Victoria Ocampo was educated at home in subjects considered suitable for the daughter of a wealthy, conservative family living in rigidly patriarchal Argentina.
Though not expected to have a career, she read widely and traveled in Europe, becoming fluent in French, English, and Italian. Soon after an early, disastrous marriage, Ocampo rebelled against her circumscribed life by having a scandalous affair, leaving the church, and embarking on a life of intellectual independence.
While Argentina in the early 1900s was an inauspicious time and place for a woman to establish a writing career, she used her beauty, charm, and wealth, as well as a network of important friends, to found the literary journal Sur (South) in 1931, and, two years later, the publishing house Sur. Thereafter she was assured a place to publish her hundreds of essays. From the beginning she met opposition from the isolationist military government and the Catholic Church, each of which was at odds with her liberal, international intellectualism. In 1953 she was imprisoned for 26 days by the Peronist regime. This defining experience served as the backdrop for her “El hombre del látigo” (1957; “The Man with the Whip”).
Ocampo used essays as a way to clarify her life and beliefs, often as a vehicle to challenge male authority and to promote the cause of women. She approached topics with a personal style, using the familiar “you” to address a reader she expected to be active, a “common reader” who read for pleasure and was part of a well-informed, intellectual elite. Her essays are characterized by enthusiasm, intensity, frequent digressions, and occasional playfulness. They are often dialectic and reflective. Graphic metaphors, sarcasm, and a slightly ironic humor mark her work. For example, she characterized commentators on Dante as “that numerous and terrible band of guards… [who stand] armed with aggressive erudition on the threshold of each canto, brandishing their often contradictory interpretations like pitchforks…” (De Francesca a Beatrice [1921; From Francesca to Beatrice]).
Ocampo’s ten volumes of essays, Testimonios (1935–77; Testimonies), cover many subjects, among them people (Gandhi, T.E.Lawrence, Mussolini), books (by Shakespeare, Proust, Malraux), and films (The Bicycle Thief, Wuthering Heights, The Grapes of Wrath). Only a small fraction of her total output has been translated into English.
Her earliest essays (1920–33) challenged male authority in a variety of ways. She took on erudite male scholars in De Francesca a Beatrice. In “Babel” (1920), she took an iconoclastic look at the biblical story, suggesting that God had played “a dirty trick” on humankind by making possible multiple interpretations for any given word. She went on to question “equality,” as “a big word, swollen with emptiness, that we toss around a lot…” She chided Ruskin for his condescending tone and for not allowing the reader to think for himself (“Al margen de Ruskin” [1920; A note on Ruskin]). She took exception to Ortega y Gasset’s chauvinism and his portrayal of woman as man’s passive muse (“Contestación a un epílogo de Ortega y Gasset” [1928; Reply to an epilogue by Ortega y Gasset]). From the beginning, Ocampo pushed hard against the limits of what a woman, at that time and place, could articulate in an essay.
Her most important essays are on women, generally and specifically, whether real or fictional, from Emily Bronte, Gabriela Mistral, and Indira Gandhi to Lady Chatterley and Ma Joad. After Ocampo met Virginia Woolf in 1934 she became politically active in the struggle for women’s rights in Argentina and wrote as a declared feminist. Her essays stressed the need to improve women’s education (“La mujer, sus derechos y sus responsabilidades” [1936; “Woman, Her Rights and Her Responsibilities”]), she called on women to express themselves, especially in writing (“La mujer y su expresion” [1936; “Woman and Her Expression”]), and she took a liberal approach to many issues, among them divorce, abortion, prostitution, and illegitimacy.
Inspired and encouraged by Woolf’s books and by extensive correspondence with her, Ocampo wrote essays about Woolf from a fresh, intimate perspective (“Virginia Woolf en mi recuerdo” [1941; “Virginia Woolf in My Memory”]). She also wrote interpretations of Woolf’s works (Orlando, To The Lighthouse, A Room of One’s Own, A Writer’s Diary), which Sur had introduced to Latin American readers in Spanish translation.
While Ocampo fervently championed women’s rights, a tolerant, constructive understanding supported her feminism. She did not see men as the enemy, she regarded mothers as all-important in their work of molding their children, and she envisioned the ideal marriage as a partnership of equals based on love and mutual respect (“Pasado y presente de la mujer” [1966; “Woman’s Past and Present”]). But she was not blind to the problems of men or marriage, criticizing men for their love of war and their adherence to a double standard; she warned women that they should not try to live through either their children or their husbands.
Ocampo’s substantial contributions brought her honors from around the world, including an honorary degree from Harvard in 1967. Perhaps the greatest tribute was her admission in 1977 into the previously all-male Argentine Academy of Letters, an honor she had been consciously or unconsciously aiming toward all her life. As contemporary scholars begin to explore essays by Latin American women, an active interest has developed in Ocampo and her role as a feminist writer and a key figure in the intellectual history of Latin America.
PATRICIA OWEN STEINER
Victoria Ocampo de Estrada. Born 7 April 1890 in Buenos Aires. Studied privately with tutors and at the Sorbonne, Paris. Married at age 22 (later separated). Founder, Sur literary journal, from 1931, and Sur publishing house, from 1933. Manager, Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires, 1933. Cofounder, 1936, and president, 1936 and 1938, Argentine Union of Women. Imprisoned briefly for opposition to Perón regime, 1953. Elected to the Argentine Academy of Letters, 1977.
Awards: Argentine Society of Writers Grand Prize of Honor, 1950; Alberti y Sarmiento Prize, 1967; honorary degree from Harvard University. Officer, Legion of Honor (France); Commander, Order of the British Empire
Died in San Isidro, Argentina, 27 January 1979.
Essays and Related Prose
De Francesca a Beatrice a través de la Divina comedia, 1921
Testimonios, 10 vols., 1935–77; 4th vol. as Soledad sonora, 1950
Domingos en Hyde Park, 1936
338171 T.E., 1942; as 338171 T.E. (Lawrence of Arabia), translated by David Garnett, 1963
El viajero y una de sus sombras (Keyserling en mis tnemorias), 1951
Virginia Woolf en su diario, 1954
Tagore en las barrancas de San Isidro, 1961
Victoria Ocampo: Against the Wind and the Tide (also contains a critical study of Ocampo), translated by Doris Meyer, 1979
Autobiografía(includes El archtpiélago; El imperio insular, La rama de Salzburgo;
Viraje; Versailles-Keyserling, Paris-Drieu; Sur y Cia), 6 vols., 1979–84; selections edited by Francisco Ayala, 1991
Other writings: plays. Also translated works by William Faulkner, Graham Greene, D.H.Lawrence, Albert Camus, Colette, Dylan Thomas, and John Osborne.
Adam, Carlos, “Bio-bibliografía de Victoria Ocampo,” Sur 346 (1980):125–79
Foster, David William, “Bibliography of Writings by and About Victoria Ocampo, 1890– 1979,” Revista Interamericana de Bibliografía 30, no. 1 (1980):51–58
Greenberg, Janet Beth, The Divided Self: Forms of Autobiography in the Writing of Victoria Ocampo (dissertation), Berkeley: University of California, 1986
Guiñazú, Maria Cristina Arambel, “‘Babel’ and De Francesca a Beatrice: Two Founding Essays by Victoria Ocampo,” in Reinterpreting the Spanish American Essay: Women Writers of the 19th and 20th Centuries, edited by Doris Meyer, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995
Meyer, Doris, Victoria Ocampo: Against the Wind and the Tide (also includes translations of essays), New York: Braziller, 1979
Meyer, Doris, “Letters and Correspondence in the Essays of Victoria Ocampo,” Revista 42, no. 2 (1992):233–40
Meyer, Doris, “Victoria Ocampo, Argentine Identity, and the Landscape of Essay,”
Review: Latin American Literature and Arts 48 (Spring 1994):58–61
Meyer, Doris, “Victoria Ocampo and Spiritual Energy,” in A Dream of Light and Sbadow: Portraits of Latin American Women Writers, edited by Marjorie Agosín, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995
Meyer, Doris, “The Early (Feminist) Essays of Victoria Ocampo,” Studies in 20th Century Literature 20 (1996):41–64
Molloy, Sylvia, “The Theatrics of Reading: Body and Book in Victoria Ocampo,” in her At Face Value: Autobiographical Writing in Spanish America, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991
Pratt, Mary Louise, “Don’t Interrupt Me: The Gender Essay and Conversation and Countercanon,” in Reinterpreting the Spanish American Essay: Women Writers of the 19th and 20th Centuries, edited by Doris Meyer, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995
Sarlo, Beatriz, “Decir y no decir: Erotismo y represion,” in her Una modernidad periferica: Buenos Aires 1920 y 1930, Buenos Aires: Nueva Visión, 1988
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