Gaucho Literature Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Gaucho Literature

The following entry discusses the literature depicting life on the Pampas in Argentina and Uruguay from the 19th and early 20th century.

Often considered the national literature of Argentina, “gaucho literature” is the name given to a broad category of written works—from traditional ballads to novels, plays and poetry—that illustrate the gaucho tradition of the Pampas. Possibly derived etymologically from the native Quichara or Aimará tribal word huajcho, meaning “orphan” or “poor person,” the gauchos were a politically repressed, then eventually romanticized, culture of people coming from a wide-ranging mix of mestizo, indian, black, Jewish, immigrant, and white backgrounds. Over time, these mostly free-ranging horsemen, who eventually were forced to make their livings working on the vast ranches of the Pampas, established a folkloric tradition that would serve to inspire myriad works of literature in the region.

In Argentina today, the gaucho is synonymous with an image shared with that of the American cowboy, and in many ways their cultural roots are similar. As members of an independent class of people that made a living working with the countless herds of cattle, the rugged gaucho has achieved mythical proportions in the urbanized atmosphere of modern-day Argentina as wild adventurers possessed with a sage-like earthy wisdom. But their true origins are much more complicated and wrapped in the history of the Argentine interior. A racial fusion of newly arrived settlers and native peoples were the genesis of the gaucho, who strove to survive on the harsh, dry landscape of the Pampas—an expansive plain extending for 1600 miles from the Paraná River in Uruguay south to the south-central region of Argentina. The early gauchos lived in clustered villages throughout the region, herded cattle and were among the defenders in the repulsion of the English invasion of 1806-1807, and the rebellion against Spanish rule in 1809-1816. Upon the independence of Argentina in 1816, a new effort was made to colonize the interior, which in turn helped to give rise to the ranches that sprang up over the landscape over the following half century. It was this collision of cultures that gave the gaucho literary movement its true impetus starting as early as the 1850's.

In 1845 Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, a future president of the Argentine Republic, released his consequential prose work on politics and social work in Argentina, Facundo, o Civilización i barbarie or, in English, Life in the Argentine Republic in the Days of the Tyrants. In Facundo, he condemned the gauchos as dangerous bandits and urged urban dwellers to settle the pampas en masse so as to reduce gaucho control of the region, neglecting their contributions to Argentina's independence. The book, widely circulated and influential in the densely populated coastal cities, pressed a dark stereotype upon the gaucho in the impressionable eyes of many Argentines who had no knowledge of the Pampas outside of Sarmiento's censures. As a direct result of Sarmiento's efforts, barbed wire fences, farmers and huge ranches began to obstruct the open ranges that the gauchos had become accustomed to, forcing many to alter their lifestyles and find work on the ranches. More troubling however were the increasing oppressive dictums and conditions the gaucho found himself forced to endure—such as conscription (forced military service), latifundism (the land/estate entitlement of the powerful), corrupt and antagonistic local officials, as well as a difficulty in acquiring passports to move about the country.

Prior to these dramatic changes to their lifestyle, gaucho literature existed solely in two nascent forms: the narrative folkloric ballads sung by travelling payadores and the pulp novels written by non-gauchos that were popular in the cities. But with the release of José Hernández's epic El gaucho Martín Fierro (1872; The Gaucho Martín Fierro), the gaucho literary movement found its voice. A fusion of the pulp novel and the traditional folk narrative of the gaucho, it was almost immediately a hit with the masses and served as more than just a true introduction to these Argentine free-riders. A verse narrative that recounts the plights and adventures of its title hero, it was followed by La vuelta Martín Fierro (1879; The Return of Martin Fierro). Strongly sympathetic to the gaucho, Hernández—like many of the authors who would follow his lead—was not a gaucho himself, although he had spent decades in the region and was fiercely admiring of their culture. As a political argument sympathetic to the plight of the victimized gaucho, Martín Fierro was more than merely an expression of his respect of their traditions, it was a daring rebuke against the continuing repression of the gaucho way at a time when such statements were critically unpopular. It created a groundswell for a movement of like-minded authors that were able to finally give the gaucho a voice in the country's affairs. However since few gauchos were educated themselves, the literary coalition consisted of outside authors empathetic to the rough but worldly lifestyle espoused by the gaucho. Even with the assistance of Hernández and other writers of the period such as Eduardo Gutiérrez, Estanislao del Campo, and Antonio Lussich, the gaucho found himself struggling in the face of a new threat: the increasing modernization and industrialization of Argentina. Railroads now criss-crossed the nation connecting even the most remote outposts and rendering the gaucho lifestyle more and more irrelevant with the passing years. Fewer people followed the old traditions and true gauchos began to disappear from the Pampas. Gaucho literature also saw its popularity dim as less writers adopted the form, though intermittent works were still published during this quieter period. However, a new reality in Argentina was setting in that would help to give rise to a second wave of gaucho-themed literature: immigration.

Partially due to Sarmiento's desire to populate the interior of the nation and also to the World War that would eventually lay waste to Europe, the period between 1880 and 1914 saw a wave of immigration bringing 2.5 million new people to the country from foreign nations. Contrary to Sarmiento's hopes, however, few arrivals ventured past the already crowded coastal region. Such a dramatic population shift began to leave native-born Argentineans resentful of the new residents and the ethnic shift they brought to the face of their nation. From this budding animosity sprung an interest in all things la criollo, which referred to Argentina's native cultural traditions. These nationalistic desires gave rise to a resurgence of interest in the gaucho at the beginning of the twentieth century, a tide of interest whose origins were more nostalgic than political in nature. This wave too had a centerpiece—much in the way Martín Fierro had epitomized the movement fifty years earlier—in Ricardo Güiraldes' Don Segundo Sombra (1926).

Güiraldes typified the type of personality behind the new gaucho literature, which again found the vast majority of the canon being written not by the actual gauchos themselves but by men who greatly respected their lifestyle. Born to a wealthy family, Güiraldes spent much of his youth on his family's estancieros among the rough men who worked them, including one man in particular upon whom he fashioned the title hero of Sombra. Perhaps the most-treasured work in Argentine literature, Don Segundo Sombra remains relevant due to the care Güiraldes took in presenting an accurate depiction of the traditions of the gaucho as well as striving to recreate their unique vernacular. Developed around the central plot of a young orphaned man taken under the wing of a grizzled veteran gaucho, it espoused a return to simpler values where a primal respect for the land was the centerpiece for a contented existence. Güiraldes' work helped cement the stereotypical image of the gaucho that had been building upon itself for the past century and a half.

Commonly shown strumming his guitar around a campfire, the gaucho was represented as a craggy man of undemonstrative wisdom who strove to live an independent existence of productive effort. Highly moral, they were portrayed as men of mysterious backgrounds who traded stories of traditional flavor at the end of long days of manual labor. Often relentlessly persecuted, their lives were tangled webs of misfortune and intrigue but high adventure. Wildly varying in quality from the dime-store novel to the masterworks of men like Güiraldes, Alberto Gerchunoff, Benito Lynch, and Leopoldo Lugones, the writing style often consisted of simple metaphors drawn in broad strokes, but always full of great admiration. Given that the majority of these men came from the wealthy landowner elite, the works are surprisingly accurate in their details of the regional flavor and colloquial mannerisms of their subjects. Masculine men of firm loyalty to one another, they are almost uniformly presented as figures of heroic stature, despite the relatively mundane nature of their desires.

An amalgam of myth literature and native folklore, the gaucho genre remains heavily masculine; written by men about men. Borne of the lyrical songs of the gaucho, they were met with as much approval by the subjects themselves as the general populace. The Argentine people treasure the legacy of their nation, a legacy immortalized in part by the gaucho and the literature about them that endures. As a canonical style, the gaucho literature movement was at its peak from about 1850-1930, though many novels, movies, and poetry continue to document their cultural traditions. In recent years, a revival of sorts has occurred in many parts of South America from Brazil south through Uruguay into Argentina, where the tradition of the gaucho is honored in festivals and many people seek to return to the old ways out of a fondness for the past. But whatever the future of the gaucho, the literature inspired by them remains a cultural touchstone. As critic S. Griswold Morley wrote, “in the United States of North America, the cowboy is relegated to the rubbish corners of literature; in Uruguay and Argentina, authors of the first rank are proud to interpret him.”