Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera 1859-1895

(Also wrote under the pseudonyms El Duque Job, Recamier, Rafael, M. Can-Can, Junius, El Cura de Jalatlaco, Juan Lanas, Perico el de los Palotes, Frú‐Frú, Ignotus, Pomponnet, Croix-Dieu, Omega, Fritz, Gil Blas, Nemo, Etincelle, and Puck.) Mexican journalist, critic, poet, and short story writer.

Gutiérrez Nájera was an important figure of nineteenth-century Latin American Modernism, best known for his innovative writing style and his development of the Modernist short story. His other work includes poetry and crónicas, short prose pieces devoted to a wide variety of contemporary topics: literature and the arts, including theatrical reviews, political and social questions, and general cultural criticism.

Biographical Information

Nájera was born in Mexico City on December 22, 1859, to Manuel Gutiérrez and Dolores Nájera. Most of his early instruction came from his parents, who were well educated, and there is some evidence that he attended a French school during his early childhood. His parents also arranged for the Archbishop of Mexico to tutor him privately in Latin. Nájera's mother was a very devout Catholic, as was Nájera in his youth. He remained a deeply spiritual man throughout his life, despite early disillusionment with the Catholic church. Nájera began writing in his mid-teens and by the age of sixteen, various newspapers were competing for the right to publish his work. He became a prolific journalist and co-founded, along with Carlos Díaz Dufóo, the magazine Revista Azul. Throughout his career, Nájera employed a variety of pseudonyms including Rafael, Mr. Can-Can, El Duque Job, Junius, and Puck, enabling him to reuse, adapt, and occasionally combine pieces to suit a variety of purposes and to publish them under different names. In 1888, Nájera married Cecilia Maillefert; the couple had two daughters, Cecilia and Margarita. His life from that point on was devoted to his family and to his writing. In fragile health even as a child, Nájera exacerbated his condition by constantly smoking cigars and by overindulging in alcohol. He died on February 3, 1895, at his home in Mexico City, surrounded by friends and family. Despite his lifelong ambition to travel, he had never left Mexico and had rarely ventured outside the capital.

Major Works

The majority of Nájera's work was written for newspapers and periodicals, and most of the pieces appeared almost immediately after he produced them. He wrote primarily poetry, short stories, and crónicas, a genre defined by critic Harley D. Oberhelman as “a commentary upon daily events or about any material of general interest, consciously cultivated as a special form of artistic prose.” Nájera produced more than 1,500 of these crónicas, many of them under one or another of his various pseudonyms. In adopting a pseudonym, Nájera also adopted the point of view of its accompanying fictional persona, such as a priest or a simple country lad. He thus assured that his readers would not tire of the hundreds of essays he produced on a wide range of topics since they were written from various narrative points of view. Some of the crónicas were written to commemorate special occasions, such as “Gloria,” which was composed to mark the death of Justo Sierra's daughter, and many of them discussed philosophical questions, religious or social problems, drug and alcohol use, or death. Nájera also wrote criticism on new literature, drama, music and poetry. According to E. K. Mapes, Nájera’s “understanding of critical procedure, his acquaintance with literature, and his skill in marshaling his facts and arguments, are astounding to the last degree.”

Nájera's short stories, were generally somber and occasionally even morbid. Some of these were published in a collection called Cuentos frágiles (1883), which was the only book of Nájera's works published in his lifetime. One of his most famous stories from this collection is “Mañana de San Juan,” which tells the story of two small boys who wander away from their garden on the morning of Saint John's Day. One child falls into the water while reaching for a paper boat and his brother tries valiantly to save him, without success. The tale is typical of Nájera's work—a simple story filled with sadness and inevitability told in such poetic language that the reader is deeply moved. Many of Nájera's stories, such as “Los suicidios,” “En la calle,” and “La balada de Año Nuevo” involve tragedy and death. Another of his well-known tales is “Rip Rip,” an adaptation of Washington Irving's “Rip Van Winkle.” Of his many poems, “La Serenata de Schubert” (1888) has been cited as a brief but major lyrical poem, noted for its original imagery, fresh expression and melodic tone. M. A. Loera de la Llave describes it as a “well-wrought composition on Romantic topoi.

Critical Reception

Nájera’s articles were in high demand during his life and interest in his work has remained relatively steady since that time. Due to the fact that Nájera contributed most of his work to a variety of periodicals, under a number of pseudonyms, it has been somewhat of a challenge over the years to compile and republish his work in book form. Critics such as E. K. Mapes have contributed much to the sorting out of these issues. As for his importance in literary history, many critics credit Nájera for his pioneering work as an early Modernist. John A. Crow calls Cuentos frágiles “the first expression of Modernist prose in Spanish America.” According to Crow, “all of the critics have praised Nájera's poetry, but only a few have pointed out that his prose was a far more important influence on the writers who followed.” Harley D. Oberhelman agrees, insisting that “the importance of his poetry to Modernism was great, but it was in his prose writings, especially the crónicas, that his contribution to the movement was most decisive.” Oberhelman claims that “Nájera introduced Modernism to Mexico in the pages of his Revista Azul; his work represents a liaison between earlier romanticism and the refined work of the Modernists, and his Revista made possible the smooth transition from one movement to the other.” In addition to his contribution to Latin American Modernism, critics praise Nájera’s use of language and imagery in his poetry and short stories. According to Nell Walker, Nájera told even simple stories “in phrases so full of tenderness and pathos and adorn[ed] the whole with such beautiful descriptions of native customs or picturesque landscapes that the reader is fascinated with the picture and with the story.” Crow, too, praises Nájera's ability to create poetic images, claiming that Nájera “scatters images like jewels throughout his prose.”