Department of Romance Languages & Literatures
Hamilton, NY 13346
Jose María Heredia (1803-1839), “Niágara”
The Cuban poet José María Heredia spent a year and eight months in the United States, from December 1823—the same month in which he turned 20 years old—until August 1825. He was a political exile from his homeland, having been implicated in a conspiracy against Spanish rule in Cuba, and his stay in the United States was marked by financial need, ill health in the cold climates of Boston and New York, and homesickness. His friends were mostly other Cuban exiles, and he earned his living by teaching the Spanish language. Yet his 20 months in the United States afforded him opportunity to travel fairly extensively in the Northeast, and he recorded his observations vividly in his correspondence; his trip to Niagara Falls took place in the summer of 1824. And Heredia’s sojourn in the United States was productive in literary terms: the first volume of his poetry, which includes his “Niágara,” was published in New York in 1825.
For Latin Americans in general and for Cubans in particular, Heredia has enjoyed the status of an icon since his premature death in Mexico in 1839, still in exile. He is Cuba’s Byronic hero—emotionally extravagant, simultaneously idealistic and jaded, partisan in a frustrated political struggle of liberation, doomed—and in that sense a prototype for an entire youthful generation of Latin Americans who came of age in a moment of political crisis, emergent nationalisms, and high-Romantic sensibilities. More specifically, he is the prototype of a line of Cuban literary expatriates and/or poet/martyrs: his mixed-race contemporary Plácido, executed by the Spanish authorities for his alleged role in a slave uprising; the passionate and unconventional poet and novelist Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda; of course José Martí, the icon of all Cuban icons; and twentieth-century avatars of the type such as Reinaldo Arenas, victim of anti-gay repression in Cuba and of AIDS who died in New York in 1990.
Heredia’s iconic status was well established by the time José Martí assessed his life and work. Martí judged Heredia to be no less than “el primer poeta americano,” [the first American poet] (Martí 120). Often quoted are the final lines of an address on Heredia that Martí gave at Hardman Hall in New York City in 1889:
About a month ago, the delegates to the Pan-American convention were invited to Niagara to admire its portentous majesty…and upon hearing the thunder of the cataract, the son of Montevideo exclaimed ‘Heredia!’; ‘Heredia!’ said the Nicaraguan, removing his hat; ‘Heredia!’ the Venezuelan echoed, remembering the poet’s glorious childhood in his country; ‘Heredia!’ said the Cubans in that group, as if unworthy of him and of themselves; ‘Heredia!’ said all of America; and the statues of Mexican emperors saluted him with their helmets of stone, Central America with its volcanoes, Brazil with its palm trees, Argentina with its ocean-like pampas… And we, guilty as we are, how shall we salute him? (Martí 141-42)
For Hispanists of a later age, less sentimentally attached to Heredia’s memory, both the poet and his most famous poem retain their iconic status, since they serve as markers of a significant moment in Latin American literary history: the advent of Romantic poetic discourse. Heredia’s “Niágara” is a liminal text in many ways, a poem about precipices and the abyss, the far western point of a journey, a psychologically and emotionally transforming experience. When Heredia “picks up his lyre,” he does so to play it in a new way, at the tender age of twenty, but with the vision of a poet ready to articulate a new poetic language—or rather, to pour an already established poetic idiom, Romanticism, into a new language, Spanish.
A severe appraisal of the results might charge the poem with a certain “Romanticism by the Numbers” quality. One could cite the poem’s emotional excess, the over-use of exclamation, a certain solipsistic preoccupation with the self, a pose of world-weariness that, in a young man of twenty, rings somewhat false. The poem can be seen as a kind of studio piece, an exercise in Romantic discourse copied from models—this despite the fact that Heredia’s own correspondence would seem to support the sincerity of the poem, the genuineness of the experience. In a detailed letter that he wrote describing his visit to Niagara, he claimed that he wrote the poem seated on a rock near the edge of the falls: “allí escribí apresuradamente los versos…que sólo expresan débilmente una parte de mis sensaciones.” [There I wrote the lines of verse…that only express, feebly, part of my sensations].
Despite Heredia’s protestations of spontaneity and in-situ inspiration, his trip to the falls was, almost necessarily, a literary pilgrimage, and his poem and its companion letter suggest a revisiting of some pretty well-traveled terrain. In the letter, Heredia cites descriptions of Niagara found in Chateaubriand’s Atala and in a travel narrative published in Edinburgh in 1822 by John Howison. Even as early as Heredia’s visit in 1824, it would seem that any literary evocation of the falls, in verse or prose, would inevitably be a rewriting, since the “encounter with the natural sublime” at Niagara was by then a literary commonplace. One can only wonder to what degree the nature of Heredia’s experience at Niagara, and its textual manifestations, were predetermined by certain established formulas.
Yet Heredia’s poem somehow emerged from the textual din of the falls to become a classic, not just in Spanish, but also in English translation. This surely has something to do with the prestige and influence of the poem’s sponsor—but not primary translator—in the United States, the great poet, essayist, journalist, patron of writers and painters, and newspaper publisher, William Cullen Bryant. The association with Bryant puts Heredia in the orbit of a generation of mid-nineteenth-century North American writers, thinkers, artists, and educators with Bryant at its center. Bryant called Heredia’s poem “Niágara” “the best that has been written about the great American cataract,” a judgment which doubtlessly led him to include a translation of the poem in the United States Review and Literary Gazette in January of 1827, a journal that he co-edited. The fortunes of that translation in the nineteenth century were great; Heredia’s poem in English was anthologized broadly and consistently in the United States and England. A long fragment of the poem even appeared as early as 1827, in John Pierpont’s The National Reader, a school textbook used widely in the United States (Orjuela 253).
What was it that made Heredia’s “Niágara” stand out, for Bryant and other Anglo-Americans, from among countless evocations of the falls? The answer to that question might offer some fruitful potential for crossover study of this poem, within the context of mid-nineteenth century cultural and aesthetic concerns in the United States. Was Bryant, the progressive thinker and advocate of social justice, most compelled by Heredia the Cuban patriot, the political exile? Did Bryant see Heredia as a “fellow traveler” both figuratively (an ideological soul mate) and literally (a seeker of the natural sublime in the New York “wilderness,” like Bryant’s painter friends of the Hudson River School)? Was there an essentially didactic, pedagogical cast to Bryant’s affinity for Heredia and his poem?
There are bits of evidence that would support this last possibility. The actual translator of Heredia’s “Niágara” as it appeared in Bryant’s United States Review was a certain Thatcher Taylor Payne, close friend of and literary collaborator with Bryant, a member of a family of scholars and teachers with a particular fondness for European languages and literatures. The two men were part of a New York circle of North American aficionados, including teachers, of Spanish language and literature. Heredia’s poem, it would seem, had a kind of crossover pedagogical appeal, which would explain the poem’s presence in The National Reader, as well as Heredia’s favor with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow decades later, during Longfellow’s time as professor of languages at Harvard.
In a way, Heredia’s “Niágara” was born in the humble world of teachers and students of Spanish. The collection of Poesías in which it first appeared, in New York in 1825, is prefaced by the following note to the reader, authored by Heredia himself, first in Spanish and then in the English of which he was a student:
Se notará en esta obrita profusión de acentos; pero ha sido necesario emplearlos, para hacerla útil a los Americanos que estudian el Español, y desean adquirir una buena pronunciación.
The author has paid particular attention to the accents, to make these poems useful to Americans learning the Spanish language. Nothing is better calculated to give them a practical knowledge of the true pronunciation of words, than the habit of reading poetry. May they receive this little service of an exiled youth, as an expression of gratitude for the asylum he has found in this happy country!
Perhaps Heredia’s preface can serve as a point of departure for the contemporary teacher wishing to introduce “Niágara” to a new generation of North American students. It serves as a reminder of the compelling life circumstances in which the poem was conceived, echoes and embodies important themes of the poem itself (exile, cultural crossings), and prefigures the remarkable and profound appeal that the poem was to have for Anglo-American readers in the nineteenth-century, including generations of students whose first encounters with the language and literature of Spanish-speaking America included this evocation of a North American natural wonder.
Works Cited and Consulted
Arenas, Reinaldo. El mundo alucinante. Mexico City: Editorial Diógenes, 1969.
Brown, Charles Henry. William Cullen Bryant. New York: Scribner, 1971.
Díaz, Lomberto. Heredia: primer romántico hispanoamericano. Montevideo: Ediciones
Dow, Charles Mason, ed. Anthology and Bibliography of Niagara Falls. 2 vols. Albany:
State of New York, 1921.
Heredia, José María. Niágara y otros textos (poesía y prosa selectas). Ed. Angel Augier.
Caracas: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 1990.
-----. Poesías. Nueva York: Librería de Behr y Kahl, Imprenta de Gray y Bunce, 1825.
-----. Poesías, discursos y cartas. Tomo II. Habana: Cultural, S.A., 1939.
Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth, ed. The Poets and Poetry of Europe. Philadelphia: Carey and
Martí, José. “Heredia.” In C. Santos González, ed., Poetas y críticos de América. Paris:
Casa Editorial Garnier Hermanos, 1912.
McGreevy, Patrick V. Imagining Niagara: The Meaning and Making of Niagara Falls.
Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994.
McKinsey, Elizabeth. Niagara Falls: Icon of the American Sublime. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1985.
McVay, Ted. E. “The Sublime Aesthetic in the Poetry of José María Heredia.”
Dieciocho 17, 1 (1994): 33-41.
Orjuela, Héctor H. “Revaloración de una vieja polémica literaria: William Cullen
Bryant y la oda ‘Niágara’ de José María Heredia.” Boletín del Instituto Caro y Cuervo 19 (1964): 248-73.
Peterson, Roy M. “Bryant as a Hispanophile.” Hispania 16 (1933): 407-8.
 For a fine overview of Heredia’s life, see Díaz.
 Heredia appears as a gently parodied character in Arenas’ phantasmagoric novel El mundo alucinante (Hallucinations in English).
 Translations of all quotations are my own.
 For all of his admiration for Heredia, Martí was to note something of this sort in his appraisal of some of Heredia’s lesser works, which he viewed as superficial compared with those of Lord Byron, for example. Martí concluded that “a Heredia le sobraron alientos, y le faltó mundo” [Heredia had enthusiasm in spades, but he lacked “world”] (Martí 124).
 This letter, written in Manchester, NY and dated June 17, 1824, is included in the collection Poesías, discursos y cartas, pp. 65-77.
 I assume that the “Horwinsar” cited in Heredia’s letter is in fact Howison. Howison’s letter is excerpted in Dow, vol. 1.
 For numerous examples, see Dow.
 The association with Bryant was not a personal one; an extant letter from Bryant establishes that they never met. See Orjuela’s meticulous sorting out of the question of the relationship between Bryant and Heredia and, especially, the authorship of the translation of “Niágara” traditionally attributed to Bryant.
 In an 1826 letter cited by Orjuela, p. 258.
 Among these was Thomas Cole, famously portrayed with Bryant perched on a ledge in Kaaterskill Clove in the Catskills, in the painting “Kindred Spirits” by Asher B. Durand, which hangs in the New York Public Library.
 Bryant revised Thatcher’s translation, but, sensitive to the fact that his friend was the true translator, never took credit for it, although the poem was eventually to become attributed solely to Bryant. See Orjuela.
 Heredia is chronologically the last Spanish-language poet anthologized in Longfellow’s compendious and influential collection The Poets and Poetry of Europe, and the poem chosen is the Payne translation of “Niagara.” The only attribution given, however, is to the United States Review in which the translation first appeared.