Tuesday, March 25, 2008


Letter to Harriet Beecher Stowe

-From the American Painter Martin Johnson Heade
in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, October 24, 1863

Your letter arrived two days past, aboard
the frigate Sabine, under the command
of Lieutenant Robert Adams, late of Hartford.
My guide and companion,
Capitao Gonzales of the Brazilian Imperial Navy,
asked that I go with him to the docks
to greet the visiting warship.
Brazil, of course, remains neutral
in the great American conflict,
though it is difficult to assay the feelings
of the populace, who follow the dispatches
with great and voluble interest. There is
a fair-sized American community here,
with both Union and rebel sympathies.
Spies and rumors of saboteurs abound;
the port is open to provisioning
by both sides. To walk the docks before dawn––
weaving through dark bundles and nameless casks––
is to know considerable risk. One hears American voices
urging the lethargic porters––Work faster! Faster!
Mais rapidamente!
The masters of these ships––
southern, northern, or mysteriously non-allied––
hope to slip their berths and vanish
on the next outgoing tide.

My cause here is mundane.
My goal––to paint the hummingbirds of this vast
jungled land, then have these paintings
lithographed on the great presses of London,
where they might be subscribed to
in elegant limited editions,
in the manner of Audubon and Gould,
and thereby to secure, if not my fortune,
perhaps a lasting name. As title for this volume,
I have settled upon Gems of Brazil, for that is
what these hummers are. One thinks of jewels
when watching them sip nectar
or in buzzy, ecstatic flight––
of honey-rich ambers, of bright sapphires,
of rubies and purple amethysts, bodies fired
by the dappled light of this riotously fecund land,
where every swale is decked with passion
flowers, with gardenias and sweet orchids.
One must recall that admonition
written in Proverbs, echoed in the Book of Job––
The price of wisdom is above rubies, and pray
my unbridled enthusiasm for this work
does not bring a tragic end.

I am saddened to learn of your son’s injury
at Gettysburg, and heartened by word of Frederick’s
progress. I pray for his good health. News
of the valiant hours of the Massachusetts artillery
before Pickett’s charge at that fateful ridge,
reached us in a packet of Boston dailies
delivered aboard The Golden City.
The descriptions of the rebel barrage
on the day of Captain Stowe’s head injury––
“Splintered shells and fiendish wailings,
like the predatory howls
of demons in search of their prey,”
astonished the Americans here, and the Union
owes a great debt to Captain Stowe’s bravery.
My best to Frederick. Remember me to all.

As you know, Brazil still suffers the curse of slavery.
Through the intercession of the Reverend Fletcher
and the American consul, the Honorable James Monroe,
I was introduced to Emperor Dom Pedro II.
Upon learning that you were a friend, he asked
if I might secure on his account a copy of your great
and famous book. If you could send one, inscribed,
through American diplomatic channels, I will assure
its delivery to his Excellency, in the hopes your work
will bring as much benefit to this benighted land
as it has to our United States. Until that day, I remain,
your devoted servant, etcetera.


Blogger Leslie said...

I've been trying since 7 this morning to say how much I adore this. How many toward the next book? It's gonna rock.

plus-hey bunny hopping before lunch!

3:03 PM  

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