The first novel of Spanish America, as well, appeared within the politically liberal orientation of nascent Romanticism. With the accession of the Bourbons to the Spanish throne in 1700, considerable French influence began entering the colonies, and the Enlightenment left its mark on their literature.
José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi (1776-1827), known as the Mexican Thinker, was fundamentally a pamphleteer and essayist who traveled with a portable printing press, turning out material in support of the war of independence. His first novel, El periquillo sarniento (1816; The Itching Parrot, 1942), was a statement of reason at the same time that it led to a current of Romantic novels in the region. Although the picaresque genre in Spain had been an instrument of the Church, useful in the preaching of morality, Lizardi’s picaresque novel is brutally anticlerical even while its entertaining narrative is marred by lengthy sermons. This tendency toward essay in the novel perhaps had its roots in the missionary traditions of the colonies and has continued to the present day, particularly in the fiction of Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes. In the Mexican novel, there is also a tendency to employ circular structures, which are already visible in Lizardi’s work. Each episode presents the reader with a turn of the Wheel of Fortune, as the protagonist becomes successful only to end in desperate straits again.
The vast majority of Latin America’s nineteenth century novels appeared in the second half of that century, although one notable work spans nearly a half century in itself: Cecilia Valdés (first part 1839, completed 1882; Cecilia Valdés: A Novel of Cuban Customs, 1962), by the Cuban author Cirilo Villaverde (1812-1894). Like nearly all fiction following the attainment of independence by most of Latin America (although not yet by Cuba), Cecilia Valdés is Romantic in character; following the example set by Lizardi, Villaverde’s is a political Romanticism, relatively unconcerned with nature.
The Latin American short story has its roots in the celebrated narrative “El matadero,” by Esteban Echeverría (1805-1851). Another hard-to-categorize work from the same era, Vida de Juan Facundo Quiroga (1845; Facundo: Life in the Argentine Republic in the Days of the Tyrants: Or, Civilization and Barbarism, 1868), by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1811-1888), exercised considerable influence on the novel for decades to come. A combination of biography, novel, and essay, it establishes with its subtitle, Civilización y barbarie, the theme of the struggle between the relatively sophisticated, often Europeanized, cities of Latin America and the developing, “barbaric” outlying areas, be they the Argentine pampas or the Venezuelan llanos. In general terms, the novel of the nineteenth century tends to contrast the refinement of Europe with the crudeness of the New World. The sons of Brazilian planters, for example, received the finest education that Europe could offer, often returning to bewail their homeland’s lack of culture.
The most prominent of a number of novels written in opposition to the Argentine dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas was Amalia (first part 1851, second part 1855; Amalia: A Romance of the Argentine, 1919), by José Mármol (1817-1871), who learned his craft from Sir Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas, père. In his struggle against injustice, Mármol’s Daniel Bello is the prototype of the Romantic hero, while the heroine, Amalia, is representative of European refinement surrounded by New World vulgarity. In this era, many novels were serialized in newspapers, among them Amalia, which exhibits the episodic character of this type of composition.
Probably the most widely read Latin American novel of the nineteenth century was María (1867; María: A South American Romance, 1890), by Jorge Isaacs (1837-1895). At this stage, the Romantics were generally more concerned with nature, and the heroine of Isaacs’s novel appears to be almost a projection of the landscape of Colombia’s Cauca Valley. The tale is typical of the novels of its day, involving an encounter of soul mates who are separated and then reunited at the conclusion, only to learn that fate has made their marriage impossible. In this case, the couple are brother and sister by adoption, and her death prevents their marriage. A variation on the theme appears in Cumandá (1879), by the Ecuadoran Juan León Mera (1832-1894): After the lovers have overcome many obstacles, the proposed marriage is prevented by the revelation that the couple are brother and sister, separated in infancy. In Cumandá, Mera lays the foundations for the modern novel of protest against the inhuman treatment of Indians, concerning whom he has solid documentary knowledge.
In 1889, the same type of novel, overlaid with European sentimentalism and full of fateful coincidences and melodramatic surprises, including the usual impossible marriage of siblings, appeared in Peru under the title Aves sin nido (Birds Without a Nest: A Story of Indian Life and Priestly Oppression in Peru, 1904). The author, Clorinda Matto de Turner (1854-1909), wrote a preface within the tradition of the moralistic essay, declaring that her purpose in writing was to exhibit the unjust treatment of the Peruvian Indian and argue for the marriage of priests. It is a prime example of the nineteenth century Romantic novel, far more concerned with theme than with technique. Nevertheless, it exercised a powerful influence in Latin America.
Cuban-born Gertrudis Gómez de...