Saturday, February 11, 2017

Louis A. Pérez Jr.'s "Intimations of Modernity"

Louis A. Pérez Jr. is J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as well as the Academia de la Historia de Cuba, Perez is author of numerous books on Cuban history and culture, including On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality, and Culture and The Structure of Cuban History: Meanings and Purpose of the Past.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Intimations of Modernity: Civil Culture in Nineteenth-Century Cuba, and reported the following:
It happens that page 99 of Intimations of Modernity is the first page of Chapter Four, taken up mostly with epigrams containing quoted passages from three nineteenth-century books by Edward Sullivan (1852), George Walton (1871), and Maturin Ballou (1885), and bearing witness to far-reaching social change overtaking Cuba. Foreign travelers to Cuba were often shrewd observers and faithful chroniclers of a time and place. Many understood the significance–if perhaps not always the implications–of what they observed. They paid attention to detail and were attentive to nuance and subtlety. They moved freely among Cubans, visited homes and workplaces, walked the city streets and traveled the country roads, they sensed the local mood and observed national developments, they recorded conversations and collected anecdotes.

Each traveler quoted on p. 99 took note of a phenomenon: “I fear you cannot always say [that Cuban ladies] lead an innocent existence, flirting being by far their most engrossing occupation,” wrote Sullivan. Walton wrote that he had observed Cuban women “from early morning till late at night . . . coquetting with their fans.” And Ballou wrote of the evening open-air concerts in Havana where “flirtations are carried on.”

The three travelers discerned what serves as one of the principal themes of the book: far-reaching social change registered in changing gender roles. Sugar had lifted Cuba aloft into the heady swirl of foreign commerce, among the advanced capitalist nations of the world–Cubans exulted–to register a presence in transnational market networks. The book explores the culture of capitalism, the way that market forces insinuated themselves into the multiple facets of the daily lives of the men and women of an emerging urban middle class as moral systems and cultural practices. Page 99 speaks to one of the salient transformations wrought by market forces as changing material circumstances altered moral systems, affected cultural forms, and modified social conduct–all revealed in changing gender relations.
Learn more about Intimations of Modernity at the University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue