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Washington State University
Since colonization, the U.S. and
Cuba have enjoyed a closer relationship with each other than they did
with their respective mother countries. Mary Gardner Lowell’s
journal recalls this period of strong economic and social ties. This
previously unpublished manuscript is the latest journal issued in The
New England Woman’s Diary Series. Lowell’s vivid account recounts
her departure from Boston society, introduction to the plantations of
Cuba, and her return to Boston by way of the Mississippi River. Her
pithy narrative records a wealth of experiences, producing an
important resource for social historians.
Lowell also provides interesting discussions on the
interconnections of U.S. and Cuban cultures. Her keen social
commentary should interest those who follow U.S.-Cuba relations.
Lowell chronicles her passage
across geographical, social, and racial borders, and in doing so gives
life to topics not covered in traditional histories of the period. The
Lowells leave Boston during the winter of 1831 and are overwhelmed by
sea travel. Despite seasickness and uncomfortable berths, Mary Lowell
details the daily aspects of their voyage. Upon arriving in Havana,
the Lowells are absorbed into the vast community of Americans living
in Cuba, who were drawn there by economic interest and the medical
benefits of wintering in the tropical climates. While in Havana,
Lowell attends a number of Spanish parties. Her foray into Spanish
society provides her the opportunity to contrast it against Boston
society. She clearly denotes variations in gender roles, social mores,
and material culture.
Lowell’s uniquely feminine
perspective allows the reader to better understand the lives of women
of her class, and brings to light items that are lacking in men’s’
travelogues of the period. She writes as a privileged white woman, a
wife, mother, and independent woman enjoying the freedoms allowed a
foreigner abroad. Lowell is harsh in her judgment of Spanish women.
She views them as lazy, corpulent, and lacking in refinement or
occupation. Her opinion of Spanish women is, in part, influenced by
linguistic barriers, Lowell speaks no Spanish and is unable to speak
directly with the people she critiques. Lowell also records her
interactions with female slaves who care for both white and black
children on the plantations.
While in Matanzas, Lowell stays on
a number of plantations where she is quick to describe the living
conditions of the slaves as well as their function on the plantation.
She does not appear to oppose slavery; her feelings might be linked to
her husbands’ economic ties to the plantations.
While Lowell does speak out against slave owners who do not
provide their slaves with proper clothing, she believes that some of
the plantation owners she encounters are guilty of mistreating their
slaves. In comparing the Cuban to the American slave system, she
argues that American slaves are better fed and clothed.
Lowell’s social class strongly
influences the journal. Working
within social parameters, she deftly portrays the lives of the landed
elite and those who serve them. Lowell is oblivious to the proletariat
surrounding her in Cuba and only mentions working American men when
she is forced to share accommodations with them while on the
Mississippi. In ignoring the Cuban natives Lowell fails to address
ethnic variation. While she holds ethnocentric prejudices towards
blacks, she makes no indication that she views the Spaniards as
racially different than herself.
The editor of the series wanted the
text to be unhampered by “scholarly apparatus”. Given this limited
approach, the general introduction written by Karen Robert is
successful in placing the journal within the necessary historical
context. She also points to the text as potentially useful for future
scholars and suggests that it raises important issues of race, gender,
and class. Lowell’s
journal of converging cultures in Cuba is problematic, for the same
reason that it is useful. The journal provides readers with insight
into ninetieth century Cuba through the eyes of a privileged white