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1 Introduction manuela sáenz (1797–1856)—friend, lover, and ally of Spanish American independence hero Simón Bolívar and, today, an icon of nationalists and feminists throughout the region—has been largely ignored by professional historians . In the United States, she remains unknown among most scholars of Latin America. My own introduction to her was by accident. It happened decades ago when, as a graduate student browsing the book stacks of Tulane University’s Latin American Library (preparing for the requisite Ph.D. prelim examinations ), I came upon The Four Seasons of Manuela: The Love Story of Manuela Sáenz and Simón Bolívar (1952) by popular author Victor W. Von Hagen.1 A distraction from my usual dry reading, Von Hagen’s story captivated me. Here was the tale of a strong-willed, passionate woman who had defied convention and raised controversy in order to pursue an affair with Bolívar, a.k.a. the “Liberator”—renowned commander of the largest and most successful patriot army in Spanish South America, creator of republics, and, for a time, the world’s most celebrated revolutionary leader. Here, too, was a woman who had participated in the epic Spanish American struggles for independence and whose abilities , enthusiasm, and commitment to the patriot cause had won her Bolívar’s confidence. Proof of that confidence was her eventual acceptance into the ranks T4770.indb 1 T4770.indb 1 8/12/08 11:19:05 AM 8/12/08 11:19:05 AM 2 for glory and bolívar of his closest followers, including her emergence as his personal archivist, con- fidante, and, in the last years of his life, his most ardent defender. More broadly, and as Von Hagen reveals in his vivid storyteller’s fashion, Sáenz had carved a place for herself in a man’s world; she had learned to ride the crest of war and revolution and had wielded political influence. Why, then, given the modern history profession’s growing interest in women’s experiences, had I and other graduate students never heard of her? The answer to this question is complicated. One part of it lies in biography’s quasi-pariah status among academic historians. Author of two widely acclaimed biographies and of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, Joseph Ellis refers to this status when he describes the genre as “a bastard, or . . . orphan periodically adopted as a welfare case by History or English departments.”2 He also explains some of the reasons for biography’s predicament. He notes, for example, the “hegemonic” influence of social history , whose approach to the past sees groups or collectivities rather than individuals as the proper focus of study. This same influence, he adds, “privileges the periphery over the prominent figures at the political center, who become ‘dead white males’ and their respective stories elitist narratives casually dismissed as ‘great man history,’ even when the subject is a woman or, even when the story told undermines the entire notion that [only] men make history.”3 One wonders what Ellis might have to say about the “new biography.” He almost certainly would look upon it with some dubiousness. New biographers, after all, are less interested in understanding a life on its own terms and making it intelligible to readers than in elucidating the contested process of identity construction —of “inventing selves,” more particularly. Indeed, their genre stems from postmodern epistemological insights and premises that have contributed to a new hegemony within the profession and that inevitably conflict with, as Jo Burr Margadant has put it, “a narrative strategy designed to project a unified persona.”4 Today’s historians of Latin America are not immune to the bias that prevails among their disciplinary brethren, at least in the United States. In an essay in Latin American Research Review, Michael Monteón puzzles over Latin Americanists ’ tendency to shun traditional life-writing. He then offers an explanation similar to Ellis’s, noting that biography is “academically unfashionable” and “does not lend itself to social science modeling.” The genre “presents numerous difficulties in research and composition,” he adds, perhaps thinking of the concerns of postmodernist scholars.5 As others before him have noted, however, tackling such “difficulties” can be worthwhile. This is certainly the case for the vital subfield of women’s hisT4770 .indb 2 T4770.indb 2 8/12/08 11:19:05 AM 8/12/08...


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