In This Article Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliography
  • Essay Collections
  • Conference Proceedings

Renaissance and Reformation Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
by
Emilie Bergmann
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0390

Introduction

Celebrated in her own time as the “Tenth Muse” and, in the 20th century, as “first feminist” of the Americas, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (b. 1648–d. 1695) was a brilliant poet, nun, and self-taught intellectual. Generations of Mexican schoolchildren have memorized her satirical ballad “Hombres necios que acusáis/a la mujer sin razón . . .” (You foolish men who cast all blame on women), and her portrait appears on the 200-peso note. And yet, despite her current status as an icon of Mexican culture, the first edition of her complete works was not published until 1951, three centuries after her birth. While some scholars attribute the centuries of neglect to the rejection of baroque literary style, it was not until the second wave of feminism in the 1970s that her writing began to receive rigorous scholarly attention. Because there is so little documentation of the poet’s life, and Sor Juana scholarship began in earnest only in the past half-century, debates continue regarding her biography, not always resolved by discoveries of new documents in the 20th century. It is impossible to establish a chronology for most of Sor Juana’s works, except those written for specific occasions, such as the Neptuno alegórico (1680), the villancicos (song sets for religious festivals), and the polemical Respuesta a sor Filotea (1691), a rhetorical tour de force in defense of her pursuit of knowledge and of the education of women. Other major works are her long philosophical poem, Primero sueño (First Dream, c. 1685); her love poetry and satirical verse; and the Loa (introduction) to the auto sacramental (allegorical religious play) El divino Narciso (1690) dramatizing the violence of the Spanish conquest and religious conversion of the indigenous population of Mexico. Sor Juana’s works are available online in scanned first editions and digitized texts.

General Overviews

The range of genres and the complexity of Sor Juana’s thought requires multiple approaches: literary, rhetorical, philosophical, theological, and historical. Scholars have researched elements of Aristotelianism, Thomism, or Neoplatonism; piety or subversion; Creole or pro-Indian identity; feminism in the Respuesta; lesbianism in poetry of love and friendship; Jesuit affinities or antagonism; and orthodoxy or defiance in her devotional writings. Castellanos 1966 invited her readers to study Sor Juana’s works instead of repeating popular anecdotes and pseudo-psychoanalytic speculation about her life. Puccini 1996, which first appeared in Italian a year after Castellanos’s invitation, offers close readings of the adaptation of visual imagery from earlier baroque poetry in Primero sueño, demonstrating the poet’s originality in concepts and versification. Several scholars took up Castellanos’s challenge in the 1970s: Electa Arenal, Marie-Cécile Bénassy-Berling, and Georgina Sabat-Rivers among them. Paz 1982 is a monumental study, the culmination of research begun in the 1950s, situating Sor Juana’s writings in the cultural context of the literary Baroque and the colonial politics of church and state. Although his approach to questions of gender and sexuality is outdated, Paz’s close readings of Sor Juana’s baroque conceits are illuminating. Bénassy-Berling 1983 surveys the poet’s philosophical intertexts, including the Christian hermeticism of Athanasius Kircher (pp. 138–150). Merrim 1999 places Sor Juana at the center of a transatlantic assembly of brilliant women, “Tenth Muses,” writing poetry and prose on science and love: Anne Bradstreet, María de Zayas, Madame de Lafayette, and Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. Martínez-San Miguel 1999 foregrounds the difference in the poet’s perspective as a Creole woman, calling attention to the performance of feminine intellectual subjectivity in the Respuesta and indigenous and Afro-Hispanic voices in the villancicos and sacramental theater. Scholarly interpretations differ regarding the significance of documents discovered since the publication of Paz’s study in 1982, but its influence is indisputable, on scholarly approaches as well as novels, film, plays, operas, and a Mexican television series based on the poet’s life.

  • Bénassy-Berling, Marie-Cécile. Humanismo y religión en Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1983.

    E-mail Citation »

    Argues that Sor Juana developed an original pro-feminist Christian humanism, with perceptive texual analyses and valulable analysis of the historical context, based on Bénassy-Berling’s 1979 doctoral dissertation, published in French as Humanisme et réligion chez Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: La femme et la culture au XVIIe siècle. Paris: Sorbonne, 1982.

  • Castellanos, Rosario. “Asedio a sor Juana” and “Otra vez sor Juana.” In Juicios sumarios: Ensayos sobre literatura. Vol. 1. By Rosario Castellanos, 15–30. Xalapa, Mexico: Universidad Veracruzana, 1966.

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    Two influential essays by Mexico’s first avowedly feminist poet, novelist, and essayist, arguing for Sor Juana’s significance as a brilliantly witty colonial poet, playwright, and polemicist; exposing the misogyny of neglect and misinterpretation; and advocating the scholarly study of her writing. Valuable as a succinct, prescient introduction to ongoing topics of research and debate.

  • Martínez-San Miguel, Yolanda. Saberes Americanos: Subalternidad y epistemologia en los escritos de Sor Juana. Pittsburgh, PA: Instituto Internacional de Literatura Iberoamericana, 1999.

    E-mail Citation »

    Argues that Sor Juana’s experience of difference as a Creole woman in a colonial society enabled her to develop a “situated knowledge” in the romances, villancicos, Primero sueño, and religious and secular theater. Important for the range of genres addressed and the development of an intersectional approach to the poet’s multiple perspectives.

  • Merrim, Stephanie. Early Modern Women’s Writing and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1999.

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    Merrim’s close readings of Sor Juana’s poetry are exceptionally perceptive, and she integrates Sor Juana’s poetry, prose, and theater into the pan-European context of celebrated 17th-century women intellectuals.

  • Paz, Octavio. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, o, las trampas de la fe. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1982.

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    The most comprehensive monograph to date. The subtitle points toward Paz’s view of Sor Juana’s doomed attempt to negotiate an intellectual life in an authoritarian ideological environment.

  • Paz, Octavio. Sor Juana or, The Traps of Faith. Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.

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    Peden’s English version includes a translation of the “Carta de Monterrey,” first published in 1981, in which Sor Juana dismisses her confessor (pp. 495–502).

  • Puccini, Dario. Una mujer en soledad: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, una excepción en la cultura y la literatura barroca. Translated by Esther Benítez. Madrid: Anaya/Muchnik, 1996.

    E-mail Citation »

    Updated translation of Puccini’s pioneering Italian monograph published in 1967.

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