Although Eduardo Mallea is better known today by the general reading public as a novelist and short-story writer, the impact his essays had among Argentine readers in the 1930s and 1940s was extensive. His Historia de una pasión argentina (1937; History of an Argentine Passion), which became a bestseller soon after publication, received enthusiastic commentaries by the most promising writers of the period, like Horacio Rega Molina and Leopoldo Marechal, as well as laudatory reviews from well-known intellectuals, especially from the liberal sector of Argentine letters, such as Bernardo Canal Feijóo, José Bianco, and Luis Emilio Soto.
The history of Latin American essays shows, throughout the works of its major figures—Andrés Bello, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, José Martí, José Enrique Rodó, José Carlos Mariátegui, and José Vasconcelos, to mention only a few—a constant intellectual effort to achieve a satisfactory formulation of what it means to be Latin American and a selfexplanatory definition of the specificity of the New World (americanidad). Mallea’s writings fit naturally into this broader tradition since the unity of his thinking comes from a permanent preoccupation with defining the essence of Argentina and leading his compatriots to a true understanding of argentinidad, a term coined by Ricardo Rojas in works like La restauración nacionalista (1909; Nationalist restoration), Blasón de plata (1912; Argentine blazon), La argentinidad (1916;
Argentineness), and Eurindia (1924).
While other Latin American essayists dealt with regional issues such as the situation of the native population, the problem of colonial heritage, or the consequences of economic imperialism, Mallea approached the issue in less sociohistorical terms. In Conocimiento y expresión de la Argentina (Knowledge and expression of Argentina), the text of a lecture the autbor read in Italy in 1934 and that was published the following year under the imprint of the Argentine journal Sur (South), Mallea sustains the theory that, to be able to express themselves, Latin Americans need first to develop a form of self-consciousness that takes into account the particularities of their human condition. According to his description, Argentina is characterized by the presence of an immense plain and a small population. The blend of both factors results in the taciturn and melancholic mood that is usually attributed to Argentines. Although the necessary search for self-knowledge is thought to be less an individual quest and more a process in which all Argentines should be involved, only the members of an intellectual elite are really committed to attaining such a consciousness.
Mallea further developed these ideas in his next and most renowned essay, History of an Argentine Passion, a booklength text where autobiographical and narrative elements intertwine to advance the writer’s insights about national identity. According to Mallea, during the first decades of the century Argentina went through a process of denaturalization, in which the people moved further and further away from the ideals of the founders of the country. The symptom of this “degeneracy” or “weakening” of true Argentine values is the lack of moral, historic, intellectual, and even human conscience that Mallea notices among the majority of his contemporaries. The reason for these changes is to be found in the blending of the traditional inhabitants and the most recent wave of immigrants, who introduced a different set of values, thus substituting authentic life with a representation of life, a superficially satisfactory existence oriented toward appearance and lacking in spirituality. As a consequence, there exist two Argentinas cohabiting the same space: one visible, which stands for unfounded values (artificiality, materialism, and shallowness), and another one, invisible, which preserves the genuine spirit of the country, its authentic though submerged ideals. Mallea believes that some members of the younger generation, such as himself, are deeply concerned with the present situation and are striving to recuperate the two main traits of Argentineness: its sense of giving and its devotion to freedom.
The essays contained in Meditación en la costa (1939; Meditation by the seaside), El sayal y la púrpura (1941; The sackcloth and the purple), and La vida blanca (wr. 1942, pub. 1960; The white life) are closely related to the same search for Argentina’s true identity. The first, in the form of an introspective monologue, leads the essayist to the conclusion that Argentina, in its own process of national formation, was responding to European societal deformation which had been spreading for decades. Although recognizing the importance of economic prosperity, the writer reaffirms the idea that the key to a valid humanity is rooted in the nature and inner structure of the people.
In El sayal y la púrpura Mallea brings together several essays previously published in the journals Sur and Realidad (Reality). He analyzes different aspects of the contemporary situation: the widespread sensation of emptiness and failure that affects the world, the crisis of rationalism and the advent of existentialism, and the militant role of intellectuals who are supposed to assume responsibility for the destiny of humankind.
Under these circumstances, it is time for America to rise up and share with the rest of the world its essential characteristics: simplicity, spontaneity, and humanity.
The metaphor of the title of La vida blanca is meant to express a colorless life, one of pretending rather than being. This essay implies a different approach to Mallea’s obsessive topic. The author takes stock of his former confidence in the spiritual qualities of the new Argentine generation, and comes to realize the futility of those expectations.
Belonging to an intellectualizing generation, Mallea developed a personal style that combines a rhetoric occasionally saturated with emotional overtones and a metaphorical and florid expression. At his best, Mallea is able to pursue his ontological quest in an exalted and deeply poetical style, but often his writing becomes wordy and overloaded with synonymous circumlocutions.
As an example of the work of a liberal intellectual, concerned with the definition of national identity and the condition of humankind in the modern world, Mallea’s essays served as a literary model for an entire generation of Argentine writers. Historical distance, changes in interest and in the definition of social, historical, and ethical problems, and the radicalization of Argentine intellectuals have left his production on the margins of present concerns. Nevertheless, his writings continue to constitute a valuable document for the understanding of a major phase in Latin American cultural development.
Born 14 August 1903 in Bahía Blanca, Argentina. Studied law at the University of Buenos Aires. Cofounder, Revista de América (American review), 1921; contributed to several other journals, including Sur, from 1934; staff member, from 1928, and editor of literary supplement, 1931–35, La Nación. Traveled to Europe, 1928, 1934. Married Helena Muniz Larreta, 1944. UNESCO delegate for Argentina, Paris, 1955–58, and New Delhi, 1956. Argentine Ambassador to France, 1955–58. Elected to the Argentine Academy of Letters, 1960.
Awards: many, including First National Prize of Letters, 1945; Argentine Association of Writers Grand Prize of Honor, 1946; Grand National Prize of the Arts, 1970. Died in Buenos Aires, 12 November 1982.
Essays and Related Prose
Conocimiento y expresión de la Argentina, 1935
Historia de una pasión argentina, 1937; as History of an Argentine Passion, translated by Myron I.Lichtblau, 1983
Meditación en la costa, 1939
El sayal y la púrpura, 1941
Notas de un novelista, 1954
La vida blanca, 1960
Las travesías, 2 vols., 1961–62
Poderío de la novela, 1965
Other writings: 10 novels (including La bahía de silencio [The Bay of Silence], 1940;
Todo verdor perecerá [All Green Shall Perish], 1941), six collections of short stories, and two plays.
Collected works editions: Obras completas, 2 vols., 1961–65, and 1986– (in progress).
Earle, Peter G., and Robert G.Mead, Historia del ensayo hispanoamericano, Mexico City: Andrea, 1973
Lewald, H.Ernest, Eduardo Mallea, Boston: Twayne, 1977
Pintor Genaro, Mercedes, Eduardo Mallea, novelista, Río Piedras: University of Puerto Rico, 1976
Polt, John H.R., The Writings of Eduardo Mallea, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1959
Rivelli, Carmen, Eduardo Mallea: La continuidad temática de su obra, New York: Las Américas, 1969
Stabb, Martin S., In Quest of Identity: Patterns in the Spanish American Essay of Ideas, 1890–1960, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1967
Topete, José Manuel, “Eduardo Mallea y el iaberinto de la agonía: Historia de una passion argentina,” Revista Iberoamericana 20, no. 39 (1955):117–51
Villordo, Oscar Hermes, Genio y figura de Eduardo Mallea, Buenos Aires: Eudeba, 1973
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