Aesthetic modes and categories of perception and judgement were crucial to the development of Charles Darwin’s “theory of descent with modification through natural selection.” Indeed, Darwin understood the aesthetic as fundamentally constitutive of the natural historian’s method. In the closing retrospect of the journal of his circumnavigation as ship’s naturalist on HMS Beagle (1836), Darwin assesses his experience in aesthetic terms—of pleasure and pain, wonder and horror, the picturesque and sublime—rather than in terms of acquired scientific knowledge. Darwin’s account of the voyage makes aesthetic discrimination the main technique of natural-historical observation: it affords cognition of the natural world as a complex interplay of formal differences constituting a dynamic totality, a living system. A key aesthetic category, the sublime, articulates the awful discrepancy between human and natural scales of history, event, and meaning.
Darwin makes a strategic appeal to the aesthetic to justify his new vision of nature to the Victorian public, overriding its scandalous ethical and political implications, in On the Origin of Species (1859): “There is grandeur in this view of life . . . from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” As well as the exposition of an argument, the Origin is a treatise on method. Darwin trains his readers to appreciate the evaluative scrutiny of formal difference that characterizes the operation of natural selection itself. The opening chapter, on artificial selection, proposes the domestic animal breeder as a “connoisseur,” expert in assessing minute morphological variations without concern for an ultimate end—that is, the improvement of the race. The figure is an analogue for natural selection, the motive principle of which is the fine but decisive discrimination (for life or death) of individual differences.
The “powers of discrimination and taste” determine human evolution—constituting its medium, the semi-autonomous domain of culture—according to Darwin’s next synthetic statement of his theory. The Descent of Man (1871) proposes the supplementary agency of sexual selection as the main motor of human cultural development. Its productive principle is, once again, the evaluation of fine formal differences (“there is in the mind of man a strong love for slight changes in all things”), trained, however, upon pleasurable appearance rather than function or use. Sexual selection generates “the differences in external appearance between the races of man,” as well as between the sexes, explicitly on grounds of aesthetic preference: Darwin conflates skin color, body hair, and other physiological features with artificial ornaments in a rhapsodic vision of the infinite variety of human standards of beauty. Sexual selection claims a field of formal superfluity or redundancy, neutral with respect to the pressures of natural selection, in which the aesthetic comes into play, originated by the erotic drive but not functionally bound by it. Darwin decisively relocates aesthetic judgement—and the play of form—upon a principle of etiologically generated, infinite formal differentiation: emancipating it from the strongly normative teleological account that Victorian culture took over from German Idealism.
Not until the end of the 20th century did scholars begin to look at early African American print culture in the depth it deserves. A story painfully intertwined with the transatlantic slave system and racism, early black print engagement combined, from its beginnings, responses to white aggression and a powerful set of individual and communal desires to read about, record, and, via print, share truths of black life in the United States. Some of the first creators of black print in the United States, from the authors of the earliest slave narratives to poet Phillis Wheatley, had to think through questions of individual and communal identity vis-à-vis emerging American socio-political structures and find ways to ensure control over their own voices in a white-dominated culture that tried to exclude, use, or abuse those voices.
But early black print culture is not simply the story of a single genre like the slave narrative or of exceptional individuals like Wheatley. Rather, it is also the story of organizational print tied to churches, conventions, and activist groups. It is as well the story of a diverse range of modes, from the rich pamphleteering tradition (perhaps most excitingly expressed by David Walker) to early black periodicals like those edited by Samuel Cornish and Philip Bell. Especially after 1830, it also became the story of a range of black women (from Maria Stewart and Jarena Lee to Frances Ellen Watkins Harper), of African Americans across the North (and occasionally in the midst of the slave South), and of an increasing number of formats, genres, and approaches. And it became a story of how black activists might interact (in print and beyond) with white antislavery activists, recognizing both shared and different goals and philosophies as they attempted to fight not only for emancipation but for broader civil rights.
Carolina Alzate and Betty Osorio
As in the case of other Western literary traditions, women’s relationship to writing in Spanish America has been problematic since early modernity. From colonial times onward, women’s emergence on the writing scene as authors went hand in hand with a redescription of the feminine that allowed them to become producers of written culture and to find a respectable entry into the public sphere from which they were excluded. Spanish-American feminine tradition from the 16th through the 20th centuries may be read as a gradual, heterogeneous, and difficult but nonetheless sustained and very productive occupation of new ground. Legitimation of their voice passed through the reading of the male tradition, the establishment of a female tradition, and the redescription of a subjectivity that would make it possible for them to take up the pen and eventually to imagine themselves being read by others. Establishing the contents of these women’s libraries, reconstructed through their testimonies of reading both in a colonial society in which illiteracy was very high—especially among women—and in 19th-century society in general, and in which access to the written word remained restricted, are key elements for understanding their writing. Most female authorship during the colonial period took the form of religious writing and was dependent upon the male figure of the confessor, as was the possibility of publishing their life stories and writings. But women authors were not only nuns, and it is also possible to find examples of women who left their mark on writing due to special circumstances (travelers and so-called witches). Male tutelage tended to remain in force throughout the 19th century, and newspapers would provide vitally important new spaces for publication in the young independent republics. Women’s relationship to newspapers, both as readers and authors, was essential to this writing tradition, and it would allow them to build reading and editorial networks—both within the Americas and across the Atlantic, a context that must be understood to properly understand their writing projects. Women writers in the early 20th century would travel, not without difficulty, along the roads paved by the pioneers. The year 1959, a provisional closing date marked by the Cuban Revolution, helps position 20th-century literature as one of the forms of the crisis of modernity: that which reveals and celebrates heterogeneity and could no longer openly continue excluding women from the authorized spaces for the production of meaning.