Critical Overview

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Through the decades, Mistral has remained continuously popular in South America, especially her native Chile, but in North America her reputation has been kept alive mainly by the good word of critics. It was, in fact, good critical response that led to the publication of her first book, Desolacion: it was not until a professor at Columbia University in New York, Federico de Onis, talked about Mistral's poetry in a lecture that interested readers created a demand that a publisher filled. Margaret Bates, in her introduction to Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral, pointed out why it has been so difficult to capture the flavor of Mistral's poetry for North American readers. They are especially difficult to translate, she said, because ‘‘the effect of utter simplicity is backed up by a subtle, complex, hidden machine that extracts from each word, from each sound and accent, its maximum challenge.’’ Bates quoted Marcel Bataillon, author of Erasme et L'Esoagne, saying that he had ‘‘found even more reason to love the Spanish language after reading Gabriela.’’

Critics examining Mistral's poetry, especially the poems from Tenura, try to separate the attitude of rural simplicity in her work from the actual simplicity of her humble origins. In an essay called ‘‘Gabriela Mistral, the Restless Soul,’’ Majorie Agosin noted, "The Elqui Valley, Chilean women and children, created Gabriela Mistral's voice; it sprang from her depths, and was destined for the exterior world.’’ It was the combination of this rural, home-bound persona and her worldliness as an international traveler that gave Mistral her distinct voice, according to Agosin.

Critics credit the book Ternura for being especially skillful in doing precisely what it set out to do, which is to examine the bond between mothers and children. Among volumes of praise for the book that have been published, the general consensus is perhaps best captured by Cuban writer Jorge Manach in his 1936 book Gabriela Mistral: Vidayobra: ‘‘The art of speaking to childhood is one which only those who have a very deep sense of the spiritual and the concrete can master. The fusion of tremulousness with plasticity, of malice of beautiful expression with the innocence of the emotions—what a faultless achievement in the pages of Ternura!"

Since winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945, Mistral's reputation with critics in Europe and North America has been unimpeachable. In South America and among Chileans, she is a sentimental favorite, a source of pride and a symbol of the culture. ‘‘She carried within her a fusion of Basque and Indian heritage,’’ said Margot Arce de Vasquez, then the chair of the Department of Spanish Studies at the University of Puerto Rico: "Spanish in her rebellious individualistic spirit; very Indian in her long, deep silences and that priestly aura of stone idol. To this representative cultural value must be added the great value of her literary work, an incomparable document for what it reveals of her person and for its unique American accent.’’

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Essays and Criticism