BMCR 2022.07.19

Brill’s Companion to Classics in the Early Americas

, , , Brill's Companion to Classics in the Early Americas. Brill's Companions to Classical Reception, volume 21. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2021. Pp. xiv, 435. ISBN 9789004468573 €180.00 / $216.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This new collection assembles fourteen essays focussing on how European classical learning was transmitted, resisted, and transformed in Ibero-American, Caribbean, American and Canadian areas between the sixteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. Papers were selected from presentations at the Pacific Ancient and Modern Language Association in 2015 and 2016. The collection is directed at advanced students and scholars working in the relevant cultural areas, and at classicists everywhere. Editor Maya Feile Tomes seeks to illuminate both the centring of an elite culture in New World writing and academic curricula, and the radical decentring it underwent.

“Classics” has long been key to the empowerment of European and post-European concepts of culture, the very name drawn from classicus, signifying a person of higher rank. Since the development of the medieval topos of the translatio studii, the influence of classics as a field of study has spread, across Europe, from Rome to Italy, France, England, and eventually the Americas. But the metaphor and its centrality, Feile Tomes argues, has been sustained in academic silos where today their hegemony remains unquestioned. Out of this “centering” emerges an academic culture that has excluded, devalued, oppressed or ignored what happened beyond its periphery. In resistance, “decentering” asserts that subaltern cultures must map their own boundaries in dialogue with the classicizing centre or, if excluded or devalued, then on their own, as the current hot debate about the need for a new classics—even the destruction of classics itself—is showing.[1]

Feile Tomes introduces what is clearly her volume (though there are two associate editors) in an urgent forty-page essay twice as long as the other fourteen. Her position is passionately stated, for reasons I understand, as two decades ago, I edited just such a collection investigating the impact of Renaissance concepts in Early Canada.[2] Feile Tomes’ situation is different: modern Canada and the USA were just being born in 1700, when Ibero-America for nearly two hundred years had possessed schools, libraries, printing presses, the classical curriculum of Jesuit education, and developing literatures in Spanish, Portuguese and Latin. Tomes’s over-long introduction is driven by her conviction that the study of the impact of classics on the New World—particularly Ibero-America—has been downgraded, treated contemptuously, or effectively foreclosed, and scholarship has been deprived of “a clear basis for historically grounded comparative work here and hereafter.” She proposes a “transhemispheric” realignment of established boundary lines, taking a “swooping synoptic view of America as a whole that allows its geopolitical contours to fade out and the region to be treated as, precisely, a region.” The aim is to “usefully chart how engagement with Graeco-Roman material may have been instrumentalized in the processing of, and responses to, shared elements of this distinctively American experience.”

The fascinating new work in these papers—some very strong, others less so but still interesting—suggests that the field is not as neglected as Feile Tomas believes. Against European classical republicans who saw Sparta recreated in Paraguay, a Platonist Jesuit who had actually lived there argued the Guarani were better republicans than the sophistical philosophes (Brumbaugh). The seventeenth-century Brazilian Gregório di Matos uses Tupi words to “lower” the vocabulary of his satires to the level of a people he disdains (Costrino). Peruvian writers in Lima formed a literary academy about 1600; their anthology Parnaso antártico (1608) illustrates how they brought the translatio studii to distant America (van der Woude). John Alleyn, an elite Barbadian living in London, writes Commercium ad Mare Australe to celebrate the Peace of Utrecht (1713-15) and make a place for Barbados in a hoped-for expansion of British trade (Gilmore). David Lupher’s article shows a master of his topic returning to his thoughts on models for New World encounters. The katabasis (journey to the underworld) is exploited in politically driven mock epics like the Hartford Wits’ anonymous Anarchiad, where chaos and night are figures of the post-revolutionary tension between east coast elites and the poor, dispossessed, and often rural soldiers of Shays’s Rebellion in 1786 (Goldwyn). John Winthrop’s famous “A Modell of Christian Charitie” (1630) fuses Christianity and commerce in the “familiar commerce” of social life, producing an ethic of collective responsibility sustained by the Aristotelian concept of friendship (Schweitzer). The Pequot Indian and Methodist preacher William Apess lectures on English violence towards the natives and celebrates “King Philip,” the Wampanoag who led indigenous nations to protest colonial racism. His Greek examples are aimed at persuading his colonial listeners of the merits of indigenous life and culture (Duquès). The prevalence in Canada of the beaver as a social reality and a symbol of diligence is raised to the level of allegory by the Jesuit François Du Creux in his Historiae Canadensis seu Novae-Franciae libri decem (1664) where he links the beaver with the hard-working bees of the fourth book of Virgil’s Georgics (Barton and Mailloux).

Five essays stand out for their interpretive skill and their approaches to the aims of the collection. An erotic-aetiological poem by Bernardo Guimarães published in Brazil in 1875, A Origem do Mênstruo (The Origin of Menstruation) purports to be a translation of a translation of a lost Ovidian poem, unearthed at Pompeii—a quadruple parody of the familiar trope of the “rediscovered” text. Politically and sexually transgressive, the poem was transmitted sometimes orally, sometimes by clandestine publication, until it was itself rediscovered by Brazil’s modernist avante-garde. Connie Bloomfield-Gadêlha’s approach combines Bakhtin’s emphasis on the carnivalesque and Joshua Billings’ idea that classical reception involves a dialectic between absence and presence in which the classics are always experienced as absent. For Guimarães, censorship exacerbates that absence, as does the “degeneration” resulting from translation. The moral degeneration he toys with is equally an attack on the classical canon and on the political structures of his time.  Guimarães’ poems engage in repurposing the powerful inherited models that influenced most transatlantic literary cultures  but was central to the Brazilian modernist movement. This skillful essay thus reaches beyond a Latin American audience to create genuine transhemispheric resonance.

Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s deeply researched essay on Lucian in colonial Santo Domingo evokes the world of a learned landowner, Luis Joseph Peguero (d. 1792), obliviously writing his history of Hispaniola on an island divided in two by language (French and Spanish), and economy (plantations in the west, ranching in the east), and with both parts “profoundly dependent on the exploitation and brutalization of African and African-descendant slave labour.” Peguero’s history is revelatory of colonial and racial imaginaries, mediating directly and indirectly between classical sources and the need to re-write colonial experience to justify Spanish dominance. The disruptive Lucian is a curious choice for emulation, but Peguero’s encounter with him is mediated by his source, the European court grammarian Francisco Sobrino, for whom the stabilization of language forms was part of the technology of empire. Peguero reinvents the teaching of proper language to “Americanos” by imagining an indigenous hunger for that domination, and never mentioning the slaves whose labour underpinned Dominican life, evidently excluding them  even from their own victimization.

Andrew Laird examines how “grammar” was taught to indigenous youth at Mexico’s College of Santa Cruz. Renaissance classicists assumed their task was to educate princes like the sons of elite Nahua. No “Caecilius est pater,” as in today’s Cambridge Latin Course, but the demanding regime of a language that even Europeans knew—and the Nahua quickly realized—spoke chiefly from the page. Students learned both Spanish and Latin, ensuring that as future magistrates they understood the connection between the oral language of power, and the power inherent in the written one. Some, like Antonio de Huitziméngari, became serious scholars. Laird tells anecdotes (like that about the Nahua student who confidently corrected the Latin of a priest who assumed he couldn’t possibly have mastered the language) and gives many examples of the subtle changes wrought by translations. Though Nahua scholars were rarely credited for their own works, their engagement in the making of books like the Codex Mendoza and the Florentine Codex means, says Laird, that we know more about the Aztecs than about the Anglo-Saxons.

The Black American poet Phyllis Wheatley’s “Niobe in Distress” was published in England in 1773, with its final stanza added by “another hand.” Ovid’s tale of Niobe’s defiance of the goddess Latona in the Metamorphoses depicts Niobe, her twelve children killed in revenge by the angry goddess, as transformed into stone. Not so in this poem: Nicole A. Spigner enters the gap between the two “final” stanzas to produce a nakedly political reading of Niobe’s furious refusal to accept Latona’s vengeful assertion of her queenly power. Wheatley’s Niobe is, in effect, not allowed to turn into stone. From this emerges, she argues, a Niobean Poetics that challenges Latona’s pitiless power by “rewriting Niobe as a figure of maternal grief and, more importantly, feminine rebellion.” Latona challenges Niobe as one foreign to Latona’s rites; but Wheatley recasts the narrative as one in which the Theban women simply abandon those rites by casting off their laurels, implicitly allying themselves with Niobe. The connection between Wheatley as a Black poet, and Spigner as a Black critic is evident, and produces the Niobean rhetoric of the article itself, which seeks to rebel even against the pieties of African American studies.

All four essays are about the consequences of centring: transgression, repression ignored, subversion, and outright challenge. Zachary Yuzwas’s, however, is an example of re-centring, and is by far the best in the book. A well-published classicist new to the subject has accepted the heavy weight of Europe on the Americas by taking up one of the great classical topics to address it, in “The Fall of Troy in Old Huronia: the Letters of Paul Rageneau on the Destruction of Wendake, 1649-1651.” When the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) burned the mission at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons Rageneau wrote “We watched our labours of nearly ten years consumed in a moment.” The Jesuits and their Wendat (Huron) allies fled to the island of Gahoendoe (Saint-Joseph) in Lake Huron, but after a winter of dire famine and death, they set out on a journey of exile across land and water [1185 km on foot] to Québec, where the remnant settled, and indeed still live. The parallel with the Aeneid is evident, but Yuzwa shows how consciously it was exploited in the many Virgilian allusions of Rageneau’s letters, which he has scrupulously consulted in Campeau’s edition of the originals, not just the famous reports of the published Jesuit Relations. Were the Jesuits patres patriae in the New World? Yuzwa ends not by repudiating their impossible vision tout court, but by asking what it opens up: “If you read closely, Rageneau seems to suggest, you might already see in the story of Old Huronia, in that destruction, that exile, even in that suffering, the possibility of a new foundation.”

In the collection as a whole there are missed opportunities, not least in fulfilling the concept of “transhemispheric” realignment. Nothing is said about the permeability of boundaries in antiquity, about the original languages of many Graeco-Roman figures, or how bilingual some of them were . “Every literature in this situation is tinged with the colour of another literature,” as Phiroze Vasunia recently observed.[3] Nor is the organization of the papers truly transhemispheric: Eight essays from across Ibero-America are followed by four American articles, followed by two on Canada. Why advise the reader to “begin anywhere,” when the comparative methods and topics suggested are segregated from each other by modern national boundaries and languages and, indeed, overlapping indigenous cultures? David Lupher’s urbane, well-informed essay comparing the Romans in Spain and Britain as models and anti-models for encounters in the New World sits alone in the middle when it might usefully lead off a “companion” anticipating a reader in search of information. The proportion of attention to indigenous and Black peoples varies noticeably between essays; there seem to be no indigenous contributors, at least none who identify as such, and I think only perhaps two who are Black.

Finally, the two Canadian essays give a very limited idea of what is available for study. Accomplished as is Yuzwa’s, there is a great deal more to investigate in the area of classical reception in early Canada between 1650 and, say, 1875.

Reservations like these, however, will not prevent anyone from recognizing the originality of Feile Tomes’ and her co-editors’ achievement. The extensive bibliographies at the end of each essay show how vigorous this supposedly despised field has become, and provide a forest of possibilities to explore. There is a good index with useful headers and generous subheadings. The volume’s production is excellent: the few illustrations are beautifully reproduced in colour, footnotes appear at the bottom of the page, and I noted only two typos.

Authors and Titles

Introduction: Maya Feile Tomes, Synecdoche in Reverse: America’s Transhemispheric Classics
1. Michael Brumbaugh, Utopia Writes Back: José Manuel Peramás on the Limits of Republicanism
2. Connie Bloomfield-Gadêlha, Degenerating the Classical Canon in Brazil: Bernardo Guimarães’s Ovidian A Origem do Mênstruo [The Origin of Menstruation]
3. Artur Costrino, Heaven and Hell: Classical Rhetoric and Courtly Wit in Early Modern Brazil—The Case of Gregório de Matos
4. Joanne van der Woude, La Primera Parte del Parnaso Antártico [‘The First Part of the Antarctic Parnassus’]: Print and the Politics of Translation in Early Peruvian Poetry
5. John T. Gilmore, Justaque cupidine lucri ardentes [‘Burning with a Just Desire for Gain’]: A Barbadian Poet Celebrates the Peace of Utrecht
6. Dan-el Padilla Peralta, Lucianic Dialogues in Colonial San Domingo: The Historical Miscellany of Luis Joseph Peguero
7. Andrew Laird, Classical Learning and Indigenous Legacies in Sixteenth-Century Mexico
8. David Lupher, Romans in Spain and Britain as Models and Anti-Models for New World Encounters
9. Adam J. Goldwyn, Underworld: The Necropolitics and Necropoetics of Katabasis in the Anarchiad (1786-87) and Mock Epics of the Early U.S. Republic
10. Ivy Schweitzer, “Familiar Commerce: The Classical Origins of John Winthrop’s “Model” of American Affiliation
11. Nicole A. Spigner, Phyllis Wheatley’s Niobean Poetics
12. Matthew Duqués, William Apess and the Athens of America
13. William M. Barton and Jean-Nicolas Mailloux, Beavers as the Bees of New France: The Beaver’s ‘Allegorical Turn’ in Father François Du Creux’s Historia Canadensis
14. Zachary Yuzwa, The Fall of Troy in Old Huronia: The Letters of Paul Rageneau on the Destruction of Wendake, 1649-51


[1] See for example Jacques A. Bromberg, Global Classics (2021) BMCR 2022.02.40.

[2] Decentering the Renaissance: Canada and Europe in Multidisciplinary Perspective1500-1700, ed. Germaine Warkentin and Carolyn Podruchny, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.

[3] Phiroze Vasunia, “The Many Literatures of the Roman Empire,” S.J. Stubbs Lecture,University of Toronto, March 9, 2022.