The two main forms of literary activity that have earned Colombia’s Germán Arciniegas a prominent place in the Latin American essay are his mastery of a distinctive variation of the Spanish and Latin American newspaper column (“Arciniegas’ column style,” as it is known) and his talent for direct, interesting, and revealing commentary on history. “Elegant,” “lucid,” and “entertaining” are some of the standard descriptions bestowed by his critics. In both variations of his literary craft (Arciniegas is a writer rather than an informative journalist or bestselling popularizer of history), Latin America—and its relationship with the United States, Spain, and Europe—is the focus of his writings. In the case of the U.S., his essays reveal the uncanny perception of a Latin American observer, making Arciniegas a promiment figure on the level of such figures as Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, José Martí, and Rubén Darío.
For Arciniegas, the mystery of Latin America is a “problem,” a temptation, a provocation, and an intellectual challenge. This explains why, in his view, the essay has so often been used to explore the unique features of Latin American culture and the hidden dimensions of its most prominent historical figures, its political and economic factors, and its cultural development. He writes that the essay in Latin America “is not literary entertainment, but an obligatory reflection on the problems that each epoch has imposed upon us. These problems challenge us in more definitive terms than in any other region of the world.” Thus, the fitting title of one of his essays is “Nuestra América es un ensayo” (1963; Our America is an essay).
For most of this century readers of the op-ed pages in literally dozens of Latin American newspapers have rarely skipped the articles of the undisputed dean of this journalistic venture. There are crucial explanations for this addiction. When asked by a press syndicate of which he was the founding contributor to provide a clue on how he wrote his columns, Arciniegas said: “I write with the innocent intention of communicating certain personal experiences that give pleasure only to myself, and I invite others to partake in this pleasure…the problem is that I am interested in things lacking importance… I have a sort of inclination for subjects which are dead for most of the people, but they are alive for me” (“Asuntos vivos y asuntos muertos” [1979; Live topics and dead topics]). Arciniegas converts insignificant non-news events or trends into relevant features fit for columns. Circumventing the passage of time, his newspaper contributions can still be read as literature. It is not surprising that a collection of his best columns was edited and enriched with grammatical exercises as a textbook for learning Spanish in U.S. universities because of the clarity of his language, the currency of the subjects, and (most difficult) their attractiveness to young readers belonging to another cultural tradition. Anything might find itself the subject of an Arciniegas column: a black-out in New York, the multiple dimensions of U.S.-Latin American relations, Midwest towns, Christmas in New Jersey, Cuban verbosity, the problems of youth, local conferences and groups, and the lesser-known aspects of literary and political figures, as well as hidden corners of the cities he has visited. His limitless cadre of topics is a characteristic shared with other contributors to Latin American and Spanish newspapers, in contrast to the more specialized U.S. syndicated pundits.
The unique personal form of his columns combines the most outstanding features of both the traditional journalistic crónica and the modern columna in Spanish. Early on Arciniegas understood that newspaper readers do not have the time to discover the hidden message of a column cloaked in convoluted language. Readers are first hooked by a catchy title summoned from his cultural background, a technique Arciniegas uses in the titles of some of his books, such as En el país de los rascacielos y las zanahorias (1945;
In the land of skyscrapers and carrots) or El continente de siete colores (1965; The sevencolored continent). Then, instead of offering a summary of the facts as in an information story, Arciniegas complies with the aesthetics of the crónica and gives the reader an opening paragraph full of paradoxes, contradictions, exaggerations, and “news” in personal experiences or in history. From this intriguing beginning, the reader is obliged to follow Arciniegas’ argument until he offers a convincing and usually unforgettable ending which is, in reality, a return to the main point or salient aspect of the piece.
Adhering to one of the most important tenets of modern journalism, Arciniegas never overwhelms his readers with unnecessary proof of scholarship or signs of empty erudition. On the other hand, he never insults their intelligence and culture with obvious, elementary facts or interpretations. “Keep the reader in mind” is an American journalism motto which has been mastered best in Latin America by Arciniegas. It is not surprising that his best-known books consist of carefully crafted structures of short columns and essays, each paragraph revealing his distinctive, personal, and humanizing style.
Over the course of his career, Arciniegas has worn many hats—as lawyer and diplomat, minister of education and university professor, newspaper editor and novelist, and member of the Colombian academies of language and history. He has managed at all times through his writings to contribute to the open-ended search to explain Latin American culture with humility, clarity, and good humor.
Born 6 December 1900 in Bogotá. Studied at the National University, Bogotá, law degree, 1914; delegate to the first National Student Conference; founder and editor, La Voz de la Juventud (The voice of youth) magazine, 1919–10; helped to unionize students in Colombia. Professor of sociology, National University, Bogotá, 1925–28. Founder and editor, Universidad, 1925–29; founder, Ediciones Colombia publishers, 192.6. Married Gabriela Vieira, 1926: two daughters. Editor, 1928–30, London correspondent, 1930–33,
and editor-in-chief, 1933–39, El Tiempo (The times) newspaper. Vice consul, London, 1930. Member of the Colombian Parliament, 1933–34, 1939–40, and 1957–58, and minister of education, 1941–42 and 1945–46. Chargé d’affaires, Buenos Aires, 1939–41.
Director, Revista de las Indias (Review of the Indies), 1939–44; codirector, Revista de America (American magazine), 1945–57. Taught at Columbia University, New York, 1947–59. Ambassador to Italy, 1959–62, Israel, 1960–62, Venezuela, 1967–70, and the Vatican City, 1976–78. Director, Cuadernos (Notebooks), Paris, 1963–65, and Correo de los Andes (Courier of the Andes), 1978–79. Dean of Faculty of Philosophy and Letters, University of the Andes, Bogotá, 1979–81.
Awards: Dag Hammarsjkold Prize, 1967;
honorary degrees from two academic institutions.
Essays and Related Prose
La universidad colombiana, 1932
El estudiante de la mesa redonda, 1932
Diario de un peatón, 1936
América, tierra firma: Sociología, 1937
¿Qué haremos con la historia?, 1940
Los alemanes en la conquista de América, 1941
Este pueblo de América, 1945
Biografía del Caribe, 1945
En el país de los rascacielos y las zanahorias, 2 vols., 1945
En medio del camino de la vida, 1949
Entre la libertad y el miedo, 1952; as The State of Latin America, translated by Harriet de Onís, 1952
América mágica, 2 vols., 1959–61
El continente de siete colores, 1965; condensed version, as Latinoamérica: El continente de siete colores, 1967; as Latin America: A Cultural History, translated by Joan MacLean, 1966
Medio mundo entre un zapato: De Lumumba en el Congo a las brujas en Suecia (travel writing), 1969
Nuevo diario de Noé, 1969
Nueva imagen del Caribe, 1970
Transparencias de Colombia, 1973
América en Europa, 1975; as America in Europe: A History of the New World in Reverse, translated by Gabriela Arciniegas and R. Victoria Araña, 1986
El revés de la historia, 1980
Con América nace la nueva historia, edited by Juan Gustavo Cobo Borda, 1990
América es otra cosa, edited by Juan Gustavo Cobo Borda, 1992
América Ladina, edited by Juan Gustavo Cobo Borda, 1993
El mundo cambio en America, edited by Juan Gustavo Cobo Borda, 1993
Cuadernos de un estudiante americano, edited by Juan Gustavo Cobo Borda, 1994
Other writings: works on Latin American history, biographies of Jiménez de Quesada
(1942,), Amerigo Vespucci (1955), and Simonetta Cattaneo (1962.), a travel guide to Israel, and a memoir of student days (1932.). Also edited The Green Continent (1944), a collection of essays on Latin America.
Cobo Borda, Juan Gustavo, “Germán Arciniegas: 90 años escribiendo un intento de bibliografía,” in Imágenes de América en Alfonso Reyes y en Germán Arciniegas by James Willis Robb, Bogotá: National University, 1990
Cobo Borda, Juan Gustavo, Arciniegas de cuerpo entero, Bogotá: Planeta, 1987
Cobo Borda, Juan Gustavo, editor, Una visión de América: La obra de Germán Arciniegas desde la perspectiva de sus contemporáneos, Bogotá: Instituto Caro y Cuervo, 1990
Córdova y Quesada, Federico, Vida y obras de Germán Arciniegas, Havana: Publications of the Ministry of Education, 1950
González Blanco, Pedro, Adversus Arciniegas: Crítica violenta, Mexico City: Rex, 1946
Robb, James Willis, Imágenes de América en Alfonso Reyes y en Germán Arciniegas, Bogotá: National University, 1990
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