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Volume 54 / Humanities


19th Century: Spanish American Literature Before Modernism

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

THREE OUTSTANDING BOOK-LENGTH studies published during the past biennium offer a high critical standard by which to guide future research on Spanish America's 19th-century literature: Doris Sommer's Foundational fictions (item bi 94004676), Julio Ramos' Desencuentros de la modernidad en América Latina (item bi 93011173) and Silvia Molloy's At face value: autobiographical writing in Spanish America (item bi 92020149). All three come together in their focus on the issue of self-figuration, that is to say, the ways in which 19th-century writers demonstrated their awareness of self and culture, and how they attempted to validate their respective forms of writing within the hierarchy of social discourses. It must be remembered that 19th-century Hispanic American writers wrote at a time when national cultures and literatures were just emerging and when literary genres were not as differentiated or institutionalized to the extent they are today. These critical works capture well the dilemma of Hispanic America's most accomplished and self-conscious writers in the process of forging an adequate expression and defining a social space for their fabulations. Sommer, Ramos, and Molloy excel in drawing imaginatively from the stream of recent critical and theoretical writings in constructing their respective analytical frameworks; in each case, the resulting narrative avoids dogmatism and jargon. In addition, the three exhibit intimate familiarity with foundational as well as lesser studied texts from the library canon of the past two centuries. And lastly, all succeed in drawing the links between literary discourse and society or politics.

Even more importantly, these three critics demonstrate with remarkable success the common substratum of ideas and tendencies that influenced writers from across the Hispanic American region. The magnificent dream of Bolívar to unite the different regions in political alliance had failed due to the enormous geographical distances, impediments to communication, and the strong impetus everywhere for political autonomy. Whereas local nation-builders yielded to the pressures of inter-regional rivalries, the intellectuals, in their writings and thought, continued nourishing an awareness of shared linguistic and cultural links.

This triad of critics, in studying the principal writings of the previous century, demonstrate important shared practices and values. Sommer, for example, explains how, in country after country, writers of "historical novels" offered similar models in both fiction and social and political foundation. Different writers in various countries followed remarkably similar writing agendas: while novelistically depicting romantic passion and desire for domestic happiness, they also provided a rhetoric that in many cases contributed to the hegemonic project of national institutionalization. Those writers were inspired by sometimes highly contrasting social and political agendas, "ranging from racism to abolitionism, from nostalgia to modernization, from free trade to protectionism." Yet noteworthy is the longevity and universality of their collective appeal to and demand for erotic/social romance: its first manifestation was in the historical novels written in the 1840s by Argentines Sarmiento and Mármol, and the Cuban Gómez de Avellaneda. Toward the end of the century the same themes continued to reverberate in the writings of Zorrilla de San Martín (Uruguay), Isaacs (Colombia), and Altamirano (Mexico), and Sommer's analysis continues up through the 1940s.

Whereas Sommer's analysis reveals the synchronic dimensions of romance's appeal, Ramos' major contribution is his delineation of literary discourse's evolving function and status vis-à-vis the sociohistorical backdrop. Echoing Sommer, he demonstrates that in the period following political emancipation from Spain, writing in the different countries was generally "una práctica racionalizadora, autorizada por el proyecto de consolidación estatal." Then he defines and documents a subsequent stage: a progression from the renaissantistic letrado à-la-Andrés Bello to literature's mediating function between civilization and barbarism, or writing and orality, in the works of Sarmiento. Other later writings - most notably José Martí's - announced and prefigured modernity. No other critic to date has treated as authoritatively as Sommer does the important transitions toward the turn of the century, "the función ideologizante" of writers before the State, and the dramatic contrasts in the presupposed discursive fields for their writing practices.

Similarly profound is Molloy's treatment of the "narration of self" that emerged in the different countries toward the beginning of the 19th century. She explains how the contrasting sociohistorical contexts dialectically influenced the production of this particular type of autobiographical text. For example, the crisis of authority resulting from the independence movement or the diminished importance of Enlightenment values corresponded to a "self in crisis, writing in an interlocutory void." The writers' "tentative figurations of self" and "constant search for reader recognition" affected their textual representations of self and society. While not denying the validity of reading autobiographical texts as an expression of "national essence or as national allegory" - as Sommer and Ramos generally emphasize - Molloy chooses to view preoccupations with national problems or identity as one more indication of writers' struggle to forge their own "rhetoric of self-figuration." Her interpretive strategy therefore highlights the vacillation in much autobiographical expression between private and public selves, vanity and honor, and individual idiosyncracy and national or continental identity.

These three critics, in affirming the shared cultural values and discursive practices of Hispanic America's most accomplished 19th-century writers, answer an emphatic "Sí" to Peruvian writer, Luis Alberto Sánchez, who, some 50 years ago, skeptically inquired, "¿Existe América Latina?"

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