(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Old Gringo is a novel fashioned as a tribute by one writer to the memory and courage of another, the cynical American journalist and storyteller Ambrose Bierce; the book offers a fictive speculation about Bierce’s mysterious disappearance in Mexico in 1913 during the civil war. Carlos Fuentes imagines that Bierce, at first referred to only as the “old gringo,” went to Mexico seeking Pancho Villa. His motives for going are ambiguous. He is seeking a new frontier and the adventure of fighting for the revolution, but what he seems to be seeking most is a heroic death. As Fuentes repeatedly states, the “old gringo came to Mexico to die,” preferably with dignity.

The story is grounded in a factual framework. Bierce crossed the border at El Paso, Texas, in November of 1913. On December 26, he wrote that he intended to ride a troop train to Ojinaga seeking Pancho Villa. He was never heard from again. According to one legend, Bierce found Villa, became a senior staff adviser, and was later shot as a deserter, alienated by the bandit’s cruelties. Fuentes works a variation on this legend.

Though named for the old gringo, the novel is mainly the story of Harriet Winslow, a spinster who leaves her mother in Washington, D.C., and goes to Mexico to work as a governess for the wealthy, landowning Miranda family, teaching English to the three Miranda children. She is seeking liberation, adventure, and independence, but she is manipulated by the Miranda family. They put her in the middle of the revolution by summoning her to their hacienda as they are making plans to depart themselves; the family uses her to create a diversion. She is also manipulated by General Tomás Arroyo, who uses her to gain entry to the Miranda estate. The Mexicans who exploit her consider her a fool. The story is framed by Harriet’s memory.

The old gringo has concluded, to his shame, that he had also been manipulated and exploited during his career as a muckraking journalist by his employer, William Randolph Hearst. Bierce has contempt for his own accomplishments, done in the service of a millionaire who has profited by his talent. He describes himself as a “contemptible, muckraking reporter at the service of a baron of the press as corrupt as any I denounced in his...

(The entire section is 938 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Harriet Winslow, at home in Washington, D.C., remembers her Mexican adventure, one that had shaped her life. She recalls the time she set off to accept a position as English teacher to the children of a wealthy landowner in Chihuahua, Mexico.

Arriving at the hacienda, as Harriet remembers, she finds revolutionary chaos. The hacienda, taken over by the revolutionaries following Pancho Villa and led by General Tomás Arroyo, is burning to the ground. Among revolutionaries and villagers is another American known to the locals as the old gringo, a name reflecting his age as well as the antagonistic Mexican attitude toward Americans. Old gringo is now buried in Harriet’s father’s cemetery plot, and Arroyo, his assassin, now wanders through her thoughts, more real to her than the living.

The three lives become intertwined when the old man, the young woman, and the revolutionary meet in the beautiful, private rail car owned by the Miranda family, who have all fled to France. The three express their reasons for being on the train and discuss their intentions, their impressions of each other, and their respective countries. Having fled a boring life with her solicitous mother and tepid fiancé, Harriet is now determined to stay in Mexico even though her prospective employers are gone and Arroyo has offered her safe passage home. The old gringo, having no one left in his life who cares for him and tired of his own cynicism, intends to die fighting with Villa.

Arroyo, an angry revolutionary, holds in his hands the deed to the Miranda estate, where, as illegitimate son of Miranda, he had lived as a servant. Though resentful of both Americans, he decides, at least temporarily, to tolerate their presence. The three then begin to reshape their lives and redirect the lives of each other.

The old gringo falls in love with thirty-year-old Harriet, who reminds him of his wife and daughter. His feelings for her fluctuate between the sexual and the fatherly. He recognizes fatherly feeling for Arroyo as well....

(The entire section is 835 words.)