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Spanish-American Literature

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Spanish-American Literature

"Spanish American literature" redirects here. For literature of the United States written in the Spanish language, see American literature in Spanish.

Latin American literature consists of the oral and written literature of Latin America in several languages, particularly in Spanish, Portuguese, and indigenous languages of the Americas as well as literature of the United States written in the Spanish language. It rose to particular prominence globally during the second half of the 20th century, largely due to the international success of the style known as magical realism. As such, the region's literature is often associated solely with this style, with the 20th Century literary movement known as Latin American Boom, and with its most famous exponent, Gabriel García Márquez. Latin American literature has a rich and complex tradition of literary production that dates back many centuries.


Pre-Columbian literature

Pre-Columbian cultures were primarily oral, though the Aztecs and Mayans, for instance, produced elaborate codices. Oral accounts of mythological and religious beliefs were also sometimes recorded after the arrival of European colonizers, as was the case with the Popol Vuh. Moreover, a tradition of oral narrative survives to this day, for instance among the Quechua-speaking population of Peru and the Quiché of Guatemala.

Colonial literature

From the very moment when Europeans encountered the New World, early explorers and conquistadores produced written accounts and crónicas of their experience, such as Columbus's letters or Bernal Díaz del Castillo's description of the conquest of Mexico. At times, colonial practices stirred a lively debate about the ethics of colonization and the status of the indigenous peoples, as reflected for instance in Bartolomé de las Casas's Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies.

Mestizos and natives also contributed to the body of colonial literature. Authors such as El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega and Guaman Poma wrote accounts of the Spanish conquest that show a perspective that often contrasts with the colonizers' accounts.

During the colonial period, written culture was often in the hands of the church, within which context Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz wrote memorable poetry and philosophical essays. Towards the end of the 18th Century and the beginning of the 19th, a distinctive criollo literary tradition emerged, including the first novels such as José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi's El Periquillo Sarniento (1816). The "libertadores" themselves were also often distinguished writers, such as Simón Bolívar and Andrés Bello.

Nineteenth-century literature

The 19th century was a period of "foundational fictions" (in critic Doris Sommer's words), novels in the Romantic or Naturalist traditions that attempted to establish a sense of national identity, and which often focused on the indigenous question or the dichotomy of "civilization or barbarism", for which see, the Argentine Domingo Sarmiento's Facundo (1845), the Colombian Jorge Isaacs's María, Ecuadorian Juan León Mera's Cumandá (1879), or the Brazilian Euclides da Cunha's Os Sertões (1902). Such works are still the bedrocks of national canons, and usually mandatory elements of high school curricula.

Additionally, a gradual increase in women's education and writing during the 19th century brought more women writers to the forefront, including the Cuban Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda with the novel Sab (1841), a romantic novel offering subtle critique of slavery and the treatment of women in Cuba, and the Peruvian author Clorinda Matto de Turner who wrote what is considered one of the most important novels of "indigenismo" in the 19th century: Aves sin nido (1889).

Other important works of 19th Century Latin American literature include José Hernández's epic poem Martín Fierro (1872). The story of a poor gaucho drafted to fight a frontier war against Indians, Martín Fierro is an example of the "gauchesque", an Argentine genre of poetry centered around the lives of gauchos.

Modernismo and Boom precursors

In the late 19th century, modernismo emerged, a poetic movement whose founding text was the Nicaraguan Rubén Darío's Azul (1888). This was the first Latin American literary movement to influence literary culture outside of the region, and was also the first truly Latin American literature, in that national differences were no longer so much at issue. José Martí, for instance, though a Cuban patriot, also lived in Mexico and the USA and wrote for journals in Argentina and elsewhere. And in 1900 the Uruguayan José Enrique Rodó wrote what became read as a manifesto for the region's cultural awakening, Ariel.

Though modernismo itself is often seen as aestheticist and anti-political, some poets and essayists, Martí among them but also the Peruvians Manuel González Prada and José Carlos Mariátegui, introduced compelling critiques of the contemporary social order and particularly the plight of Latin America's indigenous peoples. So the early twentieth century also saw the rise of indigenismo, a movement dedicated to representing indigenous culture and the injustices that such communities were undergoing, as for instance with the Peruvian José María Arguedas and the Mexican Rosario Castellanos.

The Argentine Jorge Luis Borges invented what was almost a new genre, the philosophical short story, and would go on to become one of the most influential of all Latin American writers. At the same time, Roberto Arlt offered a very different style, closer to mass culture and popular literature, reflecting the urbanization and European immigration that was shaping the Southern Cone.

The Venezuelan Romulo Gallegos wrote in 1929 what came to be one of the most well known Latin American novels in the twentieth century, Doña Barbara. Doña Barbara is a realist novel describing the conflict between civilization and barbarism in the plainlands of South America, and is a masterpiece of criollismo. The novel became an immediate hit, being translated into over forty languages.

Notable figures in Brazil at this time include the exceptional novelist and short story writer Machado de Assis, whose both ironic view and deep psychological analysis introduced a universal scope in Brazilian prose, the modernist poets Mário de Andrade, Oswald de Andrade (whose "Manifesto Antropófago" praised Brazilian powers of transculturation), and Carlos Drummond de Andrade.

In the 1920s Mexico, the Stridentism and los Contemporáneos represented the influx of avant-garde movements, while the Mexican Revolution inspired novels such as Mariano Azuela's Los de abajo, a committed work of social realism and the revolution and its aftermath would continue to be a point of reference for Mexican literature for many decades. In the 1940s, the Cuban novelist and musicologist Alejo Carpentier coined the term "lo real maravilloso" and, along with the Mexican Juan Rulfo and the Guatemalan Miguel Ángel Asturias, would prove a precursor of the Boom and its signature style of "magic realism".

Poetry after Modernismo

Twentieth-century poetry in Latin America has often expressed love and political commitment, particularly given the model provided by Chilean Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda, and followed by such poets as the Nicaraguan Ernesto Cardenal and Salvadoran Roque Dalton.

Other significant poets include the Cuban Nicolás Guillén, the Chilean Gonzalo Rojas, and the Uruguayan Mario Benedetti, not to mention the Nobel laureates Gabriela Mistral and Octavio Paz, the latter also a distinguished critic and essayist, famous particularly for his book on Mexican culture, The Labyrinth of Solitude.

In Chile, Braulio Arenas and others founded in 1938 the Mandrágora group, strongly influenced by Surrealism as well as by Vicente Huidobro's Creacionismo. However, this group of poets was overshadowed by Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral.

The Boom

Main article: Latin American Boom

After World War II, Latin America enjoyed increasing economic prosperity, and a new-found confidence also gave rise to a literary boom. From 1960 to 1967, the major works of the boom were published. Many of these novels were somewhat rebellious from the general point of view of Latin America culture. Authors crossed traditional boundaries, experimented with language, and often mixed different styles of writing in their works.

Structures of literary works were also changing. Boom writers ventured outside traditional narrative structures, embracing non-linearity and experimental narration. The figure of Jorge Luis Borges, though not a Boom author per se, was extremely influential for the Boom generation. Latin American authors were inspired by North American and European authors such as William Faulkner, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf as well as each other's works; many of the authors knew one another and influenced their styles.

The Boom really put Latin American literature on the global map. It was distinguished by daring and experimental novels such as Julio Cortázar's Rayuela (1963), that were frequently published in Spain and quickly translated into English. From 1966 to 1968, Emir Rodríguez Monegal published his influential Latin American literature monthly Mundo Nuevo, with excerpts of unreleased novels from then-new writers such as Guillermo Cabrera Infante or Severo Sarduy, including two chapters of Gabriel García Márquez's Cien años de soledad in 1966. In 1967, the published book was the Boom's defining novel, which led to the association of Latin American literature with magic realism, though other important writers of the period such as Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes do not fit so easily within this framework. Arguably, the Boom's culmination was Augusto Roa Bastos's monumental Yo, el supremo (1974). Other important novelists of the period include the Chilean José Donoso, the Guatemalan Augusto Monterroso and the Cuban Guillermo Cabrera Infante.

Though the literary boom occurred while Latin America was having commercial success, the works of this period tended to move away from the positives of the modernization that was underway. Boom works tended not to focus on social and local issues, but rather on universal and at times metaphysical themes.

Political turmoil in Latin American countries such as Cuba at this time influenced the literary boom as well. Some works anticipated an end to the prosperity that was occurring, and even predicted old problems would resurface in the near future. Their works foreshadowed the events to come in the future of Latin America, with the 1970s and 1980s dictatorships, economic turmoil, and Dirty Wars.

Post-Boom and contemporary literature

Post-Boom literature is sometimes characterized by a tendency towards irony and towards the use of popular genres, as in the case of the work of Manuel Puig. Some writers felt the success of the Boom to be a burden, and spiritedly denounced the caricature that reduces Latin American literature to magical realism. Hence the Chilean Alberto Fuguet came up with McOndo as an antidote to the Macondo-ism that demanded of all aspiring writers that they set their tales in steamy tropical jungles in which the fantastic and the real happily coexisted. In a mock diary by post-modernist Giannina Braschi the Narrator of the Latin American Boom is shot by a Macy's make-up artist who accuses the Boom of capitalizing on her solitude. [3] Other writers, however, have traded on the Boom's success: see for instance Laura Esquivel's pastiche of magical realism in Como agua para chocolate.

The Spanish language author who has had most impact on world literature has been Roberto Bolaño.[1] Overall, contemporary literature in the region is vibrant and varied, ranging from the best-selling Paulo Coelho and Isabel Allende to the more avant-garde and critically acclaimed work of writers such as Diamela Eltit, Giannina Braschi, Luisa Valenzuela, Ricardo Piglia, Roberto Ampuero, Jorge Marchant Lazcano, Alicia Yánez, Jaime Marchán, Jaime Bayly, Manfredo Kempff, Edmundo Paz Soldán, Gioconda Belli, Jorge Franco, Víctor Montoya or Mario Mendoza. Other important figures include the Argentine César Aira or the Colombian Fernando Vallejo, whose La virgen de los sicarios depicted the violence in a Medellín under the influence of the drug trade.

There has also been considerable attention paid to the genre of testimonio, texts produced in collaboration with subaltern subjects such as Rigoberta Menchú.

Finally, a new breed of chroniclers is represented by the more journalistic Carlos Monsiváis and Pedro Lemebel, who draw also on the long-standing tradition of essayistic production as well as the precedents of engaged and creative non-fiction represented by, say, the Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano and the Mexican Elena Poniatowska.

Prominent writers

According to literary critic Harold Bloom, the most eminent Latin American author of any century is the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges. In his controversial 1994 book The Western Canon, Bloom says: "Of all Latin American authors in this century, he is the most universal... If you read Borges frequently and closely, you become something of a Borgesian, because to read him is to activate an awareness of literature in which he has gone farther than anybody else." [2]

Among the novelists, perhaps the most prominent author to emerge from Latin America in the 20th century is Gabriel García Márquez. His book Cien Años de Soledad (1967), is one of the most important works in world literature of the 20th century. Borges opined that it was "the Don Quixote of Latin America." [3]

Among the greatest poets of the 20th century is Pablo Neruda; according to Gabriel García Márquez, Neruda "is the greatest poet of the 20th century, in any language." [4]

Mexican writer and poet Octavio Paz is unique among Latin American writers in having won both the Nobel Prize, the Neustadt Prize, and the Cervantes Prize. Paz has also been a recipient of the Jerusalem Prize, as well as an honorary doctorate from Harvard.

The most important literary prize of the Spanish language is widely considered to be the Cervantes Prize of Spain. Latin American authors who have won this prestigious award include: José Emilio Pacheco (Mexico), Juan Gelman (Argentina), Nicanor Parra (Chile), Sergio Pitol (Mexico), Gonzalo Rojas (Chile), Álvaro Mutis (Colombia), Jorge Edwards (Chile), Guillermo Cabrera Infante (Cuba), Mario Vargas Llosa (Perú), Dulce María Loynaz (Cuba), Adolfo Bioy Casares (Argentina), Augusto Roa Bastos (Paraguay), Carlos Fuentes (Mexico), Ernesto Sabato (Argentina), Octavio Paz (Mexico), Juan Carlos Onetti (Uruguay), Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina) and Alejo Carpentier (Cuba).

Latin American authors who have won the most prestigious literary award in the world, the Nobel Prize for Literature, include: Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru, 2010), Octavio Paz (Mexico, 1990), Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia, 1982), Pablo Neruda (Chile, 1971), Miguel Ángel Asturias (Guatemala, 1967), and Gabriela Mistral (Chile, 1945).

The Neustadt International Prize for Literature, perhaps the most important international literary award after the Nobel Prize, counts several Latin American authors among its recipients; they include: Claribel Alegría (Nicaragua), Álvaro Mutis (Colombia), João Cabral de Melo Neto (Brazil), Octavio Paz (Mexico), and Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia). Candidates for the prize include: Ricardo Piglia (Argentina), Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru), Marjorie Agosin (Chile), Eduardo Galeano (Uruguay), Homero Aridjis (Mexico), Luis Fernando Verissimo (Brazil), Augusto Monterroso (Guatemala), Ernesto Cardenal (Nicaragua), Carlos Fuentes (Mexico), Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina), Jorge Amado (Brazil), Ernesto Sábato (Argentina), Carlos Drummond de Andrade (Brazil), and Pablo Neruda (Chile).

Another important international literary award is the Jerusalem Prize; its recipients include: Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru), Ernesto Sabato (Argentina), Octavio Paz (Mexico), and Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina).

Latin American authors who figured in prominent literary critic Harold Bloom's The Western Canon list of the most enduring works of world literature include: Rubén Dário, Jorge Luis Borges, Alejo Carpentier, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Severo Sarduy, Reinaldo Arenas, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, César Vallejo, Miguel Ángel Asturias, José Lezama Lima, José Donoso, Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, and Carlos Drummond de Andrade.

Brazilian authors who have won the Camões Prize, the most prestigious literary award in the Portuguese language, include: João Cabral de Melo Neto, Rachel de Queiroz, Jorge Amado, Antonio Candido, Autran Dourado, Rubem Fonseca, Lygia Fagundes Telles, João Ubaldo Ribeiro, and Ferreira Gullar. Some notable authors who have won Brazil's Prêmio Machado de Assis include: Rachel de Queiroz, Cecília Meireles, João Guimarães Rosa, Érico Veríssimo, Lúcio Cardoso, and Ferreira Gullar.

Nobel Prize Laureates

Chronology: Late 19th century-present day

See also


  • The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry: An Anthology / ed. Ilan Stavans, 2011.
  • The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature / eds. Ilan Stavans, Edna Acosta-Belén, Harold Augenbraum, Gustavo Pérez Firmat, 2010.
  • Latin American women writers: an encyclopedia / ed. María André; Eva Bueno., 2008
  • A companion to Latin American literature and culture / ed. Sara Castro-Klarén., 2008
  • The Cambridge companion to the Latin American novel / ed. Efraín Kristal, 2005
  • Encyclopedia of Latin American and Caribbean literature, 1900-2003 / ed. Daniel Balderston, 2004
  • Literary cultures of Latin America : a comparative history / ed. Mario J. Valdés, 2004
  • Latin American writers at work (Interviews) / ed. George Plimpton, 2003
  • Literatures of Latin America: from antiquity to the present / Willis Barnstone, 2003
  • Cuerpos errantes: literatura latina y latinoamericana en Estados Unidos/ Laura Rosa Loustau, 2002.
  • Latin American writers. Supplement I / ed. Carlos A Solé; Klaus Müller-Bergh., 2002
  • Concise encyclopedia of Latin American literature / ed. Verity Smith, 2000
  • Latin American literature and its times (12 volumes) / Joyce Moss, 1999
  • Mutual impressions : writers from the Americas reading one another / ed. Ilan Stavans, 1999
  • Encyclopedia of Latin American literature / ed. Verity Smith, 1997
  • From romanticism to modernismo in Latin America / ed. David William Foster, 1997
  • The Cambridge history of Latin American literature / ed. Roberto González Echevarría, 1996
  • Modern Latin-American fiction writers / ed. William Luis, 1994
  • Handbook of Latin American literature / ed. David William Foster, 1992
  • Feminist readings on Spanish and Latin-American literature / ed. Lisa P Condé, 1991
  • Past, present, and future : selected studies on Latin American Indian literatures / ed. Mary M. Preuss, 1991
  • Magical realism and beyond : the contemporary Spanish and Latin American novel / ed. Roy C Boland, 1991
  • Modern Latin American fiction (The Critical Cosmos Series) / ed. Harold Bloom, 1990
  • Latin American writers (3 Volumes) / ed. Carlos A Solé, 1989
  • Philosophy and literature in Latin America : a critical assessment of the current situation / ed. Jorge Gracia, 1989
  • Latin American literature in the 20th century : a guide / ed. Leonard S Klein, 1988
  • Modern Latin American fiction : a survey / ed. John King, 1987
  • In retrospect : essays on Latin American literature / ed. Elizabeth S Rogers, 1987
  • Latin America in its literature / ed. César Fernández Moreno, 1980
  • Latin American fiction today : a symposium / ed. Rose S Minc, 1979
  • Tradition and renewal : essays on twentieth-century Latin American literature and culture / ed. Merlin H Forster, 1975
  • Modern Latin American literature (A Library of Literary Criticism) / David William Foster, 1975
  • Modern Latin American literature / David Patrick Gallagher, 1973
  • Contemporary Latin American literature; a conference / ed. Harvey Leroy Johnson, 1973

External links

  • Literature from Latin America, from LANIC
  • Palabra virtual Latin American Poetry.
  • Contemporary short-stories, poetry, essays and theatre.
  • Latineos Latin America, Caribbean, arts and culture
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