*Jovellanos, Gaspar Melchor de
Jovellanos, Gaspar Melchor de
In Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos’ time, the word ensayo did not yet denote a literary genre; but among Jovellanos’ extant works are dozens, on a great range of subjects, in essayistic genres, primarily reports, addresses, treatises, and letters, frequently products of the author’s activities as magistrate or as member of one of the quasi-public learned societies. Some occupy a few pages, while a handful are of book length.
Many of these essays concern economic problems, including trade, transportation, industry, labor, and, more generally, economic development. Jovellanos’ most famous work (and his only essay available in English), is the book-length Informe …en el expediente de ley agraria (1795; Memoir on the Advancement of Agriculture and on Agrarian Laws), which analyzes obstacles to agricultural development: the physical (inadequate roads, canals, etc.), the intellectual (ignorance of science and technology), and the legal, the most serious and most interesting—laws restricting the free play of selfinterest and concentrating land ownership in a few great families and the Church. In describing and attacking these laws, Jovellanos makes a forceful argument for economic liberty.
Another major work, the Memoria en defensa de la Junta Central (1811; Defense of the Central Committee), deals with the constitutional crisis brought about by the Spanish insurrection against the Bonapartes. In it Jovellanos attempts to balance his monarchical sentiments with his love of political liberty.
Several essays, including the unfinished book-length Memoria sobre educación pública (wr. 1802; Treatise on public education), express Jovellanos’ belief that education is the source of individual and national prosperity and must be universal and modern, stressing natural sciences and modern languages, including the students’ native language—in other words, something quite different from the traditional, classicallyoriented
education Jovellanos had himself received.
Also of book length are the complex of descriptive and historical essays on the major buildings of Palma de Mallorca and the surrounding countryside (wr. c. 1805–08), and the Memoria para el arreglo de la policía de los espectáculos y diversiones públicas, y sobre su origen en España (wr. 1790, pub. 1812; Essay on reform of the policy on spectacles and public entertainments, and on their origin in Spain), interesting for Spanish
social history and for its enlightened policy proposals.
Jovellanos’ letters to Antonio Ponz (wr. 1789), intended for publication, study the geography, agriculture, arts, and customs of his native Asturias. His Elogio de Carlos III (1789; Eulogy of Charles III) reveals how a leading partisan of the Enlightenment viewed Spanish history.
Many of Jovellanos’ essays were published posthumously by admirers and scholars; but others were printed in his lifetime by the organization that received them, and Jovellanos himself published the Memoria en defensa de la Junta Central, his selfdefense before public opinion. The essays often aim at two publics: the immediate addressee (government, an academy or economic society, those attending a ceremony), and, for the principal writings, a potential further readership which, limited by illiteracy and poverty, consisted chiefly of men of the middle and upper classes and of the clergy, and, within these groups, of the enlightened elite that exercised political power. Many of Jovellanos’ essays are thus attempts to influence the thinking and, ultimately, the policies of the leaders of state and society. In some works Jovellanos speaks for himself; in others the formal speaking subject is the body in whose name he addresses a superior entity.
Jovellanos writes a pure and elegant prose, managing to treat even specialized and technical subjects in clear and precise language accessible to an educated public, without archaisms, neologisms, or technical jargon. His skilled effort produces an appearance of effortlessness, and the attentive reader easily discerns the neat and sometimes explicit order of development. This generally rational expository style does not exclude irony, pathos, outbursts of indignation at injustice, and animated, sometimes lyrical evocations of a heroic past or an idyllic future; but whatever his tone, Jovellanos’ language is a means to the end of communication, never an end in itself.
Jovellanos’ essays frequently reflect the breadth of his interests and information and his ability to view problems in several dimensions: historical, political, legal, ethical, aesthetic, and simply human. Thus the Memoir on the Advancement of Agriculture, the Espectáculos y diversiones públicas, and a report on a proposed welfare fund for the nobility (wr. 1784) explain historical background and consider the social, political, and moral consequences of reform; the descriptions of the architecture of Palma lead to imaginative re-creations of medieval scenes.
Although Jovellanos often touches on theoretical questions, he generally does so tangentially: as a rule, his essays are not disinterested theoretical speculations, but responses to specific problems or circumstances. Sharing a practical purpose in the service of the ideals of the Enlightenment, they reflect their author’s faith in the possibility of progress—material, intellectual, and moral—through freedom and reason.
Though Jovellanos was a poet and dramatist, his literary reputation and his broader significance for his contemporaries and posterity rest largely on the high quality of his prose and the clarity of his thought on topics hotly debated in modern Spain: the birth of constitutional government, of economic liberalism, and of modern capitalism; the status of the Catholic Church; the nature and control of education. For nearly two centuries,
Spaniards of widely divergent political persuasions have attempted to use Jovellanos’ essays to support their causes. These efforts have sometimes led to anachronistic interpretations of a writer best understood as embodying the complex movement of the Enlightenment.
Baltasar Gaspar Melchor María de Jovellanos. Born 5 January 1744 in Gijón. Studied canon law at the University of Ávila, licence, 1763, and the College of San Ildefonso, University of Alcalá, degree, 1764. Appointed criminal magistrate, Seville, 1768, to the Seville magistrature, 1774, to the magistrature of Madrid, 1778–80, and to the Council of Military Orders, from 1780. Elected to the Royal Spanish Academy, 1783. Banished to Asturias for defending a friend accused of corruption, 1790–97, and commissioned to study roads and mines. Founder, Royal Asturian Institute, 1794. Minister of justice, 1797–98. Exiled again to Asturias and imprisoned on Majorca, 1801–08. Joined the Central Committee, the ruling council of the Spanish provisional government, traveling with it to Seville and Cádiz, 1808–10. Died (of pneumonia) in Puerto de Vega, Asturias, 27 November 1811.
Essays and Related Prose
Elogio de Carlos III, 1789
Informe…en el expediente de ley agraria, 1795; as Memoir on the Advancement of Agriculture and on Agrarian Laws, translated anonymously, in A View of Spain, vol. 4, by Alexandre de Laborde, 1809:111–315
Memoria en defensa de la Junta Central, 1811; edited by José Miguel Caso González, 1992
Memoria para el arreglo de la policía de los espectáculos y diversiones públicas, y sobre su origen en España, 1812
Carta histórico-artistica sobre el edificio de la Lonja de Mallorca, 1812
Memorias históricas sobre el Castillo de Bellver en la isla de Mallorca, 1813
Cartas del viaje de Asturias (Cartas a Ponz), edited by José Miguel Caso González, 1981
Other writings: poetry, plays, diaries, and correspondence.
Collected works editions: Colección de varias obras en prosa y verso, edited by Ramón María Cañedo, 7 vols., 1830–32; Obras publicadas e inéditas, edited by Cándido
Nocedal and Miguel Artola, 5 vols., 1858–1956; Obras completas, edited by José Miguel Caso González, 6 vols., 1984–94 (in progress).
Rick, Lilian L., Bibliografía crítica de Jovellanos (1901–1976), Oviedo: University of Oviedo, 1977
Somoza de Montsoriú, Julio, Inventario de un jovellanista, Madrid: Sucesores de Rivadeneyra, 1901
Caso González, José Miguel, Vida y obra de Jovellanos, Gijón: Caja de Asturias and El Comercio, 2 vols., 1993
Ceán Bermúdez, Juan Agustín, Memorias para la vida del Excmo. Señor D.Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, y noticias analíticas de sus obras, Madrid: Fuentenebro, 1814
Del Río, Ángel, “Jovellanos,” in Historia general de las literaturas hispánicas, vol. 4, pt. 1, edited by Guillermo Díaz-Plaja, Barcelona: Barna, 1956
Galino Carrillo, María Ángeles, Tres hombres y un problema: Feijóo, Sarmiento y Jovellanos ante la educación moderna, Madrid: CSIC, 1953
Helman, Edith, Trasmundo de Goya, Madrid: Revista de Occidente, 1963
Ilie, Paul, “Picturesque Beauty in Spain and England: Aesthetic Rapports Between Jovellanos and Gilpin,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 19 (1960):167–74
Polt, John H.R., Jovellanos and His English Sources: Economic, Philosophical, and Political Writings, Philadelphia: Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 1964
Polt, John H.R., “Jovellanos y la educación,” in El P.Feijoo y su siglo, Oviedo: Cuadernos de la Cátedra Feijoo, 1966:315–38
Polt, John H.R., Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, New York: Twayne, 1971
Varela, Javier, Jovellanos, Madrid: Alianza, 1988
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