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date: 25 September 2017

Translating José María Heredia

Summary and Keywords

The Cuban poet José María Heredia (1803–1839) spent twenty months exiled to the United States because of his involvement in pro-independence conspiracies. In that time, Heredia wrote a prodigious number of poems and letters, which are the subject of an ongoing scholarly project undertaken by Frederick Luciani of Colgate University. Luciani’s work involves more than translating these poems and letters into English—it examines Heredia’s stay in North America against the background of political and historical events, and traces the matrices of his connections with key figures, literary and otherwise, in Cuba and the United States. Questions that have surfaced through the translation process and scrutiny of this period of Heredia’s life include the relationship between Heredia’s poetry and his letters; the value of his letters as a form of travel literature; the contradictions inherent in his exilic condition; the ambiguity of his political sentiments; the nature of the networks that joined 19th-century Anglo-American and Hispanic writers, translators, and scholars; and the challenges and opportunities that Heredia’s life and work pose for readers, translators, and scholars today.

Keywords: José María Heredia, William Cullen Bryant, literary translation, exile and literature, Cuban independence, travel literature, romantic poetry, epistolary genre

“A translation dwells in EXILE. It cannot return”1

In late November 1823, a fragile-looking young man, just weeks shy of his twentieth birthday, contemplated with horror the blasted winter landscape of Naushon Island, off the Massachusetts coast. He shivered in the too-large woolen sailor’s coat that he wore over his thin suit of clothes—the coat a charitable castoff from the Yankee captain on whose ship he had arrived on these desolate shores, the thin clothes evidence of his hurried departure from his native Cuba. This was his first view of the “land of liberty, which offers an immense refuge to all the oppressed of the world,” as he would write, but more than anything else it suggested to him the hellish landscapes of Milton’s Paradise Lost.2

The traveler, conveyed to the beach from the brigantine Galaxy, which floated eerily in the wintry fog offshore, stumbled his way to a nearby lighthouse, where he was welcomed by the keeper and his family. The family’s robust health and the cleanliness of their little house were cheering to the young gentleman, and he gamely followed the keeper, a peg-legged veteran of the War of 1812, up the winding stairs of the lighthouse, the better to contemplate the view. The hearty New Englander ascended the stairs agilely despite his missing limb, while the visitor, his legs stiff with cold, could barely keep up. “Two or three times he stopped to wait for me,” the Cuban would write. “Gazing at me with pity, and taking one of my frozen hands in his, he spoke to me some affectionate and incomprehensible words.”3

Thus began the life in exile in the United States of José María Heredia (Cuba 1803–Mexico 1839), often regarded as Cuba’s first Romantic poet. His escape had been precipitated by his imminent arrest as a member of a secret society—the Caballeros Racionales, a branch of the Soles y Rayos de Bolívar—which was accused of seeking to foment rebellion against Spanish rule in Cuba, following the model of the independence struggles then sweeping the South American continent. Heredia was to stay in the United States for just twenty months; in August 1825 he departed for Mexico, where he would reside for most of the rest of his life, still an exile from his native land. Yet these months were crucial in Heredia’s life, as he lived immersed for the first time in a truly foreign culture with a language that he never learned to speak well, in difficult circumstances on the one hand and at a moment of youthful enthusiasm for adventure and new experience on the other. Likewise, these months were crucial in his development as a poet; he haunted the bookstores and printers’ shops in New York, where he took up residence, kept up with English-language periodicals and new publications, and became an adept translator of English literature into Spanish. Almost on the eve of his departure, Heredia published his first collection of poetry, Poesías, in New York—an example of the emerging market for Spanish-language publications, printed mainly in Philadelphia and New York, of translations and original works by Spanish-speaking exiles and other expatriates in the 1820s.

Luciani’s project involves translating into English not only the most significant poems that Heredia wrote during his time in the United States, but also some seventy-five letters to friends and relatives in Cuba from those same months. Luciani is researching Heredia’s stay in North America against the background of political and historical events, and exploring the matrix of his connections with key figures in Cuba and the United States: enemies and protectors, fellow conspirators, family members, and Hispanic and North American literati. In the annotations and preliminary study that will accompany the translations, Luciani will put Heredia’s poetry in conversation with his letters, which scholars have not done yet to any significant degree; in fact, his letters have received relatively little scholarly attention of any kind. Most broadly, this project will attempt to “translate” Heredia for a new generation of readers; while he is safely enshrined in the canon of Cuban and Latin American literature, scholarly attention has largely strayed from him in recent decades, and his life and work merit a fresh look.

Exile is a persistent theme in the poems and letters now being translated. It finds most vivid expression in Heredia’s poetry, in compositions such as “A Emilia,” “Placeres de la melancolía,” “El himno del desterrado,” and even Heredia’s iconic “Niágara,” which while mostly about that great North American natural wonder, contains a passage that expresses longing for the gentler landscapes of Cuba. Nostalgia, a sense of dislocation and loss, lyrical evocations of Cuba’s benign natural environment, indignation regarding the tyranny that compelled him to flee Cuba in the first place, and a militant determination to see his country free and himself restored to it: these are the notes that Heredia sounds consistently in his exilic verse, as in these lines from “A Emilia”:

  • Is this the new abode which I must trade
  • For the fields of light, the candid skies
  • Eternal blooms, the cool and verdant shade,
  • The soft, balsamic breezes of the clime
  • Where first I saw the blessed light of day
  • In the sweetness of a happy home­?
  • I tremble it to think, and in my eyes
  • Angry tears appear.
  • Soon a brilliant dawn of liberty
  • Shall break against a cloudless Cuban sky.
  • And then, Emilia, I
  • With angry steel and vengeance armed shall be.
  • To you I shall return. In voice sublime,
  • A splendid hymn of triumph I shall sing.
  • And if the saber of the enemy
  • Should cut me down, at least
  • On foreign shores my body will not lie.4

This poem and the others mentioned above first appeared in the New York edition of 1825 or in a subsequent edition printed in Toluca in 1832, or in both, and were strategically disseminated with the help of Heredia’s close friend in Cuba, Domingo del Monte, known to us today both as a key figure in Cuba’s midcentury reformist movements and as an important supporter of Cuban writers on and off the island. These poems helped to guarantee the young Heredia’s literary reputation during his lifetime and his place in the canon thereafter. They consolidated his image as a kind of exile-martyr and lyrical herald of Cuban independence. These poems also fixed Heredia’s position as the forerunner of generations of poets, novelists, essayists, and memoirists of the Cuban diaspora, down to the Cuban-Americans of today whose expression of displacement, it has been observed, seems to fall into patterns that already can be discerned in the writings of the young poet who found himself on North American shores in 1823.5

But reading Heredia’s correspondence in tandem with the poetry he wrote during his sojourn in the United States complicates and enriches the story. In his most personal letters, penned to his mother and to his uncle Ignacio in Cuba,6 Heredia speaks of his exilic condition with disparate and even contradictory emotions: despair, serenity, anger, resignation, exasperation with his new surroundings, and fascination with those same surroundings. Even the terms that he uses to characterize his status are a bit slippery, and force choices upon the translator. During his first year in the United States, Heredia was awaiting the outcome of the conspiracy hearings being conducted on the island. The letter announcing the verdict reached him in New York in December 1824: he was to be banished from Cuba and exiled to peninsular Spain. In the meantime, he was, in his own words, a proscripto and a desterrado. A proscripto or proscrito can be someone officially exiled, as for political reasons, or someone on the run from the law. When he fled Cuba, Heredia was officially an outlaw, not (yet) legally an exile. He fled to the United States to avoid arrest and an extended imprisonment while his case was being heard.

The distinction is not an insignificant one, given some of the awkward circumstances surrounding Heredia’s flight and his subsequent attitude toward them. He could have stayed in Cuba and faced the legal consequences of his involvement with the Caballeros Racionales; but had he done so he might have given testimony that would be damaging to his co-conspirators, as he bitterly accused some of his former friends of doing. As he retells the story of his flight in his letters, one detects tones of indignant self-justification, perhaps combined with a lingering sense of guilt. Complicating this is a letter that he wrote on the eve of his flight to the primary judge in the inquest, claiming that he had broken off relations with the Caballeros Racionales a year before and that the group had never advocated open rebellion against Spanish rule, but simply had been working “peacefully to prepare public opinion for Independence.”7 The letter was soon published, and was not especially well received by some in Heredia’s circle. In that letter, as in subsequent more personal letters, one hears, perhaps, echoes of Heredia’s legal training, as he attempts to parse his own actions in a self-exculpatory way. One hears, as well, a young man who is alternately self-pitying and self-aggrandizing, sure of his place on the side of the angels in what evidently was a murky and morally complicated business. In February 1824, Heredia wrote his mother:

I am convinced that our fellow men are not worthy of the sacrifices that one makes for them; but the harm has already been done, and at the end of the day it is a beautiful and sublime thing to be a martyr for the human race, for having committed an error common to generous souls in all times and places, an error that, like me, befell Demosthenes, Cato and Washington.8

In other letters, Heredia seems to throw in the towel on the whole independence question. What were his truest feelings regarding it? It is difficult to say. But the shadings of his handling of the matter seem to compel the translator to bend the meaning of the term proscripto from “outlaw” to “exile.” During those anxious months in the United States leading up to the official verdict from Cuba, it must have been easier for Heredia to think of himself as already banished—not a young lawyer on the run from the law, but a poetic soul, “sweet-tempered and sensitive by nature and upbringing, and as befits my years,”9 exiled from his homeland by tyrants and double-crossed by traitorous friends.

The other word with which Heredia characterizes his situation in the United States, desterrado, also presents a small translation challenge. It is a synonym of exiliado, carrying the same meaning of someone expelled from his own country, usually for political reasons. But it contains richer connotations for which there is no precise English equivalent: a desterrado is “unearthed” and uprooted, severed from his native land; the word has telluric and organic resonance; it connotes distance and longing.10 In Heredia’s poetry written in the United States, such sentiments are given full rein, as in these lines from “Placeres de la melancolía” (Pleasures of melancholy):

  • Homeland! Such a sad and lovely word
  • For the wretched, lonely one who strays
  • Far from his native ground!
  • When will its deep and verdant island shade
  • Refresh his troubled brow?
  • When evening falls, when will the tuneful sound
  • Of its rustling palms and plantain trees
  • Fall gently on his ear?
  • How many pleasures dear
  • We thoughtlessly enjoy, all unaware,
  • Until they’re lost! Never did the fields
  • Of Cuba to my heedless eyes appear
  • As gentle and as fair
  • As today to my anguished fantasy.
  • Oh, do not leave me here to cry alone,
  • Like a sterile plant from gentler climes,
  • Withered, in glass encased,
  • In a garden that frost has laid to waste.11

The simile of a hothouse flower from the tropics, withering under glass as winter expends its fury, echoes an insistent theme in Heredia’s letters: that of his delicate health ruined by a climate to which he was ill adapted. A predisposition to pulmonary infections was gravely exacerbated during his two New York winters; in 1824–1825, his letters make clear, his life was in peril. He implored his mother and his uncle Ignacio, who was keeping him afloat financially, to give him permission to relocate to a warmer climate, even if it meant abandoning the relatively safe political sanctuary of the United States.

But the summer of 1824, wedged between two dismal winters, was a relatively happy interlude for Heredia, during which he enjoyed good health and could indulge a sudden wanderlust and his eternal curiosity. From his residence in New York, he undertook trips to Philadelphia, New Haven and other parts of southern New England, and across the New York State interior to Niagara Falls.12 These trips resulted in a set of descriptive letters to his uncle Ignacio, travel literature of the highest order, in which personal anecdote is leavened with observations of places, people, and customs. Published in Cuba within a few years of their redaction, these vivid letters never have been translated into English in their entirety. They offer a version of the exilic experience in which a discourse of dysphoria and deracination is replaced with one of joy in movement, the pleasure of sensation, and fascination with the new. These letters are almost painterly in their prettiness and tendency to “frame” natural scenes—one thinks of the mode of the “picturesque” that was coming into vogue—and are overwhelmingly positive in their portrayal of the young American republic.

In sum, rereading and translating the poems of Heredia written during his United States sojourn of 1823–1825 in tandem with his personal and travel letters of the same period gives a complicated sense of the thematics of exile present in them. The attention to nuances of thought and expression that translation requires, along with the attempt to track down as many contextual details for these works as possible, problematizes the sense of what the experience meant to Heredia—existentially, psychologically, and politically. Heredia’s Cuban friends and supporters nourished and ultimately enshrined his image as a youthful martyr and impassioned advocate for Cuban liberation, which he himself forged in his poetry. But his personal letters tell a more tangled story—of doubt, self-justification, resentful finger-pointing, and, arguably, even moral equivocation regarding the cause and nature of his exile from Cuba. His travel letters, on the other hand, replace a discourse of anguished dislocation with one of the happy embrace of alterity and novelty. But the personal letters remained in private hands for many years, and the travel letters, while published early on in Cuban periodicals, themselves did not really travel; it was Heredia’s poetry that did, in book form, by sailing ship and steamer, across the literate Spanish-speaking world, as early as 1825. Heredia’s poetry even made inroads among Anglophone Hispanophiles in the United States, as they discovered the long history and the current relevance of Spanish and Spanish-American letters.

“A translation is a FRIENDSHIP between poets. There is a mystical union between them based on love and art”13

In June 1824, José María Heredia embarked upon a trip to Niagara Falls in company with a friend, Juan de Acosta. His letters to his uncle Ignacio, penned along the way, describe the ascent of the Hudson River by steamboat, the crossing of the interior of New York State by canal boat and stagecoach (the Erie Canal was nearing completion), the environs of Niagara, and the great cataract itself. At Niagara, in a burst of inspiration, Heredia composed what would prove to be his signature poetic work, “Niágara.” The poem would appear the following summer in his Poesías published in New York, in revised form in the 1832 Toluca volume, and in countless subsequent collections of his poetry and in anthologies. The sentiments and impressions recorded in the poem echo those of his corresponding letters; with its emphasis on spontaneous lyrical inspiration and its exalted, emotional response to the natural sublime, “Niágara” announces the advent of Romanticism in Spanish American poetry.

Just a year and a half after its first publication in Spanish, “Niágara” appeared in a fine, uncredited English translation in the United States Review and Literary Gazette (published in New York).14 It soon became a common assumption that the translator was William Cullen Bryant, the editor of that journal, who was on his way to being the most celebrated poet in the United States; the attribution to Bryant stuck.15 However, the matter sparked a lively debate in mid-20th-century literary scholarship and was not resolved until documents were brought to light that indicated, by Bryant’s own admission, that the translation was executed by a friend of his, although Bryant retouched and improved it.16 In any case, “Niágara” in English has had a long life of its own. In 1827 a lengthy fragment of it appeared in the first edition of The National Reader, a textbook for American schoolchildren, and it reappeared in multiple editions of that reader in subsequent decades. Longfellow included it in his seminal collection The Poets and Poetry of Europe (1845), and it has been included in other important anthologies from the mid-19th century to the present day—sometimes, in recent years, as an example of early Latino literature in the United States. The poem even earned Heredia a memorial plaque in a privileged spot on Table Rock overlooking Niagara Falls on the Canadian side.17

Given Bryant’s interest in Heredia’s work and his close association with “Niágara” in particular, his well-documented “Hispanophilia,” and the warm friendships he was to develop with Cubans and eventually in Cuba itself, it is not surprising that for many years another often-repeated assumption was that Bryant and Heredia had enjoyed a personal friendship in New York City. This too was questioned by mid-20th-century scholars, the coup de grâce coming when José de Onís brought to light an 1849 letter in which Bryant wrote, “I came to New York in 1825 soon after the publication of Heredia’s volume, but I never had any personal acquaintance with him and regret that I can give you no more information concerning his sojourn in this country.” In Onís’s words, this put an end to a “legend [that had been] taken up by the Pan Americanists and other good souls whose objective was to create good will between the two Americas, as a symbol of continental solidarity.”18

It is undeniable that such “continental solidarity” was often expressed by writers and intellectuals in North and South America in the 1820s. Some South American writers saw in the United States a forerunner in the struggle for independence, and sought what the Ecuadorian poet José Joaquín Olmedo, in his 1825 poem “La victoria de Junín, canto a Bolívar,” called the ósculo santo / de amistad fraternal (the sacred kiss of fraternal friendship) of their northern hemispheric neighbors.19 North American writers like James Gates Percival, in turn, saw the nascent South American republics as “sister[s] in freedom,” and called for “one fraternal band” of nations that would “spurn the chains / that tyrants forge,” as Percival wrote in his “Ode on the Emancipation of South America” of 1821.20

Such poetic sentiments found expression within a larger picture of intensifying intra-hemispheric literary relations and the broader Anglo-American–Hispanic commerce of writers, scholars, critics, publishers, translators, and students and teachers of language. The Heredia-Bryant nexus is frequently mentioned in this regard, but the web of relations between the Hispanic and Anglo-American intellectual and literary worlds of the 1820s was much vaster, and an adequate account of it would require expanded discussion. Suffice it to say that the decade that saw Heredia in New York translating Ossian from English, and Bryant in New York translating Heredia from Spanish, also saw Washington Irving undertake his travels and research in Spain to produce classic works of North American Hispanism; Félix Varela embark upon a highly influential trajectory of Spanish-language publishing in the United States, beginning with the pro-Independence journal El Habanero (Philadelphia and New York, 1824–1826); and George Ticknor, having returned from extensive travels in Europe, devise the first syllabus for the study of Spanish literature at Harvard (1823), which eventually would lead to his monumental and groundbreaking History of Spanish Literature (1849). Many more such examples could be adduced.

A kind of Anglo-American–Hispanic cross-cultural and cross-linguistic philia was at work, then, in the 1820s; it was fueled by travel, whether of a recreational, scholarly, diplomatic, or exilic variety. The literature that resulted from this travel afforded important insights to readers on both sides of the linguistic, cultural, and geographical divide. Heredia’s letters to his uncle Ignacio and others in Cuba rarely have been considered within the genre of travel literature, but they deserve to be. While these are personal letters, they are also highly polished works, written with stylistic precision, attention to aesthetic effect, and an evident desire to interpret elements of North American culture and life for a Cuban reader. In these travel letters Heredia expounds, with admiration, upon the most diverse things: the neoclassical civic and commercial architecture of the young American republic, the manner of putting out fires in American cities, the orderly way in which a civic protest unfolds on the streets of Manhattan, the technological achievement of the Erie Canal, the decidedly unimpressed and egalitarian way in which Joseph Bonaparte’s proletarian neighbors treat him (returning from Philadelphia, Heredia catches a glimpse of the haughty “Comte de Survilliers” near the latter’s Bordentown, New Jersey, estate), and much more. All that Heredia sees and describes, from the extraordinary to the quotidian, seems intended to confirm the material and moral advantages of American republican democracy. The travel letters parallel the more explicit and expansive declarations of admiration for the United States in Heredia’s verse, such as in his “A Washington” and “En el aniversario del 4 de julio de 1776,” which, like the verses by Olmedo and Percival cited above, draw enthusiastic, aspirational parallels between the North and South American struggles for independence.

It is easy to assume that Heredia’s verse and letters from his months in North America were sincere effusions of an idealistic young man, enamored of his host country at a time when its expansionist designs generally were not yet apparent among South American intellectuals and writers, and dreams of infra-hemispheric fraternity seemed realizable. However, closer attention to discursive details in his correspondence suggests that Heredia’s portrayal of the United States may not have been entirely ingenuous. The fact that the travel letters to his uncle Ignacio began to appear in print in Cuba as early as 1829 may indicate that they were written with eventual publication in mind.21 Even taking into account Heredia’s consistently meticulous style, these letters are striking in their exactitude, fullness of description, and elegance of expression. Heredia often frames them within an imagined scene of reading with costumbrista overtones, as he fantasizes about his uncle enjoying the letters while he and a friend, don Pedro, sit sprawled in comfortable wicker chairs under an awning in Ignacio’s coffee grove. Ignacio and don Pedro are portrayed as ideal Cuban readers of these travel letters, within a classic Cuban landscape.

Striking, as well, is Heredia’s virtual silence in all his letters regarding social and other ills in the United States. For example, his antislavery sentiments were clear, even if he was far from being an ardent abolitionist. Yet he makes no mention in his correspondence of the institution of slavery in the United States, of which certainly he was well aware; indeed, slavery was still legal in the state of New York during Heredia’s time there. His apparent insensitivity to it perhaps was due to the absence, in the northern states, of the kind of massive slave labor for agricultural production that existed in Cuba. In a letter describing his Erie Canal journey of 1824, he writes:

The banks of the canal were covered with flowers, and the neighboring fields displayed in their vegetation all the luxuriance of June. At the same time that I admired them with pleasure, I felt free of the iron hand that pressed my heart in the fields of Cuba when I remembered that their bounty was born of the sweat, at times of the blood, of so many miserable slaves.22

Nor is there mention of poverty in the United States. Heredia documents his ramblings in New York City with no reference to the squalor of some of its neighborhoods—for example, the notorious Five Points, which would figure prominently in the ministry of fellow Cuban Félix Varela. At most, Heredia offers anecdotes that take a poke at Yankee competitiveness and shrewdness, but with indulgent humor and even a kind of sotto voce admiration. References to political machinations in the United States are subsumed in an overall narrative that stresses the imperturbable civic virtue of American citizens, and the material and moral progress realized by a nation in which “the man of clean conscience, beneath the aegis of wise legislation, can raise his brow to the sun, and has only to fear the law which, protecting the innocent, is unerring and relentless in the remedying of his wrongs.”23

Assuming that Heredia wished to project such an idealized United States to a Cuban readership beyond his uncle Ignacio and friend don Pedro, what would his purpose have been? It seems safe to say that he may have wanted to offer Cuban readers an alternative social and governmental model for the island colony; his portrayals of the United States were intended as exemplary, and any contradictory details were conveniently avoided. But it seems important to note, as well, that annexationist currents were gaining strength in both Cuba and the United States, with some members of the prosperous planter class to which Ignacio belonged favoring Cuban annexation by the republic to the north, not least because they saw in that country greater protection for their slave-owning interests than would be afforded by Great Britain, the other power in contention for influence in and perhaps eventual possession of Cuba. These interests of planters in Cuba converged with long-term expansionist designs upon the island among many in the United States.24

Did Heredia favor Cuba’s annexation by the United States? There is no direct evidence of such sentiment anywhere in his verse and letters, and his specific political views regarding Cuba at the time of his exile are ambiguous. But in any case, his glowing verse tributes to icons of the North American republic and his idealized portrayals of the United States in his travel letters of the 1820s must have joined the general conversation about the island’s future and the potential role of the United States in it. At the heart of the annexation debate were economic interests related to slave labor, along with geopolitical calculations by Cuban elites and by a Monroe Doctrine–era United States eager to consolidate its preeminence in the hemisphere. It would seem that such less altruistic interests were the dark side of the philias that joined men of letters and lettered men in the Anglo-American–Hispanic worlds of the early 19th century, and were inseparable from them. Whatever the young Heredia’s specific intent, his writings in and from the United States lose something of their apparent innocence when read in such conflicted contexts.

“A translator operates in the UNKNOWN”25

In a letter to his uncle Ignacio from New York dated February 21, 1824, Heredia describes his boarding house accommodations at 88 Maiden Lane, along with his daily routine, which consists mostly of wandering around the city. Slipped into the apparently innocent description is the following sentence: “I go back out at four, until tea time at seven, after which, if the night is mild, I go out to visit some friend, or to visit with due precaution some mathematical conventicle, but almost always I remain at home studying or writing, have supper at ten, and turn it at eleven.”26 With the decelerated attention that translation requires, the cryptic phrase visitar con la competente prevención algún conventículo matemático takes on importance. What is Heredia saying? And why is he saying it that way?

The “why” question is perhaps answered a few paragraphs earlier in the same letter. Heredia says to Ignacio: “I would like to tell you about all the things you ask me, but you well know that my letters are prone to go astray before they arrive in your hands, and could contain this or that paragraph that would be the cause of grief and affliction.”27 Repeatedly in his letters to his mother and to Ignacio from New York, Heredia alludes to his letters “going astray”; he eventually concludes that those sent by mail rather than with trusted friends are being opened and examined by the authorities in Cuba, and sometimes prevented from reaching their destination at all. In September 1824 he writes to his mother, “You will receive this letter by channels other than the usual ones, and in this way perhaps it will arrive safely. It seems that the agents of the government are not content with opening my letters, but are now taking villainous amusement in intercepting them. May God give them their due.”28 When he sends letters with friends, he sometimes discreetly refers to the carrier as “the bearer of this letter,” who can fill in the recipient on details of Heredia’s life in the United States—things, it seems, that it does not behoove him to write about.

Thus, to other factors that complicate the full comprehension of Heredia’s correspondence from the United States—including the almost complete disappearance of letters he received from Cuba, making his letters, for us, a one-sided dialogue—must be added the very important one of Heredia’s self-censorship. He had no wish to embroil friends and family in his troubles with the Cuban authorities, nor to further implicate himself during the delicate period when his case was being heard in Cuba and the ultimate verdict was not yet certain. To his worried mother he wrote, “It is completely false that I have written verses about Independence, nor have I sent to Cuba a single line about public matters. And Lord knows that I am not one of those who throws the rock and then hides his hand.”29 Referring to what would be his New York edition of Poesías, he wrote to a friend in Cuba, “I am going to attempt to publish my poems here, the erotic and the moral ones; as for the patriotic ones, I don’t want even to make a clean copy of them.”30 And in fact, a comparison of the 1825 New York edition and the 1832 Toluca edition reveals that Heredia edited the most politically tendentious stanzas from the former, and eliminated the more inflammatory poems altogether. The young Cuban was being extremely careful.

Was this paranoia? Perhaps not. The activities of Cuban exiles in the United States were being monitored and reported by Spanish diplomats. Biographies of Félix Varela have it that he was nearly killed in New York by an assassin sent from Cuba because of his political agitation. In his letters from New York Heredia never mentioned the pamphleteering Varela, with whom he surely had dealings; perhaps Varela was too hot to handle.31 Nor did he mention the Argentine José Antonio Miralla, another firebrand who fled Cuba for New York in 1823 because of his implication in pro-independence activities, and whom Heredia certainly must have seen there.32 With regard to other Cuban friends and fellow exiles, some of whom shared lodgings with him, Heredia was extremely circumspect. He mentioned a number of them in passing and in noncompromising ways, although as some of them began to filter back into Cuba even before the verdict arrived from Havana regarding their legal fate, Heredia felt comfortable enough to mention them as couriers of his letters: Luciano Ramos and Juan Francisco (Pancho) Ruiz were two of these. Another friend, roommate, fellow Caballero Racional, and fugitive from Cuba, José Teurbe Tolón (who, like Heredia and Ramos, eventually would receive the highest sanction of exile to Spain), was mentioned only as someone who shamelessly raided the delicacies that Heredia received in the mail from Cuba.

In light of Heredia’s circumspection in his letters, the reference to some “mathematical conventicle” that he cautiously attended in New York is remarkable. He was speaking in circumlocutions that Uncle Ignacio would understand: a conventicle—“an assembly of an irregular or unlawful character” or “a secret meeting for worship not sanctioned by law” or simply an “assembly, meeting”33—but of a mathematical character. The words seem to have Masonic overtones. Was Heredia a Freemason? We do not know, but pro-independence secret societies in Cuba had associations with Freemasonry; it has been observed that the iconography, the rites, and the ideals of the Soles y Rayos de Bolívar had clear Masonic parallels, and some of the movements’ leaders were undoubtedly Freemasons, not to mention Bolívar himself and other prominent Spanish American independence leaders. The links between North American lodges and those in Cuba in the 1820s are well known, and it would not be surprising if during his time in New York Heredia found himself among, or sought to be involved in, Masonic networks.

Heredia’s cryptic remark to Ignacio is indicative of a relationship of unusual intimacy and trust. Therein lie more challenges for the translator. Heredia’s expressions of sentiment for his amadísimo uncle—“with every passing day I am more aware of my need to live at your side”34—exemplify the kind of ardent epistolary language among male friends that was common in the 19th century but that can resonate differently nowadays. Moreover, Heredia’s letters often contain inside references that only Ignacio would fully understand. Many are of lesser transcendence: gossipy allusions to mutual friends or to unnamed love interests, like the mysterious and, evidently, rather splendid lady whom Ignacio was courting and to whom Heredia referred only as el buque (the ship). When Heredia teased his uncle by saying, “no te parece saco de paja el famoso buque,”35 the English rendering—“the famous ship doesn’t seem to you to be a sack of hay”—cannot make much sense for a reader without an explanatory and inevitably speculative footnote.

In the aggregate, Heredia’s letters to his maternal uncle suggest that their relationship, while very close, was layered and complicated. Ignacio was just a few years older than his nephew, and the two shared a “men of the world” camaraderie; for example, Heredia felt free to relate to his uncle some racy anecdotes about his fellow exiles’ sexual escapades in New York. A prosperous planter and a gentleman of serious mien, Ignacio was also a kind of surrogate father for Heredia. In his letters the young exile addresses his uncle with utmost respect, and defers to him on equal terms with his mother when pondering important decisions, such as whether to remain in the United States or relocate to another country. Ignacio provided his nephew with a monthly stipend sent to New York; in his letters, Heredia expresses his gratitude with restrained delicacy and mostly through his mother; one senses that both a sense of good form and a certain injured pride as a failed breadwinner may have discouraged him from fuller expressions of appreciation to Ignacio. Uncle and nephew were not, it seems, exactly on the same page politically; regarding his experience as a thwarted conspirator, Heredia writes to Ignacio: “the disillusionment that I have acquired will serve to help me reform my conduct in future, and if justice is done me, I will go back over to your faction.”36 Ignacio probably was less susceptible to revolutionary ideals and more invested in the status quo than his nephew. Heredia’s letters suggest that his uncle’s correspondence dwindled with time, and in a letter to his mother, the young Cuban, with some bitterness, would attribute his uncle’s reticence to fear of compromising himself by association with his renegade nephew. But the evolving dynamic of the relationship between Heredia and his uncle Ignacio can be gleaned only partially.

Much that is unknowable, then, surrounds Heredia’s time in New York, and his letters sometimes seem to obfuscate almost as much as they reveal. Beyond the inevitable gaps in what can be known owing to inside references and the loss of most of his correspondents’ letters, there are also cloaks of secrecy with which Heredia appears to shroud his missives from the United States. Knowledge that some of his letters were being intercepted and read by authorities, possible worries about his physical safety in New York, a desire to protect those to whom he wrote and those with whom he associated, and his own prospects for vindication and a return to Cuba: these surely all were factors in his silences or circumlocutions regarding sensitive political matters in his letters, not to mention the self-censorship of his published poems. At the same time, the ambiguity in his expression of political sentiments in his letters—which contrasts markedly with the militant tone of his uncensored poetry—may have reflected his own mixed political feelings; the collapse of the Soles y Rayos movement as many of its members betrayed former colleagues clearly had left him embittered, and his own written denial of recent collaboration with the group may have weighed upon his conscience. Nor to be forgotten is the fact that Heredia’s mother and uncle wanted him to stay far from the revolutionary struggles of the South American continent and out of trouble in New York while awaiting the verdict from Havana. His assurance to his mother that he had not sent to Cuba “a single line about public matters” nor “written verses about Independence” must be read in this context, and the same goes for his declaration to Ignacio that he might “go back over” to his uncle’s “faction.” Heredia knew the preferences and worries of his mother and uncle and adjusted his letters accordingly, further complicating the reader’s task of attempting to understand the young Cuban’s truest sentiments. The unknowns and the unknowables in Heredia’s writings from the United States seem only to multiply with close scrutiny.


How can José María Heredia be “translated” for the 21st century? It may be that an annotated and prefaced translation—without the quotation marks—is enough; to render Heredia’s writings in English with proper contextualization and comment, and thereby expand their potential readership, may be all that is needed to make Heredia “relevant” for many present-day readers, at a moment when the numbers of displaced people around the globe seem only to escalate, with unknowable future consequences. The experiences of even a comparatively privileged, 19th-century exile like Heredia surely resonate today. The material privations, the blows to health, the cultural and linguistic trials, the impossible moral choices, the shock and—without romanticizing—the new experiential possibilities offered by a place of foreign refuge: these are timeless components of the condition of the migrant, the refugee, and the exile.

For Cuban-Americans, Heredia has long been a kind of foundational figure and precursor, as noted earlier, but surely he is little read beyond a few of his iconic poems, and his letters are scarcely known to nonspecialist readers. For all people of Hispanic heritage who live in the Anglophone world and whose degree of Spanish or English dominance varies infinitely across the scale, to have Heredia’s work available in English will correspondingly increase access to his work. Perhaps these readers will have most interest in those poems and letters that are closest to their own experience as people who have known, personally or at a generational remove, the experience of dis- and relocation.

The great Cuba–United States divide that has isolated communities since the consolidation of the Cuban Revolution of 1959 has, of course, not excluded scholars and scholarship. Heredia scholarship has been “stovepiped”—and, compared to previous decades, relatively scarce—since the 1960s, with travel restrictions for scholars on both sides and access to libraries and archives correspondingly limited. For example, the Biblioteca Nacional José Martí in Havana has important original documents relating to Heredia, as do the Escoto papers at Harvard’s Houghton Library; Heredia scholarship undoubtedly has been hindered by the difficulty of access to such resources for scholars and on off the island.37

The kinds of infra-hemispheric linguistic and literary philias, the personal and intellectual affinities, that bound writers, translators, and scholars in 19th-century Spanish America and North America nowadays may seem like quaint and antiquated notions. Bitterness between Cubans on and off the island and persisting tensions between the governments of Cuba and the United States have served to divide rather than unite scholars and writers. But with Cuba seemingly poised for important changes, and with the rapidly evolving rapprochement between Cuba and the United States, this is a propitious moment to take a fresh look at some iconic figures of the past, like Heredia, who traversed the great divide between the Hispanic and Anglo-American worlds, who were themselves translators in every sense, and who deserve to be newly translated for readers of today.

Discussion of the Literature

There are many published sources for the biography of José María Heredia. Among the most useful ones are Lomberto Díaz, Heredia, primer romántico hispanoamericano, and Francisco González del Valle, Cronología herediana (1803–1839).38 For Heredia’s experience as an exile in New York, splendidly contextualized, see Ernest R. Moore, “José María Heredia in New York, 1824–1825.”39 Leonardo Padura’s José María Heredia: La patria y la vida offers insight on Heredia’s thought and provides a useful biographical chronology; it serves, as well, as an interesting complement to Padura’s novelized version of Heredia’s life, La novela de mi vida.40

Among the important mid-20th-century scholarly studies that documented early 19th-century Anglo-American–Hispanic literary relations are Manuel Pedro González, “Bryant y Heredia: Dos grandes pioneros de las relaciones culturales inter-americanas”; Edith F. Helman, “Early Interest in Spanish in New England (1815–1835)”; José de Onis, The United States as Seen by Spanish American Writers; Frederick S. Stimson, “The Beginning of American Hispanism, 1770–1830”; and Stanley T. Williams, The Spanish Background of American Literature.41

In recent years the topic has received a new impulse in the context of “transnational” and “transatlantic” studies. A few examples include Anna Brickhouse, Transamerican Literary Relations and the Nineteenth-Century Public Sphere; Kirsten Silva Gruesz, Ambassadors of Culture: The Transamerican Origins of Latino Writing; Rodrigo Lazo, Writing to Cuba: Filibustering and Cuban Exiles in the United States; and Iván Jaksic, The Hispanic World and American Intellectual Life, 1820–1880.42 In the pages of these studies can be found important discussions of Heredia.

Primary Sources

Heredia, José María. Poesías. New York: Librería de Behr y Kahl, 1825.Find this resource:

Heredia, José María. Poesías. 2d ed. 2 vols. in 1. Toluca: J. Matute, 1832.Find this resource:

Heredia, José María. Poesías completas. 2d ed. Mexico City: Editorial Porrúa, 1985.Find this resource:

Heredia, José María. Epistolario. Edited by Ángel Augier. Havana: Letras Cubanas, 2005.Find this resource:

José Augusto Escoto Cuban History and Literature Collection, c. 1574–1922 (MS Span 52). Houghton Library, Harvard University.Find this resource:

José María Heredia: Bicentenario de su natalicio, 1803–2003. CD-Rom. Havana: Biblioteca Nacional José Martí, 2003.Find this resource:

Further Reading

Alemany Bay, Carmen. “Leer a José María Heredia en el siglo XXI.” Introduction to Poesía completa by José María Heredia. Madrid: Editorial Verbum, 2004.Find this resource:

Altenberg, Tilmann. Melancolía en la poesía de José María Heredia. Madrid: Iberoamericana, 2001.Find this resource:

Cairo, Ana, ed. Heredia, entre cubanos y españoles. Santiago de Cuba: Editorial Oriente, 2003.Find this resource:

Garrigó, Roque E.Historia documentada de la conspiración de los Soles y Rayos de Bolívar. 2 vols. Havana: Imprenta “El Siglo XX,” 1929.Find this resource:

Gassan, Richard H.The Birth of American Tourism: New York, the Hudson Valley, and American Culture, 1790–1830. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Glover, Adam. “Crisis and Exile: On José María Heredia’s Romanticism.” Decimonónica 10.1 (2013): 78–96.Find this resource:

Luis, William. Dance Between Two Cultures: Latino Caribbean Literature Written in the United States. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Mejía Ricart, Gustavo Adolfo. José María Heredia y sus obras. Havana: Molina y Cia., 1941.Find this resource:

Rodríguez, José Ignacio. Vida del presbítero don Félix Varela. New York: Imprenta de “O Novo Mundo,” 1878.Find this resource:

Soucy, Dominique. Masonería y nación: Redes masónicas y políticas en la construcción identitaria cubana (1811–1902). Santa Cruz de Tenerife: Ediciones Idea, 2006.Find this resource:


(1.) Willis Barnstone, “An abc of Translating Poetry,” in Willis Barnstone, The Poetics of Translation: History, Theory, Practice (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1993), 266.

(2.) Letter to Pepilla Arango, November 1823, in José María Heredia, Epistolario, ed. Ángel Augier (Havana: Letras Cubanas, 2005), 76. Before fleeing Cuba, Heredia sought refuge on the plantation of the Arango family, near Matanzas, and developed a close friendship with Pepilla, who was about Heredia’s age. Heredia refers to Pepilla as “Emilia” in this letter and in his poem “A Emilia.” (All the quotations from Heredia’s letters and verse are by Frederick Luciani.)

(3.) Heredia, Epistolario,76.

(4.) José María Heredia, Poesías completas, 2d ed. (Mexico City: Editorial Porrúa, 1985), 43, 45. For this essay, Heredia’s silvas, which have predominantly hendecasyllabic lines, sometimes alternating with shorter lines of seven syllables, and which employ occasional rhyme, have been translated in pentameter and trimeter lines, predominantly in iambs, also alternating freely and with occasional rhyme.

(5.) Jorge Febles, for example, traces a line from Heredia, through the 19th-century Cuban Romantics and José Martí, to late 20th- and 21st-century autobiographical writings by Pablo Medina, Gustavo Pérez Firmat, Virgil Suárez, Carlos Eire, and Román de la Campa. “Am I Who I Am? Identity Games in US Cuban Literature,” in A Companion to US Latino Literatures, ed. Carlota Caulfield and Darién J. Davis (Woodbridge, U.K., and Rochester, NY: Tamesis, 2007), 67–87.

(6.) Ignacio Heredia y Campuzano was the younger brother of Heredia’s mother. Heredia’s father, José Francisco Heredia, was a colonial official who had occupied significant posts in Venezuela and Mexico during the twilight of the colonial era. He died in 1820 while the family was living in Mexico. José María returned with his widowed mother and his four younger sisters to Cuba, where he completed his studies of law. When he fled Cuba, Heredia was on the verge of a promising legal career in Cuba, which he was unable to pursue in the United States.

(7.) Heredia, Epistolario, 72.

(8.) Heredia, Epistolario, 100.

(9.) Heredia, Epistolario, 72.

(10.) This distinction comes from Michael Ugarte, who notes, “Destierro carries certain connotations specific to Spanish sensibilities. To be ‘unearthed’ (desterrado) is to have lost the essential link between land and soul. Exile is punishment by expulsion. Destierro is also punitive, but in addition it signifies the loss of a necessary and integral human component.” Shifting Ground: Spanish Civil War Exile Literature (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 1989), 10.

(11.) Heredia, Poesías completas, 60.

(12.) Heredia’s poem “A Washington” bears the subtitle “Escrita en Monte Vernon,” which suggests that the poet also visited Washington, DC, and environs. He spent some twenty days in Philadelphia in April 1824 and may have made a side trip to the nation’s capital. In a letter two months prior to his trip to Philadelphia he announced his intention also to visit Baltimore and Washington, but no further mention is made of such a trip in his extant correspondence.

(13.) Barnstone, “An abc of Translating Poetry,” 266.

(14.) United States Review and Literary Gazette 1.4 (January 1827): 283–286.

(15.) Bryant most certainly translated another poem by Heredia, “En una tempestad,” which appeared in early volumes of Bryant’s poetry as “The Hurricane.”

(16.) Héctor H. Orjuela, “Revaloración de una vieja polémica literaria: William Cullen Bryant y la oda ‘Niágara’ de José María Heredia,” Thesaurus: Boletín del Instituto Caro y Cuervo 19 (1964): 248–273.

(17.) Keith Ellis has done a new translation of “Niágara” into English, along with Heredia’s letter written from Niagara Falls, published in a bilingual edition: First Poet of the Americas: José María Heredia and “Niagara Falls” (Havana: Ed. José Martí, 2010).

(18.) José de Onís, “The Alleged Acquaintance of William Cullen Bryant and José María Heredia,” Hispanic Reivew 25.3 (1957), 219–220.

(19.) In The Odes of Bello, Olmedo and Heredia, ed. Elijah Clarence Hills (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1930), 73.

(20.) James Gates Percival, The Poetical Works of James Gates Percival with a Biographical Sketch, 2 vols. (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1863), 2:403.

(21.) Domingo del Monte published a set of Heredia´s travel letters from the United States in the Havana magazine La Moda o Recreo Semanal del Bello Sexo, from November 1829 to March 1830. See Francisco González del Valle, Heredia en la Habana (Havana: Municipio de la Habana, 1939), 50. Heredia´s uncle Ignacio, the recipient of these letters, must have passed them on to Del Monte.

(22.) Heredia, Epistolario, 144.

(23.) Heredia, Epistolario, 144.

(24.) On the topic of possible annexation of Cuba see Louis A. Pérez, Jr., Cuba and the United States: Ties of Singular Intimacy, 3d ed. (Athens, GA, and London: University of Georgia Press, 2003), 29–54.

(25.) Barnstone, “An abc of Translating Poetry,” 271.

(26.) Heredia, Epistolario, 97.

(27.) Heredia, Epistolario, 96.

(28.) Heredia, Epistolario, 176.

(29.) Heredia, Epistolario, 163.

(30.) Heredia, Epistolario, 103.

(31.) Varela arrived in the United States just one month after Heredia; he had served as one of the Cuban delegates to the Spanish Cortes in 1822–1823, but with the suspension of the Cortes and the restoration of Ferdinand VII’s absolutist rule, he had been forced to flee Spain.

(32.) Upon Miralla’s departure from New York for Colombia with a group seeking Bolívar’s help in the liberation of Cuba, Heredia dedicated one of his translations to him, noting that as “exiled friends” they shared a common fate. On the friendship between the two men, see Francisco J. Ponte Domínguez, ed., José Antonio Miralla y sus trabajos (Havana: Publicaciones del Archivo Nacional de Cuba, 1960), 110–111.

(33.) Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.

(34.) Heredia, Epistolario, 101.

(35.) Heredia, Epistolario, 84.

(36.) Heredia Epistolario, 100.

(37.) On the importance of the Escoto papers for Heredia studies and their acquisition by Harvard University, see Augier´s introduction to his edition of Heredia’s Epistolario. It seems that Augier himself was unable to consult the Escoto Collection, since his excellent and otherwise complete edition misses manuscript letters by Heredia contained in it.

(38.) Lomberto Díaz, Heredia, primer romántico hispanoamericano (Montevideo: Ediciones Géminis, 1973); and Francisco González del Valle, Cronología herediana (1803–1839) (Havana: Publicaciones de la Secretaría de Educación, Dirección de Cultura, Imprenta de Montalvo y Cárdenas, 1938).

(39.) Ernest R. Moore, “José María Heredia in New York, 1824–1825,” Symposium 5 (1951): 256–291.

(40.) Leonardo Padura, José María Heredia: La patria y la vida (Havana: Ediciones Unión, 2003), and La novela de mi vida (Barcelona: Tusquets Editores, 2002).

(41.) Manuel Pedro González, “Bryant y Heredia: Dos grandes pioneros de las relaciones culturales inter-americanas,” Revista Nacional de Cultura (Caracas, Venezuela) 25.155 (1962): 43–56; Edith F. Helman, “Early Interest in Spanish in New England (1815–1835),” Hispania 29.3 (1946): 339–351; José de Onis, The United States as Seen by Spanish American Writers (New York: Hispanic Institute in the United States, 1952); Frederick S. Stimson, “The Beginning of American Hispanism, 1770–1830,” Hispania 37.4 (1954): 482–489; and Stanley T. Williams, The Spanish Background of American Literature, 2 vols. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1955).

(42.) Anna Brickhouse, Transamerican Literary Relations and the Nineteenth-Century Public Sphere (Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Kirsten Silva Gruesz, Ambassadors of Culture: The Transamerican Origins of Latino Writing (Princeton, NJ, and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002); Rodrigo Lazo, Writing to Cuba: Filibustering and Cuban Exiles in the United States (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2005); and Iván Jaksic, The Hispanic World and American Intellectual Life, 1820–1880 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).