Miguel de Unamuno Introduction

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(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Miguel de Unamuno 1864-1936

Spanish poet, essayist, novelist, philosopher, playwright, and journalist.

The following entry provides criticism on Unamuno's works from 1934 through 2003. See also Saint Emmanuel the Good Criticism.

An important figure in the Spanish cultural movement known as the Generation of 1898, Unamuno was an innovator of genre and style who does not fit easily into any literary category. Although he considered himself first and foremost to be a poet, during his lifetime he was best known for his essays on religion, metaphysics, politics, and Spanish culture. Today, Unamuno is remembered primarily for his fiction, which is valued for its idiosyncratic forms and poetic use of language to express psychological states and emotional conflicts. An early existentialist and modernist, Unamuno explored the tensions between reason and faith, religion and freedom of thought, and the tragedy of death, for which reason offers no consolation. Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Arthur A. Cohen praised Unamuno as “the greatest stylist in the Spanish language since Cervantes.” Unamuno's existential, experimental writings have strongly influenced twentieth-century literature, including writers as diverse as Federico García Lorca, Juan Ramón-Jiminéz, Henry Miller, and Graham Greene.

Biographical Information

Born on September 29, 1864, in the Basque city of Bilbao, Unamuno was the third of six children born to Félix de Unamuno, a baker, and Salomé Jugo. His father died when Unamuno was six, and Unamuno was raised by his mother and uncle in a devout Catholic household. As a child, Unamuno witnessed violence between traditional and progressive Basques during the Carlist siege of Bilbao. From 1880 to 1884, Unamuno studied philosophy and letters at the University of Madrid, writing a doctoral thesis on the origins of the Basque people and language. In 1884 Unamuno returned to Bilbao where he founded the socialist journal La Lucha de Clases. In 1891, newly married to Concepción (Concha) Lizárraga Encénnarro, he secured a professorship at the University of Salamanca, where he had both a successful academic life and ten children. In 1897, his third child contracted meningitis and died. This death triggered a spiritual crisis for Unamuno, who, unable to find comfort in either his intellectual convictions or Catholicism, gradually abandoned socialism because it did not address what he felt was the greatest human problem, death. In addition to writing, Unamuno played an important role in intellectual life, serving as rector of the University of Salamanca from 1900 to 1914 during a time of great upheaval. In 1914, he was dismissed from the university for criticizing the policies of King Alfonso XIII. In 1924, Unamuno campaigned against the dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera and was exiled without his family to the Canary Islands. After a few months, he escaped to Paris and became a cause célèbre in intellectual circles. Unamuno spent five years in exile, living mostly in Hendaye, a French Basque town. After Rivera died in 1930, Alfonso fled Spain and the Republic was proclaimed. Unamuno returned to Salamanca and resumed his teaching post. However, in 1936, as civil war erupted, Unamuno denounced Francisco Franco. Although Franco authorized his execution, to avoid an international incident, Unamuno was placed under house arrest, where he died at age 72 on New Year's Eve, 1936.

Major Works

A modernist and existentialist, Unamuno was also a stylistic innovator who combined poetry with prose and philosophy with fiction to create new genres such as the nivola, which lacked external markers and character descriptions, conveyed a sense of timelessness, and reflected the illusory nature of the material world and the importance of the inner lives of his characters. “Faith which does not doubt is dead faith,” Unamuno once wrote, and the tension between doubt and faith pervades all his work. Informed by the work of Hegel, Kierkegaard, Bergson and James, Unamuno incorporates philosophical discourse into his narratives. Unamuno's early novels, Paz en la Guerra (1897) and Amor y pedagogía (1902; Love and Pedagogy) explore the interconnectedness of self and world through death, and satirize objective positivism. Abel Sánchez (1917) explores how jealousy becomes self-hatred; Tulio Montalbán (1920) interrogates the conflicts between one's public persona and one's inner life; and La Tía Tula (1921) ponders its heroine's self-denial. Unamuno's final novel, San Manuel Bueno, mártir (1933; Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr), concerns a priest who has lost his faith in God but nevertheless ministers to his parishioners. Several of Unamuno's works fall under the category of metafiction, most notably Niebla (1914; Mist), in which a character dies upon learning he is a figment of Unamuno's imagination, and Cómo se hace una novela (1927), a novelistic essay about novel-writing that describes an author writing a character writing another character and so on. Noted for its blend of philosophy and romanticism and for its privileging of meaning over traditional forms, Unamuno's poetry focuses on religion, Spanish culture, geography, and domestic life. In a long poem, El Cristo de Velázquez (1920; The Christ of Velazquez), Unamuno meditates on the symbols evoked by Velázquez's painting of Christ; in poetry collections such as De Fuerteventura a París (1925) and Romancero del destierro (1928), Unamuno reflects on his experience as an exile. Like his fiction, Unamuno's plays focus on the internal lives of his characters, relying on austere settings and evocative symbolism to explore spirituality and faith as a necessary lie. A prolific essayist, Unamuno contemplated metaphysics, literature, religion, politics, and travel. En torno al casticismo (1895) attempts to define Spain's character and collective psychology. Del sentimiento trágico de la vida (1912; The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and in Peoples) explores the intrahistoria, or ignored history, of the rural Spanish provinces. Vida de Don Quijote y Sancho (1905; The Life of Don Quixote and Sancho) suggests that Cervantes' quixotic hero represents the spirituality of the Spanish people.

Critical Reception

Many early critics were mystified by Unamuno's paradoxical, determinedly unsystematic essays and novels. In 1922, H. C. Harwood called The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and in Peoples “confusing and self-contradictory.” Of The Life of Don Quixote and Sancho Aubrey Bell wrote in 1919, “He agrees with no one but himself, and not with himself for very long.” Although V. S. Pritchett once called Unamuno “the only [Spanish] writer to attain a European reputation,” he also dismissed Mist as a “very bad novel.” Yet, in his lifetime Unamuno also had fans. In 1908, Havelock Ellis proclaimed Unamuno “one of the most brilliant of Spanish writers and a penetrative critic.” In 1922, the American novelist John Dos Passos admired Unamuno's “anarchic fury,” and Mark van Doren called The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and in Peoples “modern Catholicism's richest, most passionate, most brilliant statement of the grounds that exist for faith in immortality, now that reason and science have done their worst.” In 1931, Edgar Holt considered Don Quijote y Sancho “one of the most invigorating works that contemporary literature has produced.” Many critics believed Unamuno represented a Spanish sensibility. In 1952, for example, John Mackay wrote that Unamuno was “undoubtedly the greatest interpreter of the Spanish race.” Most critics suggest that Unamuno's genre-bending, metaphysical metafiction was ahead of its time. Allen Lacey praises Mist, Abel Sánchez, and Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr “for [their] improvisatory technique,” arguing that Unamuno's “sense of the novel as a vehicle for serious play, as a comic metaphysic, has strong affinities to the best work of Jorge Luis Borges and John Barth.” Martin Nozick calls El Cristo del Velázquez “a major work of unflagging vitality and resonances, … made up of wave upon wave of Whitmanesque rhythms,” and Howard Young appreciates El Cristo's “Miltonic flow” as well as “the subdued sadness of his later sonnets.” For R. E. Batchelor, Unamuno is a modern paradox, combining “the imperious, warrior-like vitality of a Nietzsche with the intellectual paralysis of a Pirendello, [and] the stirring pride of an Ibsen with the frustration of a Kafka.” Throughout the twentieth century, critics have found, in Enrique Fernandez's words, that “Unamuno … deserves to be a category unto himself.”