Jorge Ricardo Isaacs Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Jorge Ricardo Isaacs 1837-1895

Colombian poet, novelist, nonfiction writer, and politician.

Isaacs is chiefly remembered for his tragic, romantic novel, María (1867), which is still widely read in Hispanic America. Isaacs was also a prolific poet, though his poetry has not received the same critical attention as María. In his nonfiction prose, Isaacs tended to espouse strong political positions. A liberal who believed in the separation of church and state, Isaacs took on such contentious issues as the treatment of Indians by Catholic missionaries. However, few of Isaacs's polemical writings remain in print.

Biographical Information

Isaacs was born in Cali, Colombia, in 1837, the son of a Jamaican man of Jewish descent and a Catholic, Colombian woman. Isaacs's father owned numerous ranches and a sugar-processing mill. Though educated in Bogotá, Isaacs did not graduate from high school. In 1856, after a brief stint in the army, Isaacs married Felisa González Umaña. He soon returned to the military, and there began writing his poetry. In 1861, Issacs left the military to run the family ranches and businesses, but he failed at this endeavor and by 1864 was forced to sell the ranches. Isaacs first achieved literary fame in 1864 with the publication of his poetry by the literary group "El Mosaico." He next worked as a construction inspector. This job required that he live in the jungles along the Pacific coast, away from his wife. There, he began writing his novel, María. Illness eventually led Isaacs to return to his family, and in 1866, Isaacs entered politics as the Cauca Valley's conservative representative. He soon switched to the liberal party, a move that coincided with his joining the Freemasons. This move gained Isaacs many political enemies, many of whom made much of Isaacs's Jewish ancestry in an attempt to discredit him. By 1870, however, Isaacs landed the prestigious post of consul to Chile. Returning to Colombia in 1873, Isaacs attempted ranching once more but once again failed. In 1875, having declared bankruptcy, Isaacs attempted to justify his business practices in A Mis Amigos y a los Commerciantes del Cauca (1875; To My Friends and the Businessmen of the Cauca Valley). Issacs was the subject of heavy criticism, both for his financial dealings and his continued liberal politics. His next occupation, as general superintendent of public schools, was interrupted by civil war. Isaacs fought for the liberal government and by 1877 resumed teaching. For the next few years, Isaacs held a number of government positions, and among other causes, worked for Indian rights. For a few months in 1880, Isaacs declared himself president of the state of Antioquia until forced to resign. As a result, Isaacs was driven from the national congress and denounced as a revolutionary. That same year, he wrote a pamphlet, La Revolución Radical en Antioquia (1880; The Radical Revolution in Antioquia) in defense of his actions. In the next few years, Isaacs continued writing poetry and treatises and intermittently received government positions. He was again embroiled in his country's political upheaval in 1885 when he joined the revolution against the government. Escaping any serious repercussions, Isaacs received a government contract to mine coal deposits along the Atlantic coast. This venture, as Isaacs's other business attempts, yielded no profit in his lifetime. In 1893, Isaacs planned to write a trilogy of historical novels that, in the words of Donald McGrady, "were to glorify the heroism of those who had freed Colombia from the tyranny of Spain, to show the lack of political expertise of these liberators, and to denounce the powers of darkness (namely the Roman Catholic Church)." Isaacs died in 1895 before completing more than a fragment of just one of these novels, Camilo (1937).

Major Works

Although Isaacs's poetry and nonfiction offer insight into his life and times, Isaacs's masterpiece was his one finished novel, Maria. John Rosenberg calls María "a prototype of the Latin American romantic novel" and notes that Isaacs "invites us to read tearfully." The young narrator of the tale, Efraín, recounts his love for and separation from the beautiful María. Maria's eventual death, before Efraín can return to her, emphasizes the tragedy of the story. Donald McGrady writes that the sentimental nature of the novel "came as a breath of fresh air in a period suffocated by materialism and the spirit of Positivism." In María, Issacs explores the depths of human emotion and virtually ignores the political upheaval of his own time. María is also read as a partly autobiographical novel. María shared the Jewish ancestry of her creator, and the setting for the novel was inspired by one of Isaacs's childhood homes, "El Paraíso." Although neither explicitly historical or political, María does provide a view of mid-nineteenth century Colombia with Efraín accurately describing the landscape as he journeys through the jungles of Colombia. The interpolated story of Nay and Sinar, two African slaves, provided a glimpse of current racial stereotypes and the reality of South American slavery. Many of Isaacs's other works were more overtly political. Several of his poems deal with the Colombian civil wars. In his nonfiction prose, particularly La Revolución Radical en Antioquia, Isaacs explained his own political motivations. Other work was intensely personal: many of Isaacs's poems were dedicated to his wife and others describe possible extramarital affairs.

Critical Reception

Before the publication of María, Issacs was hailed as a budding poet. However, by 1877, as Donald McGrady notes, the president of Argentina was so disenchanted "that he called a meeting of his cabinet to consider the disparity between María and Isaacs' poetry." Following the opinion of Argentina's president, most critics confine their analysis to Isaacs's novel. María was an unmitigated success in its own time. Pirated editions of the novel appeared throughout Latin America and Spain during Isaacs's lifetime. Recently, critics have explored the significance of this novel beyond its romantic origins. The structure of the novel, as well as its depiction of women and of African slaves, has received a fair amount of attention. Critics have also noted that the tragedy of the novel moves beyond its depiction of Maria's death. Sylvia Molloy reads the novel as the "Spanish American model for the timeless topos of paradise lost," and Sharon Magnarelli argues in The Lost Rib that "Efraín writes to recapture this past, to reconquer this paradise."