Ignacio Manuel Altamirano, who was of Aztec background, became a lawyer and served as a soldier in the War of Reform (1858-1860) and in the resistance to the French occupation of Mexico (1862-1867). In addition to writing novels, he produced poetry, newspaper articles, and essays. He was also an active politician associated with the Liberal Party. In 1889, he became Mexico’s consul to Spain. The fact that he never forgot his humble origins is reflected in his active promotion of literacy programs for the lower classes, peasants, and indigenous peoples. His political platform presupposed that Mexico’s success depended on its becoming a more intellectually developed country, retaining awareness of its glorious past as its masses became educated.
Altamirano also promoted the study of European cultures in order to incorporate the Mexico of the late nineteenth century into the most innovative intellectual currents. He spoke French fluently, a feat for one who had learned Spanish at fourteen years of age. He was an avid reader of European literatures, which provided him the classical structure for his own literary craft. Contemporary critics praised his works; they considered him a true Mexican novelist who had moved away from the old literary molds inherited from Spain.
In fact, Altamirano displayed no major involvement in Spanish literature, since Spanish culture was associated with the Conservative Party, Altamirano’s political opponents. His novels exhibit the carefully studied neoclassical literary design that was much in vogue in eighteenth century Europe. He was also an acclaimed literary critic and chronicler of Mexican literature, both colonial and contemporary.
As a politician, however, Altamirano also understood that his literature served a strong pedagogical purpose in promoting Mexico’s political positions. El Zarco, the Bandit is the product of a sophisticated political theorist. Its plot is partially founded on historical events that the author witnessed as a soldier. His strong interest in Mexican history made him a forerunner in the promotion of a national literature. The novel continues the Romantic tradition of recapturing folklore; it also seeks to validate Mexican motifs as material worthy of literature. This radical position illustrates Altamirano’s strong desire to incorporate autochthonous types,...
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