky reveal how black activists in the nineteenth century invested Byron with a pluralist signification in works from Childe Harold to Don Juan counter to Canuel's assertion that in his most important work, "[w]hiteness is most important because it embodies a principle of poetic composition."10

This essay celebrates the work of these scholars and Éduard Glissant's poetics of relation to argue that Byron dismantles and reconfigures epic filiation in Don Juan, destabilizing the genre's formal logic and the concept of blood purity that legitimizes both patriarchal and racialist systems. I consider Byron's choice of Don Juan as a hero in relation to Robert Southey's last epic, Roderick: the Last of the Goths, a poetic intertext that reveals the Hispanic archive as a battleground through which Byron addresses problems of race, nation, and filiation in his poem in light of British Romanticism's fascination with Spain as a site of imperial origins.11 I argue that in opposition to Southey's hero, Byron activates the challenge posed to patriarchal filiation as metonymy for the transmission processes that reproduce and legitimize the legal, political, and exclusionary systems of the state, one latent in the Spanish original of Don Juan. By contrast, Southey's Roderick paves the way for the Reconquista [Reconquest], the violent expulsion of Jews and Moors from Spain in 1492, and the institution of pureza de sangre (blood purity) statutes that shaped racialist taxonomies across the Atlantic. Reading Don Juan in relation to Southey's Roderick, Last of the Goths foregrounds patriarchal epic filiation as the generic and aesthetic principle that Byron dismantles and then reconfigures to legitimize matrilineal, mixed-race, and non-biological structures of filiation.12



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pp. 997-1025
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