Gender & Sexuality in Early America

English341, Spring 1998

Professor Laura Arnold


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Gender & Discovery 1/28/98


1. In this course we will be practicing the art of reading texts which are often seen today as "nonliterary" (letters, diaries, histories) both as literature and for pleasure. The purpose of this handout is to give you some ideas on how to get started with such a venture. One of the most useful strategies I have found is to go "back to the basics": that is to look for the intrusion of what anyone would consider literary into the nonliterary. One way to do this is for the texts for Wednesday is to consider what metaphors are used by the Europeans to make sense of the so-called "discovery" of the Americas. A metaphor is an implicit comparison, usually of something abstract of unknown to something concrete or known. As you read through the letters by Columbus and Vespucci to their patrons take note of the ways that they process the "New World" in terms that the Old World will understand. What is being compared and what are the ramifications of these comparisons? It is worth remembering as well that if metaphors are any good they should be doing some important rhetorical work (this is why some critics have called metaphors "weapons"). As Wayne Booth argues in his article entitled "Metaphor as Rhetoric," in a powerful metaphor

more is communicated than the words literally say. What the more is cannot be easily described. Aristotle and others call it energy, which does put us in the right direction....The speaker has performed a task by yoking what the hearer had not yoked before, and the hearer simply cannot resist joining him (52).

What makes the metaphors used by Columbus and Vespucci irresistible (or at least pleasurable and appealing)?


2. A second useful strategy for a pleasurable reading is to look for what literary genres are being invoked and then to consider how and why they are being used. One important and fashionable genre during early Renaissance was the blazon (or blason). A blazon was a poetic genre devoted to the praise or blame of something, usually through a detailed description. A popular subject for the blazon was the celebration of some part of the female body ("anatomical blazons"); however, there were also blazons on subjects such as architecture (called "domestic blazons"--"descriptive poems in praise of the parts of a respectable house"; Vickers 4, Preminger 142). For those who have read Shakespearean sonnets or other Renaissance poems that employ Petrarchan conventions this praise of the female body by cleaving it into parts who should not seem so surprising. Indeed blazons were so popular that in 1581 on Italian scholar "felt compelled to speculate in print as to why Petrarch had never celebrated Laura's nose" (Vickers 6). What did this dismemberment mean?

Melanie Klein and Nancy Vickers have argued that blazons of the breasts are grounded in the conflicting need both "to embellish/to dismember, to idealize/to disfigure" the female body and the mother (Vickers 14). Vickers argues

As the first source of erotic pleasure, the breast promises and nurtures: as the first menace, it denies and weans. Its duality, Melanie Klein postulates, is intolerable to the infant: it provokes, as a primary mode of "defense against anxiety," a split of the single part-object into two: a good breast and a bad breast. The idealized breast is the object of loving, erotic projection; the despised, persecuting breasts, of hostile, destructive projection. Within the realm of infantile fantasy, Klein theorizes, these two attitudes coexist without dialectical resolution. They evolve into ambivalent feelings, toward other part-objects and ultimately toward integrated objects (the good/bad mother, lover, friend, employer, etc.) Woman's body, then, if we follow Klein's argument, is the very ground of ambivalence; its representation, to whatever conscious end, stages the dual impulses of fascination and repulsion, of love and hate that it inspires (Vickers 14).

What does this fascination, revulsion, and dismemberment have to do with Columbus and Vespucci? A number of scholars have pointed out that the Renaissance's obsession with breaking the body down into parts corresponds to the ways that the early explorers made sense of and praised the Americas. Where do you see this happening in the letters and what are the possible advantages of this strategy? To what extent do the explorers marvel in the new lands and to what extent are they repelled? Zamora's essay (on reserve) will help you with this analysis as you read the letters.


3. A final strategy I will mention for doing a literary reading of the letters is to take note of the historical setting and to consider how this might have influenced the choice of literary strategies. 1492 was an important year in Spanish history for reasons beyond Columbus' "discovery" of America on Oct. 12th. The marriage of Isabel de Castilla and Fernando de Aragon had recently allowed for the territorial, linguistic, religious, and political unification of Spain. One result of this was the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 marking the centrality of the catholic faith and blood lines for national identity. Another result of Isabel and Fernando's unification policy was the publication of Antonio de Nebrija's Gramatica Castellana in 1492. While nominally the text systematized the Castilian Language, it also emphasized the importance of controlling language in order to control culture. If language was the "companion of empire," as Nebrija argues, then the words of explorers provided a means of colonizing new lands. As you read Columbus' and Vespucci's works, you may want to consider how they are seizing control of the places they visit through language. What does it matter that they do this through a gendered discourse?


4. WEB ASSIGNMENT: I would like you to begin to explore the class materials available on-line. Using netscape, please access the class web page at departments/english/Courses/English341gs/mainpage.html. You will notice that under "Week 1" there is a hotlink to images of Columbus and the discovery of the Americas. What stock figures do you notice being used to differentiate America(ns) and Europe(ans)? How do these compare to those used in the letters?



Booth, Wayne, "Metaphor as Rhetoric: The Problem of Evaluation," On Metaphor, ed. Sheldon Sacks. Chicago: U. of Chicago P. 1978: 47-70.

Preminger, Alex & TVF Brogan. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1993.

Vickers, Nancy, "Members Only: Marot's Anatomical Blazons," The Body in Parts: Fantasies of Corporeality in Early Modern Europe, ed. David Hillman and Carla Mazzio. NY: Routledge, 1997: 3-22.