Briggs, Ronald. The Moral Electricity of Print: Transatlantic Education and the Lima Women's Circuit 1876-1910.
In his important new book The Moral Electricity of Print, Ronald Briggs analyzes the ways in which the variegated discourses on educational reform, women's emancipation, republicanism, and literary aesthetics were interwoven throughout the nineteenth century to form a web of exchange that had hemispheric and trans- Atlantic proportions. Taking as its base the "Lima Circle" that brought together in "literary soirees" hosted by Juana Manuela Gorriti some of the most important Spanish American writers of the time, many of whom were women, The Moral Electricity of Print traces the cosmopolitan networks that sustained recurrent debates on what was seen as the fundamental role of writing, reading, and publishing in shaping the emergent republics of the New World.
The phrase "moral electricity" that gives the book its title appeared in an 1856 article penned by the American transcendentalist Charles Brooks. However, as Briggs points out, far from being limited to this specific author, the phrase captures the echoes and resonances of a widespread belief in the power of books and their capacity to transmit--in parallel to the workings of electric waves--invisible moral messages that could impact and transform readers' sensibilities and behavior. The trope that Briggs insightfully recovers thus allows him to move fluidly across the vectors of time and space, back and forth from the Americas to Europe, and from the views of American transcendentalists like Brooks to the sequels of the French Revolution. In the book, Briggs carefully re-builds not only the conversations that writers like Clorinda Matto, Mercedes Cabello, Soledad Acosta, Emilia Serrano and other members of the Lima network sustained with contemporary authors from the US and Spain, but also how they "claimed predecessors such as Germaine de Stael and Harriet Beecher Stowe and treated them as quasi-contemporaries" (186).
A fundamental contribution of this book is how it re-situates the "Lima Circle" and its authors not only in a broader cartography but also in a new historical light. Against dominant nationalist frameworks that came together during the twentieth century and on which the literary canons of this period were consolidated, Briggs postulates the centrality of the women writers he studies to the configuration of Spanish American public spheres. Far from being marginal figures, Briggs convincingly demonstrates that these intellectuals had (at least) a two-fold presence in the political atmospheres of their time. On the one hand, they were using their publications to advocate and embody women's rights as they materialized editorial projects that foreshadowed the practice of bringing together alternative canons and recovering the historically lost voices of other women intellectuals who preceded them. While on the other, they were simultaneously drawing from and contributing to shape the deep-rooted narrative of republican progress across the Americas. "Celebrated at home as writers, teachers, and public intellectuals and welcomed (and published, and published about) throughout the Americas and Western Europe, they were anything but marginal in their own time" (187).
The book also offers a refreshing and innovative approach to literature. Through a rigorous study of the rhetoric that was put in motion by the primary sources it considers, The Moral Electricity of Print moves beyond the representational work of literature in order to explore how the medium was conceived, although in shifting ways throughout the nineteenth century, as a pedagogical tool of sorts. In this sense, the five chapters of the book read as a genealogy of the social novel that arcs back to figures like Sarmiento during the aftermath of Independence. Exploring the anxiety that plagued the minds and projects of early nineteenth century intellectuals who saw the future of the emerging republics as linked to establishing a "healthy" cycle to both produce and sustain a solid publication industry and an educated public, Briggs analyzes the convoluted North-South / Europe-America dynamics that permeated such imaginations. The "book anxiety" that Briggs follows appears as a space where the negotiation and pushback against the overwhelming influences of the Old World over the New played out. The book opens with a fascinating analysis of Sarmiento's recounting in Recuerdos de Provincia of his encounter with Ackermann's catechisms, through which Briggs fleshes out how in the midst of the chaotic aftermath of revolution the "power of the book" was invoked as a tool that could make up for the lack of institutionalized education.
The Moral Electricity of Print then moves on to consider the importance of "exemplary" genres, from biographies that helped shape the hemispheric myth of the autodidact to the collective feminist biographies that both modeled and challenged gender-norms as they sought to counteract the dominance of a war and military- based sensibility that spread after independence and replacing it with more "virtuous" values, often ascribed to women. The book ends with two chapters that further explore the intertwinement of pedagogical and literary theories and practices of the time. The first of these chapters is dedicated to the study of textbook and anthology projects designed by intellectuals of the hemisphere as they molded the idea of a "pedagogical reading" (18) resulting from an intertwinement of literary aesthetics and classroom dynamics. It also explores the rise of discourses on the perfectibility of humans as they became increasingly tied to education. Briggs pays important attention to the tensions at the heart of the republican project that came into being in highly racialized and hierarchized social bodies. The second of these final chapters is dedicated to fin-de-siecle aesthetic theories of the novel and explores the diverging perspectives on naturalist realism that Cabello, Matto, and Acosta sustained as they envisioned different social projects that nevertheless situ ated at their center the pedagogical use of novels. The chapter places these authors in dialogue with contemporary (and contemporarily read) writers like Zola, Hugo, Tolstoy and others.
As the reader of this review can already tell, The Moral Electricity of Print is a fundamental contribution to the expanding field of hemispheric studies. A rigorous and exciting approach to the global networks that participated in building the "pedagogical imperative" that traversed the nineteenth-century and the crucial role that the women writers of the "Lima Circle" played in shaping this landscape.
University of Michigan
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2018|
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