Spanish-American literature: Early-Twentieth-Century Trends

With the passing of modernismo, poetry was influenced by many trends and movements. Three women poets, Alfonsina Storni, Juana de Ibarbourou, and the Nobel Prize winner Gabriela Mistral, are known for their impassioned lyrics. Among the poets of the avant-garde movements in poetry were Vicente Huidobro of Chile, César Vallejo of Peru, Jorge Luis Borges of Argentina, and Chile's Pablo Neruda, also a Nobel laureate.

The prose writers largely turned their attention to social themes. Following a tradition perfected by Martí, González Prada, and Rodó, the 20th-century essay reached new heights of intensity in the writings of José Vasconcelos of Mexico, known for his cultural theory as well as his participation in the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and in the educational reform of his country. The essay was cultivated in a more artistic and aesthetic form by the scholarly Alfonso Reyes of Mexico and by Pedro Henríquez Ureña of the Dominican Republic. Later on Mariano Picón-Salas of Venezuela and Germán Arciniegas of Colombia made the essay the vehicle of social, historical, and political ideas in Spanish America. Those who cultivated the novel and short story in the early 20th cent. also tended mainly toward social protest and probed the roots of injustice and oppression in humanity.

The Mexican Revolution of 1910 produced a subgenre—generally first-hand accounts of aspects of the revolution. The classic work of this genre is The Underdogs (1915; tr. 1963) by Mariano Azuela. Other works of this type include The Eagle and the Serpent (1928, tr. 1930) by Martín Luis Guzmán, and El indio [the indian] (1935; tr. 1937) by Gregorio López y Fuentes. The indigenous people, the poor, the underdog of any sort now entered literature as an urgent social problem and not as an element of local color. Representative of this indigenista literature are Raza de bronce [bronze race] (1919) by the Bolivian Alcides Arguedas, El mundo es ancho y ajeno [broad and alien is the world] (1941) by the Peruvian Ciro Alegría, and Huasipungo (1934; tr. 1964) by the Ecuadorian Jorge Icaza.

The struggle between humanity and the forces of nature, whether on the plains, in the tropics, or in the cities, was a challenging subject for novels and short stories. The life of the gaucho on the Argentine pampas is depicted in the novel El inglés de los güesos [the Englishman with the bones] (1924) by Benito Lynch, and in Don Segundo Sombra (1926; tr. 1935) by Ricardo Güiraldes. Life on the Venezuelan plains is portrayed in Doña Bárbara (1929; tr. 1931) by Rómulo Gallegos.

The tropics, replete with struggles of man against man as well as man against nature, are dramatically described in the short stories of the Uruguayan Horacio Quiroga and in the novel The Vortex (1924; tr. 1935), by Colombia's José Eustasio Rivera. Urban society with its many social problems is the theme of the novels of Federico Gamboa of Mexico and Manuel Gálvez of Argentina and the short stories of Manuel Rojas of Chile.

With the passage of time the novel and short story became more removed from the geographical and social problems of Spanish America and became more immersed in the universal currents of literature. There were the psychological novels of Chile's Eduardo Barrios and Argentina's Ernesto Sábato, the existential works of Argentina's Eduardo Mallea, and the poetic novels of Mexico's Agustín Yáñez.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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