The subtitle of this volume (of conference papers and some reprinted essays) accurately reflects the primary emphasis of all but 2 or 3 of its 22 contributors: Sarmiento as writer, not as politician or statesman. The authors thus appear to accept Sarmiento’s own view that his powerful writing qualified him to be president of his nation and, indeed, in some way served to create the nation. The historian, however, cannot help but regret that a work published in commemoration of the centenary of Sarmiento’s death has almost nothing to say about his presidency or his achievements and failures in other public offices. The contents instead focus overwhelmingly on his career as a journalist in Chile and on his literary masterpiece, Facundo.
The common trait that a substantial majority of the contributors are professors of literature helps to explain that relative emphasis, which is not in itself culpable but does somewhat skew the thrust of the commemoration. For the uninitiated, some of the jargon will skew it further, because the contributions offer a great deal of textual deconstruction and subtle analysis of Sarmiento’s “discursive strategies.” These are, no doubt, valid exercises, but they also incur considerable repetition of literary commentary within and between contributions, and the mere historian will find many of them hard going. Is there, for example, no better way of saying “a link between nonrepressed unconsciousness and an ordering perspective” (p. 179)?
HAHR readers will naturally find some entries more congenial than others. Tulio Halperín Donghi gives a stimulating discussion of Sarmiento’s social position and attitudes, emphasizing his distrust of an oligarchy of wealth. Coming immediately after a rambling and jargon-laden general introduction to the volume, the complex sentence structure and cryptic insights typical of Halperín’s prose seem almost transparent. Natalio Botana grapples with liberalism and illiberalism in Sarmiento’s thought, and William H. Katra looks at Sarmiento’s travel impressions of the United States, underscoring the omissions as much as the expressed opinions to highlight his “conservatism.” Iván Jaksić gives a lucid account of Sarmiento’s early journalistic experience and the influence of the Chilean model on his political ideas. Adolfo Prieto, likewise dealing with the Chilean journalism, presents an excellent analysis of Sarmiento’s concern with the quality and quantity of his readership. Nor are these the only contributions of potential value to readers uninterested in the finer points of literary criticism. The fact remains, though, that as a tribute to Sarmiento on the centenary of his death, the volume is just a little unbalanced.