ClassWrap 4: February 5


This week, we turned to what Smith and Watson call the migratory subject of early modern travel narratives.  I think it’s important once again to bring up their provocative description of this autobiographical self. “The self-exploration of the early modern period,” the write “both motivated and paralleled geographical exploration of the globe […] These travel narratives posed an “I” in migration, encounter, conquest, and transformation.”  As a thought exercise, we began our discussion by reading a few sonnets by Petrarch and comparing their literary metaphors of shipwrecked despair to the very literal shipwrecks of Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative.

Smith and Watson note the start of the genre of exploration narratives with The Travels of Marco Polo in 1271, but the genre really begins in earnest with the massive early publishing success of Christopher Columbus’s first letter detailing his experience in what we now call the Caribbean in 1492-93.   Indeed, Columbus’s letter was one of the first major publishing successes in the relatively young era of print technology.

The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca was published in 1542, making it a relatively early entry in this genre.  It is, as our editors tell us, “unique as the tale of the first Europeans and the first African to confront and survive the peopled wilderness of what is present-day America.”  Florida had already been “discovered” about a decade before Cabeza de Vaca arrived there.  But it remains stunning to think that this is happening nearly a century before pilgrims settled Jamestown in 1607 and Plymouth Rock in 1620.  The Narrative, then, offers the earliest and most detailed account of early explorers in present-day America.

What forms did these documents usually take?  That is, what can we say about the genre of exploration narratives?  Critics usually think of such works in relation to four general categories each with distinct, if overlapping, rhetorical purposes:

  • First, you have the Promotional Narrative.  These are the most positive, almost mythic in their portrayal of an Edenic New World.  Here, one drops a seed and the soil transforms it into bounteous harvest; the locals are pre-lapsarian in their natural kindness and goodness and generosity.  Such accounts, of course, have reasons for being so defiantly rosy: their goal is to spur on further colonization and exploration.
  • Next, you have the Apologia or Defense: These arrive in light of failed or difficult expeditions.  Something blocks the purely promotional: shipwreck, lack of supplies, or lack of leadership.
  • Then, you have the Descriptive mode: such accounts often involve lengthy catalogs of goods and detailed descriptions of geography—all stated as comprehensively and in as much detail as possible so as to aid later exploitation of said resources.
  • Finally, you have the more dramatic form of tragedy.  We might view this as an extreme version of the apology—one often composed by someone who is not the leader of the expedition but needs to portray that leader in a certain tragic light as either a tragic hero or failure.

We must remember that Cabeza de Vaca did not consciously enter these generic choices as one might consciously, say, compose a sonnet sequence.  These generic categories are more retrospective and, to borrow Smith and Watson’s favorite word, intersectional.  Aspects of two or more of these genres will likely be present in a single text.  But they remain useful generic distinctions.

Considering these genres in relation to Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative, many of  you sensed a strong presence of apologia.  Though there were brief moments of description—especially as the narrative progresses—Cabeza de Vaca is largely concerned with defending his character and honor in light of a failed expedition.  We paid particular attention to the prefatory letter in this regard where Cabeza de Vaca carefully defends his account through complex rhetorics of religion, family history, and empire. We also noted his efforts to make himself look good while questioning the character of the Governor in charge of the expedition–an individual, tellingly, who did not survive to tell his side of the story.

After literally mapping out Cabeza de Vaca’s journey with particular emphasis on the extreme nature of their navigation errors, we began to discuss other ways in which the narrative progressed in other ways.  The narrative, we noted, moves from many to few, from known to unknown, from structures of command to a more limited, vulnerable and autonomous self; from a given cultural unity (though even the original expeditionary force was really quite multicultural) to a confrontation with the “Other.”  Through this geographical and cultural movement, we see how everything that originally grounded Cabeza de Vaca’s “ideological I” comes subject to negotiation and alteration.  At the start, Cabeza de Vaca’s “self” is relatively stable.  He is a conquistador, a Catholic, a loyal subject of the King, a man of honor.  But he ends a man who has had to adapt, as Marshall pointed out, his Catholic beliefs to his role as a shamanistic healer; a man who has had to learn a separate economic mode of existence as he worked as a conduit for trade in Native lands; a man who comes to question the Spanish mode of colonization; a man who sees savagery amongst his own countrymen as they regress to cannibalism while noting examples of the highest humanity in the Natives he meets.  What we see here is the intense complication of Relationality within the text–the many “Others” who shape the “self” of the text.

Amongst the many things that came up in class this week, we discussed the History of Reading Publics from the prefatory letter to the King to the recent influx of “retellings” of Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative in books such as The Barefoot Conquistador, which I tried to describe as something like para-autobiography: the literal rewriting of a single autobiographical text.  We noted our troubles with Authority and Authenticity. It was difficult for many of us to accept the “truth” of his account.  I wonder to what extent our reservations in this regard had to do with how the Cabeza de Vaca did not problematize issues of memory and experience.  Perhaps we’re more likely to accept what others say as truth when they themselves reflect the struggle to secure and interpret memories.  We discussed Ethics and the degree to which Cabeza de Vaca was complicit  in or worked to alter the way colonization unfolded in present-day Mexico.  We discussed how the final frame narrative involving the mystic predictions of a Muslim woman complicates the Coherence and Closure of the story.  There was much more that we didn’t have time to discuss–Embodiment, for example. What do we make of the numerous references Cabeza de Vaca’s “nakedness” and his descriptions of the Native bodies around him.  There’s only so much we can cover in three 50-minute periods!

Looking Ahead and the Blog:

Next we turn once again to something new: spiritual autobiography with an emphasis on early American Puritan culture.  Though I have included head notes for Wednesday’s reading (from Taylor and Edwards) you might want to read up a bit on Thomas Shephard (1605-1649).  As always, keep our stock of concepts from the “Tool Kit” in Reading Autobiography in mind as you read and think about these works.  Just as the Native American sense of self ran counter to the Humanist and Enlightenment subject, so to does Puritan autobiography problematize the supremacy of the “I” as they seek to dissolve the self in ideals of God and a holy community of believers.  As for your blogging this week…

Creative Option 1: Perhaps the most persistent trope of Puritan autobiography involves conversion and confession, which marks the journey of the soul from darkness to light, from sin to grace.  You can read more about the Puritan conversion narrative here (scroll down a bit).  It was a rigidly scripted process, as you can see.

Thinking beyond the more limited religious context of confession and conversion that we see in Puritan spiritual writing, we begin to see how this narrative might take on numerous secular form ranging from the mundane (remembrance of a childhood transgression and one’s suffering through punishment to achieve parental grace) to the momentous (fundamentally altering your worldview via a process not unlike religious conversation).  Your creative blog option for this week is to compose a brief confession–it can be earnest or facetious, religious or secular.  You might borrow from the Puritan “plain style” we see in Thomas Shephard, or the elaborate confession of sins that we see in Levi Ames, or the private yet proper diary entries of Michael Wigglesworth.

Creative Option 2: Puritans were constantly “reading” their lives for signs that they were saved, that they were among the “elect” (those limited few predestined by God for salvation and Grace).   Thus, every event in their lives held potentially profound meaning for the state of their eternal soul.  Again as earnestly or facetiously you want, interpret a life event and try do decipher its broader significance in your life and or your afterlives.

Critical Option: Turning once again to the “Tool Kit” and the more detailed explanation of key concepts in Smith and Watson’s Reading Autobiography (namely, their chapters on “Autobiographical Acts” and “Autobiographical Subjects”) discuss in detail how one concepts helps us understand early American spiritual autobiography. Remember to adequately define or frame that concept with reference to RA, and make sure you quote liberally from our reading for this week as well.

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