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Volume 50 / Humanities


19th Century: Spanish American Literature Before Modernism

WILLIAM H. KATRA, Assistant Professor of Spanish, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

RESEARCHERS THIS PAST biennium continue to emphasize the historical or political relevance of 19th-century Latin American writers and their works. There is an implicit awareness of the predominantly ethical agenda of the region's elites during the post-independence period, of their attempts to exercise a positive influence in societies characterized by inchoate social and political institutions and relentless civil strife. The pragmatic objectives of that literary effort contrast sharply with the more broadly "aesthetic" focus of European literature during the same period.

Several recent works highlight the contributions of important intellectuals whose influence was not limited to the field of literature. In this regard, the Biblioteca Ayacucho - approaching its 100th volume - continues to set the standard for academic publications. The volume dedicated to Honduras' José Cecilio del Valle (item bi 89007327) follows Ayacucho's successful formula of joining a carefully selected anthology or annotated edition to a short critical introduction and an exhaustive chronology. The governments of Mexico, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic add a nationalist flavor to similar works that treat, respectively, the writings and times of José Othón, Lisandro Alvarado, and Gastón Deligne (items bi 89007357, bi 89007356, and bi 89007326). Two brilliant chapters from Angel Rama's La ciudad letrada (item bi 890016524) relate the isolated city of Latin America's 19th century to the separation that existed between intelligentsia and pueblo, culture and sociopolitical reality.

A revived critical interest in costumbrista literature also relates to this neo-romantic highlighting of early nationalist or regionalist sentiment. This was a hybrid genre which sometimes approximated the essay in its didactic treatment of social types, at other times resembling the regional novel in its narrative plot structure. Ayacucho's anthology of Cuban costumbristas (item bi 89007335) is noteworthy. The volume published by the Univ. Nacional Autónoma de México on that country's short romantic novels (item bi 89007334) and the Colombian government's anthology of Eugenio Díaz Castro (item bi 89007333) are also of excellent quality.

A similar historical or ideological focus - as opposed to a stylistic or aesthetic orientation - predominates in several publications that critically evaluate the literature and ideas of writer-militants in relation to their times. Some critics consciously participate in "revisionist" movements that put forth alternative interpretations to distorted or mystified "official stories." Such is the case of Enrique de Gandía's authoritative treatment of the politics of Martín Fierro's creator, José Hernández (item bi 89007365); William H. Katra's studies of the early writing and career of Domingo F. Sarmiento (items bi 89007373 and bi 89016516); María Rosa Olivera-Williams' consideration of gauchesque poetry (item bi 89007377); Fernando Operé's analysis of the literature attacking Argentine dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas (item bi 89007350); and Bernardo Subercaseaux's study (item bi 89007359) highlighting the philosophical and political content of José V. Lastarria's work. Doris Sommer's political and feminist appraisals of Latin America's "nation-building" narratives (item bi 89016515) and the Dominican "romance" Enriquillo (item bi 89016620) have a similar impact.

The "incestual" blend of history and culture also characterizes a significant new tendency in criticism: the focus on marginal or "sub-literary" texts. Most outstanding among such essays is Ana Cara-Walker's (item bi 89007351), which traces the evolving characterization of the "Cocoliche," or the part-gaucho, part-immigrant Chaplinesque clown, through Argentine journalistic and theatrical representations. The studies on Mexican pulp fiction, crude abolitionist rhymes from Cuba, domestic feminine verses, and Afro-Argentine poetry of Rosas' Federation are also worthy of note.

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