Monday, January 9, 2017

Readings from Modern Mexican Authors by Frederick Starr

Mexico’s 19th-century Renaissance men
Federico Gamboa
The title Readings from Modern Mexican Authors may lead one to believe this book, originally published in 1904, to be a collection of short stories. Surprisingly, however, the majority of its contents consists of nonfiction. Editor Frederick Starr has compiled the writings of 29 Mexican authors into this compendium. About two-thirds of the selected works are essays on the geography, history, and indigenous culture of Mexico, as well as biography and literary criticism. Only the final third of the book consists of fiction, in the form of excerpts from novels and stories.

To describe the selections included here as “Modern” may seem premature to today’s readers, who won’t recognize them as modernism. Rather, the use of that term in the title indicates that all the featured writers were alive and active at the time of publication, with the exception of two recently deceased. From a literary standpoint, the individual works included here are not particularly impressive or memorable. This is likely due not to any shortcomings of the authors, but rather to the fact that these are disembodied chunks of prose that Starr has excised from longer works. The fictional selections, in particular, are not served well by this format. Starr typically provides a synopsis of a novel, thus spoiling the ending for the reader, before offering a few seemingly arbitrarily selected scenes.

Far more interesting are the short introductory biographies that Starr has written about each author. These nineteenth-century men of letters were true Renaissance men. They come from all corners of the Mexican nation, from cities big and small. Most were trained to be lawyers, some educators, a few as medical doctors. Almost all served in their state or national legislatures or supreme courts. Many dabbled in scientific as well as literary pursuits. Politically, they represent both the liberal and conservative sides of the Mexican spectrum. Some were supporters and confidants of Benito Juárez, Emperor Maximilian I, or Porfirio Díaz. In sum total, the biographical sketches of the 29 luminaries give an interesting picture of Mexico’s intelligentsia at the turn of the last century. In their works, these writers in turn highlight additional historical and literary figures from their country’s past.

Casual readers looking for picturesque tales of Old Mexico will not find them in this book. It will really only appeal to those readers with an active interest in Mexican history and culture. This collection encapsulates an interesting period in Mexican letters just prior to the dawn of true modernism. The Revolution had yet to take place, and Mexico’s cultural trajectory was at a turning point. Reading through these works, one can feel inklings of tension between leftist and right-wing factions, Spanish and indigenous influences, elitist and proletarian sensibilities.

Though Starr’s choice of works often seems haphazard or sloppy, the writers represented here deserve respect as cultural precursors to the likes of Mariano Azuela, Juan Rulfo, Carlos Fuentes, and Octavio Paz. After experiencing this volume, the reader is inclined to agree with Ignacio M. Altamirano, a writer of Nahua heritage, when he points out, “There are talents in our land which can compete with those which shine in the old world.” If nothing else, this collection can serve as a starting point for those who wish to conduct further investigation into Mexico’s literary riches.
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