Domingo Faustino Sarmiento Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Domingo Faustino Sarmiento 1811-1888

Argentine biographer, memoirist, essayist, critic, and nonfiction writer.

Domingo Faustino Sarmiento played a key role in the development of the literature, society, and politics of Argentina in the nineteenth century. Serving in a number of political posts, culminating with the presidency, Sarmiento's political views are infused in his writing, most notably in Civilización i barbarie: La vida de Juan Facundo Quiroga, commonly known as Facundo (1845), an ostensible biography that critiques Argentine society. Though critical opinion of Sarmiento's works is mixed, scholars continue to view his innovative texts on education and politics as important to understanding the political and social realities of nineteenth-century Argentina.

Biographical Information

Faustino Valentín Sarmiento Albarracín was born on February 15, 1811, in the small city of San Juan, Argentina, to José Clemente Sarmiento Funes and Paula Albarracín y Oro. His parents had 15 children, but Sarmiento was the only male of six children who survived to adulthood. Though Sarmiento's parents were from prominent families, his mother was impoverished at an early age and his father often did not have a steady income. While Sarmiento's mother kept the home in order, his father worked as a soldier and laborer as well as a political organizer. Sarmiento's independent thinking was apparent when he changed his name at an young age to Domingo, after the family saint. He also showed an early aptitude for learning and was reading by the age of four. The family sent Sarmiento to San Juan's Escuela de la Patria (School of the Fatherland) in 1816, where a level of equality was encouraged among all students. In 1825 the school closed due to political problems, and Sarmiento went to live with his uncle, a priest, who tutored him at his post in San Luis. Studying with his uncle enhanced Sarmiento's appreciation for education and freedom, and he founded his own school in the area. By the late 1820s, Sarmiento was pressed into service in a provincial militia, reaching the rank of second lieutenant, but was imprisoned for a short time for refusing to serve. Influenced by the writings of Victor Cousin, a French educator and philosopher, and others that he read in prison, Sarmiento’s political beliefs began to evolve. He changed sides in his country's conflict, becoming a Unitarist, a group which sought to have the powerful region around Buenos Aires control the country's political structure. He fought against Facundo's Federalist army but was captured and placed under house arrest. In early 1830, he fled to Chile but returned to Argentina when fighting resumed. Facundo again won and Sarmiento spent the next five years in exile in Chile, where he worked in a silver mine and store. While in Chile, Sarmiento’s first child, Emilia Faustina, was born. In 1836, Sarmiento contracted a severe case of typhoid fever and was allowed to return home to San Juan because it was thought he would die. However, Sarmiento recovered and while recuperating, he read French social theorists and began to write. In 1839, he opened a school for girls and founded a short-lived newspaper called El Zonda that printed articles opposing the Federalist regime. After being arrested again, Sarmiento was forced into what would be his longest exile. Sarmiento's goal became to overthrow the Rosas regime from his new base in Chile. He wrote vigorously, publishing editorials in El Mercurio and writing three important books: Viajes por Europa, África i América (1849 and 1851), Facundo, and Recuerdos de provincia (1850; Recollections of a Province). While in Chile, he also founded a newspaper called El Progreso. Because of the inflammatory rhetoric that he printed, the Chilean government asked him to leave the country for several years. Sarmiento traveled in Europe and the United States from 1845-47, analyzing educational and political systems for the Chilean government. However, his experiences in the United States proved most influential for him. He became friends with Horace Mann, an important American educational theorist, and his wife Mary, who would later translate Facundo into English. Sarmiento’s impressions of his travels were chronicled in Viajes por Europa, África i América. By the 1850s, Sarmiento returned to Argentina and became more involved in politics and administration, quickly rising to the position of senator. He held the position of governor of San Juan from 1862 to 1864, then became minister to the United States from 1865 to 1868. While in the U.S., he founded the newspaper Ambra Américas (Both Americas.) At the end of his term, Sarmiento returned to his homeland and was elected president of the Argentine Republic from 1868 to 1874. In 1883, he published Conflictos y armonías de las razas (Conflict and Harmony in the Races). Three years later, Sarmiento published La vida de Dominguito, a biography of his adopted son, Domingo Fidel, who was purported to be his illegitimate biological son born during one of his long exiles in Chile. He later married the boy's widowed mother, Benita. Sarmiento remained active in public life until a few years before his death. In ill health he moved with his daughter to Paraguay for the fair weather, dying there on September 11, 1888.

Major Works

Sarmiento wrote three of his most important works during his long exile in Chile. Facundo, his most well-known work, first appeared in serial form in a newspaper of Sarmiento's in Chile. More than just a biography, the text describes and critiques the culture and society of Argentina. Many critics contend that Sarmiento was primarily arguing against the pervasive influence of whites in South America. He also analyzes the Revolution of 1810 (the war of independence of Argentina from Spain). The other two works are more personal in nature. Viajes por Europa, África i América was a chronicle of his journey touring educational systems for the Chilean government. Sarmiento was most impressed by the United States, not just educationally but in terms of commerce and culture. Recuerdos de provincia is an autobiography of Sarmiento's early life. Though somewhat idealized, Sarmiento relates information about his background, education, and childhood influences. Conflictos y armonías de las razas is Sarmiento's last major work. Unfinished, Sarmiento wrote it as a sequel to Facundo. In the text, he argues against racial “mixing”—citing the United States as a superior country because of its refusal to desegregate. In addition to these texts, Sarmiento wrote several other biographies including Vida de Abrán Lincoln (1865), a biography of Abraham Lincoln, and La vida de Dominguito, a biography of his son who died during the Paraguayan war.

Critical Reception

Critics note that Sarmiento's work plays a significant role in the development of Argentine literature, as well as the literature of South America in general. Though many acknowledge Sarmiento's importance, some also point out that many of his major works were written in haste, and logic supercedes passion in his writing. A prime example of this is Facundo, which some maintain is one of the best books produced in the Americas during the early nineteenth century. Others argue that the sloppy structure and style of the work detract from the coherency of Sarmiento’s message. His writings on his experiences in the United States, primarily in Viajes por Europa, África i América, are of particular interest to American scholars. Some have examined how Sarmiento was influenced by American authors and society, while others are concerned with Facundo's reception in the United States. A separate critical debate surrounds Sarmiento's final work, Conflictos y armonías de las razas. His controversial assertion that racial mixing was bad for Argentina is a source of significant criticism.