This is the first serious work on Latin American culture published in England, a country well known for its tradition of scholars and critics of Spanish peninsular literature, but not for its interest in Latin American studies. Jean Franco of the University of London has written a daring and controversial book that reveals both honesty in her research work and a high critical responsibility. This book is remarkable for its wealth of commentaries and suggestions over a broad range of specialized topics. Some of these, to be sure, will arouse dissent and require further refinement. The basic concern of the book is the relationship of the writer or artist with the society in which he is living. Far from being dogmatic about this, the author’s sociological view is wide and derives from her comprehension of the Latin American cultural phenomenon, not from any preestablished doctrine.
Summarizing, these are her fundamental premises: 1) The personality of the Latin American writer, artist, or intellectual has been oriented and built according to the origin and development of his own county. Hence, as she says, “an intense social concern has been the characteristic of Latin-American art” (p. 1), and both art and literature “have played a social role, with the artist acting as a guide, teacher, and conscience of his country.” 2) “The Latin American has generally viewed art as an expression of the artist’s whole self: a self which is living in a society and which therefore has a collective as well as an individual concern. Conversely, the idea of the moral neutrality or purity of art has a relatively little impact” (p. 1). 3) Social, political, and cultural problems in underdeveloped countries give the Latin American writer a sense of social responsibility associated with the search for the national identity and at the same time with the validity of what is within his universal consensus. The result is “a concept of literature as an instrument, a concept which is associated with their faith in the power of the written word and in education as a social panacea” (p. 56).
From these postulates we can deduce that in Latin America the names of the literary movements “Modernism,” “New Worldism,” and “Indigenism” are attitudes, while in Europe “symbolism,” “cubism,” etc. are techniques. The following is another more substantial and controversial differentiation: “While so much of Western art is concerned with individual experience or relations between the sexes, most of the major works of Latin American literature and even some of its painting are much more concerned with social ideals” (p. 282).
This concept of human fraternity would be the foundation of the sociological trend of our literature. But not always does it have the same intensity or the same functional finality. In “Modernism” and other “isms” of the twentieth-century avant-garde period the divorce between the artist and his time is evident (e.g., Rubén Darío). Art is considered “more important than the political struggle” (p. 280), and the artist has the responsibility of fixing an identity beyond space and time which affirms itself in an ideal universalizing synthesis. “Criollismo” and “Cosmopolitism,” “New Worldism,” “Europeism,” that which belongs to a determined area, and the universality of the “eternal” ideal (p. 28)—all these are wholly integrated, combining an American substance with the most advanced techniques suitable for its expression. In a dawning world chaos presents itself as a matter to be defined and organized into a superior order of harmonic esthetics (Darío, etc.). This idealizing trend, with a humanistic background and an esthetic nature as a foundation of Latin American originality, takes the form of “Arielism” opposing North American pragmatism. This is the raison d’être of modern Latin American culture.