Domingo Faustino Sarmiento Essay - Critical Essays

Sarmiento, Domingo Faustino


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.

Principal Works

Mi defensa (nonfiction) 1843

Civilización i barbarie: La vida de Juan Facundo Quiroga i aspecto fisico, costumbres, i ábitos de la República Arjentina [Facundo: Civilización y barbarie; also published as Life in the Argentine Republic in the Days of the Tyrants] (biography) 1845

De la educación popular (nonfiction) 1849

Viajes por Europa, África i América, 1845-1847. 2 vols. (nonfiction) 1849, 1851

Recuerdos de provincia [Provincial Recollections; also published as Provincial Memoirs and Recollections of a Province] (nonfiction) 1850

Ambras Américas [Both Americas] (nonfiction) 1864

Vida de Abrán Lincoln [Lincoln's Life] (biography) 1865

Las escuelas, base de la prosperidad y de la república en los Estados Unidas prosperidad y de la república en los Estados Unidas [The Schools: Basis for the Prosperity and for the Republic in the United States] (nonfiction) 1865

Conflictos y armonías de las razas en América. 2 vols. (nonfiction) 1883

La vida de Dominguito: In memoriam del valiente i deplorado capitán Domingo Fidel Sarmiento, muerto en Curupaití a los veinte años de edad (biography) 1886

Obras Completas. 52 vols. (nonfiction, biography, criticism, and essays) 1885-1903

*Campaña en el Ejército Grande (nonfiction) 1898; also published as Campaña en el Ejército Grande Aliado de Sud América 1958.

*First published as part of Obras Completas.


Frances G. Crowley (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Crowley, Frances G. “Sarmiento, the Publicist.” In Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, pp. 106-28. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1972.

[In the following essay, Crowley argues that early examples of social and political promotional strategies exist in Sarmiento's works.]

Sarmiento was a born publicist, aided by those two essentials dear to Hyppolite Taine, the historical moment and the opportunity. It is ironic that his exile in Chile proved to be of immense value for his later development, for his adoptive country was at the time culturally better equipped than his own to partake of his personal and political drama. Its presidential candidate Montt was to...

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William H. Katra (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Katra, William H. “Determinism, Idealism and the Web of History.” In Domingo F. Sarmiento: Public Writer (Between 1839 and 1852), pp. 143-66. Tempe: Center for Latin American Studies, 1985.

[In the following essay, Katra examines Sarmiento's historical works, arguing that he embraces both philosophical idealism and materialism.]

Sarmiento's treatment of historical issues, as seen in the previous chapter, with contradictions and overlapping philosophical tendencies is the critic's bugaboo. One approach would be to suppose that chaos reigns in his work because of the lack of methodological consistency. However, it is known that this writer was not above...

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Julio Ramos (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Ramos, Julio. “The Other's Knowledge: Writing and Orality in Sarmiento's Facundo.” In Divergent Modernities: Culture and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Latin America, translated by John D. Blanco, pp. 3-22. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1989, Ramos asserts that the heterogeneity and undisciplined nature of Facundo actually represents an attempt to have writing bring order to the political and social chaos of newly liberated Argentina.]

It has been said that during the Latin American wars of independence the Creole elites succeeded in voicing a general consensus—a we that quickly...

(The entire section is 8629 words.)

Doris Sommer (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Sommer, Doris. “Plagiarized Authenticity: Sarmiento's Cooper and Others.” In Do the Americas Have a Common Literature?, edited by Gustavo Pérez Firmat, pp. 130-55. Durham: Duke University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Sommer analyzes the influence of James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans on Sarmiento's Facundo, focusing especially on how Sarmiento incorporates Cooper's new way of writing about the Americas.]

Poor Cora! Why must James Fenimore Cooper kill her off in The Last of the Mohicans (1826)? After lingering so long on her heroism, generosity, resourcefulness, and sheer ethical strength (not to speak of the...

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Sylvia Molloy (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Molloy, Sylvia. “The Unquiet Self: Mnemonic Strategies in Sarmiento's Autobiographies.” In Sarmiento, Author of a Nation, pp. 193-212. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1991, Molloy examines Sarmiento's biographies and autobiographies, arguing that these works include elements of both genres.]

Toward the end of Recuerdos de provincia, speaking of the biographies he has written, Sarmiento declares that “biographies are the most original books South America has to offer in these times and the best material it can give to history.” He then adds that Facundo and “these...

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Tulio Halperín Donghi (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Donghi, Tulio Halperín. “The Old Order and Its Crisis as Theme of Recuerdos de Provincia.” In Sarmiento and his Argentina, edited by Joseph T. Criscenti, pp. 17-34. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1993.

[In the following essay, Donghi analyzes Recuerdos de Provincia, focusing on its intent and themes, while also comparing it to Facundo.]

What is the intent of Recuerdos de Provincia?1 Since its publication, readers have refused to believe what Sarmiento stated in the introduction, that it is addressed “Only to my compatriots.” In fact, it was difficult to take seriously his claim that the presence in...

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Carlos J. Alonso (essay date winter 1994)

SOURCE: Alonso, Carlos J. “Reading Sarmiento: Once More, with Passion.” Hispanic Review 62, no. 1 (winter 1994): 35-52.

[In the following essay, Alonso argues that Sarmiento writes with passion more than logic, linking this characteristic to trends of modernity and cultural identity in South American literature.]

Cualquiera puede corregir lo escrito por él [Sarmiento]; pero nadie puede igualarlo.

(J. L. Borges 130)

Anyone who has read Sarmiento in a more than casual fashion has probably experienced what I can only describe as a sensation of unsettledness, a moment when one feels that there is...

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Ricardo Piglia (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Piglia, Ricardo. “Sarmiento the Writer.” In Sarmiento, Author of a Nation, pp. 127-44. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Piglia contends that Sarmiento played a key role in the development of Argentine literature and that his writing reflects changes in the burgeoning country.]

To speak of Sarmiento the writer is to speak of the impossibility of being a writer in nineteenth-century Argentina. The first problem: one must visualize within this impossibility the state of a literature with no autonomy; politics invades everything, there is no space, functions are intermingled, one cannot be only an author. The second...

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Elizabeth Garrels (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Garrels, Elizabeth. “Sarmiento and the Woman Question: From 1839 to the Facundo.” In Sarmiento, Author of a Nation, pp. 272-93. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Garrels analyzes Sarmiento's many writings that relate to women and the evolution of his opinion regarding women's rights.]

In 1839, with the founding of the Santa Rosa school for girls in San Juan, Argentina, Sarmiento inaugurated his lifelong public commitment to the education of women. A few texts of an institutional nature still survive from this early project: the Prospecto de un establecimiento de educación para señoritas (Prospectus...

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Marina Kaplan (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Kaplan, Marina. “The Latin American Romance in Sarmiento, Borges, Ribeyro, Cortázar, and Rulfo.” In Sarmiento, Author of a Nation, pp. 314-26. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

[In the following excerpt, Kaplan looks at Facundo as a romance, commenting also on the stylistic elements of the novel and magic realism in the text.]

[Y] así la humanidad va amontonando leyes, principios, monumentos inmensos, sobre estas oscuras bases cuyos orígenes, cuyas cavidades están ocupadas por un error, por un misterio, por un crimen.

—Joaquín V. González, La tradición nacional...

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Diana Sorensen Goodrich (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Goodrich, Diana Sorensen. “The Wars of Persuasion: Conflict, Interpretation and Power in the Early Years of Facundo's Reception.” In Facundo and the Construction of Argentine Culture, pp. 23-40. Austin: The University of Texas Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Goodrich studies Facundo's reception and impact upon its initial publication.]

In Mi defensa, Sarmiento proclaims: “My love of learning has had no other origin than having learned to read very well.” [En mí no ha tenido otro origen mi afición a instruirme que el haber aprendido a leer muy bien.]1 One of the tricks his orphaned texts play upon him is that they...

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Beatriz Vegh (essay date December 1999)

SOURCE: Vegh, Beatriz. “A Former President of Argentina Attends a Reading by Dickens in New York, in 1868.” Dickens Quarterly 16, no. 4 (December 1999): 243-55.

[In the following excerpt, Vegh examines Sarmiento's response to a reading by Dickens in the United States.]

The first edition of Letters from the Battle-fields of Paraguay (1870) by the explorer and scholar Richard F. Burton, a perceptive observer among British and European travelers in South America, bears the following inscription: “To His Excellency Don Domingo Faustino Sarmiento … by one who admires his honesty of purpose and the homage which he pays to progress.” Sarmiento (1811-1888) was...

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Further Reading


Bunkley, Allison Williams. The Life of Sarmiento. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952, 566 p.

Examines the life and works of Sarmiento.


Goodrich, Diana S. “From Barbarism to Civilization: Travels of a Latin American Text.” American Literary History 4, no. 3 (fall 1992): 443-63.

Discusses the manner in which Facundo was received and interpreted in the United States and France.

Katra, William H. “Artigas in the Writings of Sarmiento.” In Sarmiento and his Argentina, edited by Joseph T. Criscenti, pp. 143-59. Boulder: Lynne...

(The entire section is 299 words.)