Juan Montalvo, like Domingo Faustino Sarmiento and José Martí, is one of the many 19th-century Latin American figures who made little distinction between literary and political activity. Born in a poor and backward country like Ecuador, Montalvo was obliged to be involved in the clamor of national public life, even though he really wanted to be a writer in the classical Spanish style. He attempted to establish this style in Capitulos que se le olvidaron a Cervantes (1895; Chapters that Cervantes forgot), his “imitation of an inimitable book”—a curious and early example of metafiction in a hybrid form of narrative and essay.
Montalvo’s spiritual background is fundamentally European; he spoke English, French, and Italian and spent several years in France, Italy, and Spain. He was a melancholy man, weighed down by depression; it is not surprising that in Europe he found comfort and an aesthetic orientation in Romanticism and the friendship of Alphonse de Lamartine and other European writers.
Nevertheless, despite his European connections Montalvo is remembered as the formidable adversary of Gabriel García Moreno, the ultraconservative Ecuadorian despot whose existence shaped Montalvo’s; the relationship is reminiscent of that between Sarmiento and the Argentine dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas. It was another of those rivalries that branded with fire the historical and intellectual process of the continent.
When Montalvo returned to Ecuador in 1860, García Moreno had just taken power. Montalvo immediately wrote him an open letter that demonstrates his magnificent insolence, his splendid prose, and his great liberal zeal: “If at some time I resign myself to take part in our miserable affairs, you and any other whose political conduct is hostile to the liberties and rights of the people will find in me an enemy, and no ordinary one.” In 1866 he began publishing his magazine, El Cosmopolita (The cosmopolitan), in which many of his treatises and political pamphlets appeared. This magazine is the first of four—the others are El Regenerador (The regenerator), El Espectador (The spectator), and the series Las Catilinarias (in reference to Catiline, the powerful man attacked by Cicero in a famous work; Montalvo used the name to give his political denunciations a classical echo)—that may properly be considered among his works, as they were in large part the result of his sole personal efforts. They contain numerous essays that demonstrate the mastery of his style and his persistent preoccupations.
The mature phase of Montalvo’s career is characterized by political exile, travels in Europe, and prolific intellectual output, which produced major works such as Siete tratados (1882–83; Seven treatises) and Geometría moral (1902,; Moral geometry), as well as the Capítulos mentioned above. Although his main theme as an essayist is politics, he also deals with culture, morality, and his personal life and tribulations. He was a vehement propagandist, with Olympian gestures and violent hatreds, distinguished by a sharp and vigorous tongue suffused with the best of Latin oratory and the Spanish classics. He knew how to lash out and he used his voice responsibly, as demonstrated by the ardent Catilinarias (which is not really a periodical, but a work published in installments) and the varied Siete tratados. The title of the latter book is as deceptive as that of Geometría moral. The first is a collection of reflections and meditations on various themes rather than a book that sets out a rigorous doctrine; the second, which contains some narrative efforts, is a type of discourse on love illustrated by great ancient and modern figures, from Pericles to Goethe.
As a political thinker Montalvo was not very original; rather, he moralized around common themes such as welfare, justice, education, honesty, and respect for the popular will. He was a passionate liberal whose radical anticlericalism was exacerbated by the strict Catholicism of García Moreno. He considered religion and dictatorship as almost indistinguishable, and in this way he contributed to the anticlerical tradition that developed in 19th-century Latin America. He firmly believed in individual heroism as a providential driving force of history, and the saints in his pantheon were Napoleon, Washington, and Bolívar. His way of confronting these themes and linking them with other digressions and confessions is closer to that of the English essayists (particularly Bacon and Carlyle) than any other Latin American writer apart from Andrés Bello. With his diverse interests, he is a model of the antithetic forms characteristic of Latin American Romanticism: subjectivity and social humanitarianism. However, he lacked a modern conception of history: for him it was only a source of famous examples to be imitated. Nor was he sensitive to the popular and local trends that other Spanish American prose writers were contributing to the written language: he was an innate purist.
But Montalvo had the essayist’s essential attitude: the ability to react, almost spontaneously, to the constant challenge presented to him by the interweaving of his personal experience and the political world. The urgency of his task never prevented him from being a refined and delicate artist, even when he was hurling insults. He is one of the most elegant prose writers the Americas have produced; his skill with expressive forms, the memorable pithiness of his phrases, the visual sparkle and rhythmic persistence of his images, make him a precursor of the essay as it was to be cultivated by modernismo: an art form.
JOSÉ MIGUEL OVIEDO
translated by Richard Shaw
Born 13 April 1832 in Ambato, Ecuador. Studied in Quito, master’s degree in philosophy, 1851. Secretary of the Ecuadorian legation, Paris, from 1857; returned to Ecuador because of illness, 1860. Editor, El Cosmopolita, 1866–69. Exiled for writings, 1869, and lived in Ipiales, Colombia, 1869–76. Editor, El Regenerador, 1876–78.
Traveled again to Europe, 1879, living in Paris for one year before returning to Ipiales. Lived in Paris, 1881–89. Editor, El Espectador, 1886–88. Liaison with Augustine- Catherine Contoux: one son. Died (of pleurisy, probably suffering from tuberculosis) in Paris, 17 January 1889.
Essays and Related Prose
Las Catilinarias series, 1880–82; in 2 vols., 1925
Siete tratados, 2 vols., 1882–83; edited by José L.Abellán, 1977
Mercurial eclesiástica: Libro de las verdades, 1884
El Espectador (periodical), 3 vols., 1886–88; in 1 vol., 1927
El Cosmopolita (periodical), 1894; in 2 vols., 1923
Capítulos que se le olvidaron a Cervantes, 1895
Inéditos y artículos escojidos, 1897
Lecturas, edited by Juan de D.Uribe, 1898
Geometría moral, 1902
El Regenerador (periodical), 2 vols., 1928
Ensayos, narraciones y polémica, 1945
Lecdones de libertad (selection), 1958
Cartas y lecturas, edited by Galo Martinez Acosta, 1964
Las Catilinarias, El Cosmopolita, El Regenerador (selection), edited by Benjamín Carrión, 1976
Selections from Juan Montalvo, translated by Frank MacDonald Spindler and Nancy Cook Brooks, 1984
Other writings: a play and shor stories.
Collected works edition: Obras completas, 10 vols., 1969–70.
Naranjo, Plutarco, and Carlos Rolando, Juan Montalvo: Estudio bibliográfico, Quito: Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana, 2 vols., 1966
Actas del Colegio de Besançon issue on Montalvo (1976)
Agramonte, Roberto D., “Preámbulo a los Siete tratados de Montalvo,” Círculo: Revista de Cultura 19 (1990): 39–46
Anderson Imbert, Enrique, El arte de la prosa en Juan Montalvo, Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 1948
Carrión, Benjamín, El pensamiento vivo de Montalvo, Buenos Aires: Losada, 1961
Coloquio internacional sobre Juan Montalvo (14–22 July 1988), Quito: Fundacion
Friedrich Naumann, 1989
Crawford, W.Rex, A Century of Latin-Atnerican Thought, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1961: Chapter 6
Miño, Reinaldo, Juan Montalvo, polémica y ensayo, Guayaquil, Ecuador: Claridad, 1990
Naranjo, Plutarco, Ensayos sobre Montalvo, Quito: Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana, 1985
Perez, Galo René, Un escritor entre la gloria y las borrascas: Vida de Juan Montalvo, Quito: Banco Central de Ecuador, 1990
Roig, Arturo Andrés, El pensamiento social de Montalvo, Quito: Tercer Mundo, 1984
Sacoto Salamea, Antonio, Juan Montalvo, el escritor y el estilista, Cuenca, Ecuador: Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana “Benjamin Carrión,” 2 vols., 1987
Zaldumbide, Gonzalo, Montalvo y Rodó, New York: Instituto de Españas en los Estados Unidos, 1938
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