One of my favorite historical topics is the intellectual and cultural history of the early twentieth century. Recently I’ve been reading a book titled Yrigoyen Entre Borges Y Arlt (1916 – 1930). It’s the second volume in a planned seven volume history of Argentine literature during the twentieth century. The series is edited by the writer David Viñas.
What about 1916
As its title suggests, the book says a lot about the political and social aspects of the times as well as literature. Historical periods never follow calendars very clearly. Rather than focusing on just the 1920s, the book uses the two presidencies of Hipólito Yrigoyen as the cornerstones of the time period.
The 1916 presidential election was the first under the Sáenz Peña law, which reformed the election process with compulsory voting by males over the age of 18.
The new city
At the time Argentina was undergoing massive transformation, particularly impacted by immigration. In 1916 more than 50% of the population of Buenos Aires were immigrants who brought their own languages, cultures, and ideologies to the city. (Robert has an interesting post on the housing projects built for immigrants).
From a literary angle, the population increase also raised the number of potential readers and consumers of newspapers, magazines, and books.
Architecturally, the city transformed into a modern metropolis with an urban landscape very different from its 19th century version.
When I read about the literature produced during this period, I’m always reminded that those writers were very aware of this urban transformation, the changing demographics, the multitude that changed the perception of everyone in Buenos Aires. Writers such as Borges and Arlt took the appearance of the new Buenos Aires as their subject: “its social conflicts, fascination with the modern and cosmopolitan, the injustices, the beauty, and the horror.”
While any such period of rapid change may bring a sense of nostalgia and melancholy, those same perceptions often lead to resentment and prejudices. For a generation before even 1916 the threat of the immigrant to the traditional Argentine culture had been a focus of many writers, from which emerged a type of cultural nationalism.
A corresponding political nationalism was quite active in this period. Of course, Argentina was hardly alone among countries with conflicts between nationalist attitudes and socialist perceptions. One now distant event, the 1917 Russian Revolution, was then a prominent aspect of the political-cultural world. It was a turbulent time with massive strikes and social unrest, but the times also brought the construction of so many grand buildings that define the landscape of Buenos Aires.
Most of the book covers the 1920s. Alvear was president from 1922 – 1928, succeeded by Yrigoyen who would be overthrown by a military coup in 1930. Borges returned to Buenos Aires in 1921 after spending many formative years of his youth in Europe. He and others brought the avant garde movement from Europe to Buenos Aires.
During the 1920s a large number of small, literary journals flourished in Buenos Aires. On the pages of these publications were debated the cultural perspectives of the city. An appendix to Yrigoyen Entre Borges y Arlt provides a chronology of the important books, magazines, poems, plays, and essays published in Argentina between 1916 – 1930. More than forty literary magazines are listed for this period.
Of course, the book features chapters on Borges and Arlt. Other chapters cover writers such as Lugones, Girondo, Quiroga, Guiraldes, Baldomero Fernandez Moreno, and more. There is also a chapter devoted to “Florida and Boedo” literary rivalry (which deserves a blog post all of its own) and a chapter on women writers of the time such as Alfonsina Storni and Norah Lange.
There’s a lot in this book and I’ll probably be dipping back into it for some future blog postings. Another appendix also includes a summary of political events for the years covered, providing a nice overview of the period. I’m looking forward to other volumes in this series on 20th century Argentine literature.