Thursday, March 27, 2008

The collapse of the Golden Age, or, Why there won't be much Spanish literature at Wuthering Expectations

The Spanish Golden Age was an amazing literary period, a strong rival to the contemporary literature of England (that's right, including Shakespeare). Say it started with the anonymous picaresque Lazarillo de Tormes in 1554 and lasted until Calderón de la Barca’s retirement into the priesthood in 1651. Almost a century, which included great poets (the mystic St. John of the Cross and Fray Luis de León, and the baroque Luis de Góngora), playwrights (the prolific Lope de Vega, Tirso de Molina, and the magnificent Calderón), and the beginning of the novel, including Don Quixote. And then, after this spectacular creative outburst, it all just dies. With the exception of the Mexican poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, there are no great works of Spanish literature for another 200 years.

What an outrageous statement – how does the Amateur Reader know that? He’s read it all? No, no; he’s just taking the word of the Professionals. I look in my copy of The Penguin Book of Spanish Verse, and see an almost exact 200 year gap, Sor Juana again excepted. After her, nothing until Gustavo Adolfo Becquer in 1860. Or glance at The Cambridge History of Spanish Literature, and compare the entire chapters devoted to Cervantes or Calderón de la Barca to the handful of pages on the 18th century. You have to actually read the chapters to find the accompanying total lack of enthusiasm. For Scholars Only.

What happened? In its decline, Spain took a turn inward, cutting itself off from the European intellectual mainstream, ironically just as recast Spanish drama was invading the French and English stage. The Counter-Reformation was part of the story, channeling writing into religious subjects. Why wasn’t Italy affected the same way, though? Maybe it was, but at least the Italian theater was lively throughout the 18th century. French neoclassicism had a stifling effect on poetry and drama. During the decade when the Napoleonic Wars were fought on Spanish soil, literary production almost ceased entirely. I would not want to say that a culture capable of producing Goya was lacking in creative energy. But something was missing.

Perhaps what is missing is not the books, but translations. In the Columbia Encyclopedia entry on Spanish literature, in the 18th century we see – no, the encyclopedist agrees, the 18th century is hopeless. Let’s move into the early 19th century. Here are some authors – José de Espronceda, Ángel de Saavedra, José Morilla y Moral. Who? Are their books still worth reading? They’re not in English, so I can't find out for myself without an investment in Spanish that is unlikely to occur.

Later, after 1860 or so, a cosmopolitan intellectual spirit had returned to Spain. I have not read much of Becquer, or novelists like Benito Peréz Galdós or the mononymous Clarín. But their books are in English, and I’ve leafed through them, learning at least one thing – I ought to read them some day. They look good. Maybe that’s true of earlier writers as well, but I need the help of an enterprising translator.

I’ve elided the issue of Latin American literature, which looks to me like it follows the same pattern. I’d love to be proved wrong. Anyone know if José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi’s The Mangy Parrot (1816, “first Spanish American novel”) is for non-specialists? The title is promising.


  1. I can't tell you anything about the Mangy Parrot but I like the title too! And what an interesting post about Spanish lit and the 200 year gap.

  2. An earlier translation was called "The Itching Parrot", for what that's worth.

    These gaps in literature or creativity are a long-time interest of mine.

  3. I wonder if the gap just reflects the downturn in the Spanish economy after the supply of New World gold and silver dried up? With less wealth there would have been fewer patrons for the arts.

  4. Sylvia, you've brought up a large subject. Let me just say that the model connecting great literature to ascendanct economic or political power that works in so many examples (Periclean Athens, Augustan Rome, Renaissance Italy, Elizabethan England) breaks down in Golden Age Spain.

    The economic decline you identify was well underway by the mid-16th century. "Don Quixote", "Life is a Dream", Góngora's "Soledades" - the greatest masterpieces of the time were written during an unrelieved decline. See, for example, the Columbia Encyclopedia (search for "Decline of Spain"),

    A second point is that the production of plays, poems and stories did not actually stop, or even slow down much - only the production of masterpieces, or books any nonspecialist, even in Spain, reads now. The nature of creativity is so mysterious.

    You've picked out one aspect of the period that makes it so interesting.

  5. Part of this 200-year gap (100 years is probably closer to the mark) is attributable to the fact that in 1700 the Bourbons began to rule in Spain. The first Bourbon, Philip V, grandson of Louis XIV, did not speak a work of Spanish when he was crowned. His tastes were for the great French literature of the period. His wife, Maria Luisa of Savoy, was Italian and also had a shaky grasp of Spanish. Her tastes veered more towards Italian opera than Spanish classical drama (already in decline after the death of Calderon in 1681). The intellectual elite, in order to please its royal patrons, began to imitate, or ape, French literary styles and fashions (including the so called classical units) with disastrous results.

  6. Thanks for the detail. Three points, or possibly objections.

    First, what about the novel? It wasn't patronage literature. But the long delay in the artistic response to "Don Quixote" is, I know, another complicated topic.

    Second, why didn't the new tastes of the elite lead to innovation, rather than stagnation? I don't know the answer, but I can think of examples that went the other way. Even in Spain, look at Goya.

    Third, if the gap is 100 years, rather than 200 (retirement of Calderon to publication of Becquer), which are the great books I've missed? Which of them are in English? This point is not at all argumentative - let me know, and I'll read 'em.