José Martí’s essays reveal a sense of urgency and precariousness appropriate to his brief life. In effect, the main body of his prose—of which some works are still being discovered—was journalistic in nature, targeted for quick publication in newspapers and magazines, although his essays consistently show a higher degree of regard for aesthetic values than typical journalistic work. The remainder—in fact, a large number—is dispersed among numerous letters, personal diaries and notes, other unpublished texts, and in patriotic speeches which were often improvised, then lost forever. In all his essays, regardless of the topic, Martí always reaffirms his anticolonialist, popular, and antiracist beliefs concerning the inherent equality of all human beings notwithstanding their physical differences. As one of his reflections exemplifies in “Mi raza” (1893; My race): “No man has any special right because he belongs to any specific race; just by saying the word man, we have already said all the rights.” This statement can no doubt be directly linked with the Christian notion of the value of life; however, Martí’s concept of morality does not disclose a religious affiliation; it is constructed of and integrates religious icons, ethics, and historical and social elements.
Martí consolidated his essay activities during the last 15 years of his life in New York (1880–95); starting in 1881 he sent regular contributions to important Spanish American newspapers such as La Opinión Nacional (Caracas) and La Nacion (Buenos Aires). The excellent “Cartas de Nueva York” (Letters from New York)—his account of the American society of that period—is an example of this important work.
When Martí began his career, Spanish prose was lifeless and exhausted. Conscious of and concerned about the sense of beauty and with a fundamental fidelity to his perception of reality, Martí interpreted the essay as a literary genre that favors human causes, often patriotic and nationalistic. Thus, beginning in 1882. and even before the great masters of Spanish American Modernism, his essays display a new style, which ultimately translated into a profound revival of the literary prose of every Spanish-speaking nation. His essays of the early 1880s are free of superfluous baroque traits and anachronistic Romanticism; his prose is direct and agile, rich in content, endowed with power and color, as he defines the character of the ephemeral Revista Venezolana (1881; Venezuelan journal):
“Simplicity as a condition is recommended, but this does not imply the exclusion of an elegant touch.”
Martí’s essays cannot be studied as a unified whole since plurality defines his style; there is a constant variation of styles appropriate to circumstances of the writing and to the audience. Thus, in the 1890s political and social influences led to a return to the long and complicated paragraph, and to the verbal exuberance that prevailed in his patriotic speeches to the exiled Cuban community of Tampa, Florida.
Martí’s most emotionally expressive essays are about Cuba, its urgent need for freedom and its future problems, which he predicts with some accuracy. Beyohd Cuba, as a greater nation, lies Spanish America; facing this region is North America, a source of anxiety and fear. As his devotion to the fight for his country’s independence from Spain evolved, Martí identified in his most fundamental essay, Nuestra América (1891; “Our America”), the difference in structure and culture between the two Americas.
From a literary and ideological perspective, Martí can never be considered a subordinate or a mimic, dazzled by the splendor of European and North American culture. It is true that his essays display those intuitive, lyrical, and reflexive freedoms that, since the publication of the Essais by Michel de Montaigne in 1580, identify the essay as a legitimate and independent literary genre. But it is also true that the Spanish American essay assumes a specificity that is rooted in its themes and its pragmatic character. This in turn means that Spanish American essayists focus almost exclusively on the most immediate and pressing problems faced by their societies, as is exemplified by both Martí’s writings and his life. The concrete achievement of his essays lies in the originality with which he is able to merge the aesthetic function with sociopolitical concerns in favor of the liberation of his country and “los pobres de la tierra” (the poor of the earth). His essays, although enriched with expressive literary artifacts, do not originate from literature, but from life.
Born 28 January 1853 in Havana. Studied at the Instituto de Havana, 1866–69; University of Madrid, 1873; University of Saragossa, degree in law, 1873, degree in philosophy and letters, 1874. Worked on the underground periodicals El Diablo Cojuelo (The lame devil) and La Patria Libre (The free native land), and arrested for subversion, 1869: sentenced to six years’ hard labor, but instead exiled to Spain, 1871; moved to Mexico, 1875. Contributor, Revista Universal (Universal review), 1875–76, and cofounder, Alarcon Society, both in Mexico City. Married Carmen Zayas Bazan, 1876: one son. Taught language and philosophy in Guatemala, 1876–77. Returned to Cuba: worked in a law office, and taught literature at the Liceo de Guanabaco; arrested on suspicion of anti-government activity, and deported again to Spain, 1879. Traveled to the United States, and based in New York, 1880–95; journalist or foreign correspondent for various papers, including the New York Sun, c. 1880, El Partido Liberal (Mexico; The liberal party), La Opinión Nacional (Venezuela), from 1881, La Nacion (Argentina), from 1881, La Republica (Honduras), from 1886, El Economista Americano (New York; The American economist), 1887, and La Opinion Publica (Uruguay), from 1889.
Traveled to Venezuela and founded the Revista Venezolana, Caracas, 1881. Translator, Appleton publishers, New York, from 1882. Contributing editor, La América (New York), from 1883. Consul for Uruguay, New York, 1887–91. North American representative, Free Press Association of Argentina, from 1888. Founding editor, La Edad de Oro (The age of gold) children’s magazine, 1889. Spanish teacher, Central High School, New York, 1890. Consul for Argentina and Paraguay, 1890–91, and Paraguay, from 1890. Founder, Liga de Instrucción (League of education), Tampa, Florida, 1891. In his last years deepened his involvement in Cuban revolutionary politics: cofounder, Cuban Revolutionary Party and the Patria (Native land) revolutionary journal, 1892; helped to organize the invasion of Cuba, 1895; named Major General of the Army of Liberation of Cuba. Killed in action, 19 May 1895.
Essays and Related Prose
El presidio político en Cuba, 1871
La república española ante la revolución cubana, 1873
Artículos desconocidos (1883–84), 1930
The America of José Martí: Selected Writings, translated by Juan de Onis, 1953
Obras escogidas, edited by Rafael Esténger, 1953
Páginas de José Marti, edited by Fryda Schulz de Mantovani, 1963
Marti on the U.S.A., edited and translated by Luis A.Baralt, 1966
Martí, edited by Roberto Fernández Retamar, 1970
Sus mejores páginas, edited by Raimundo Lazo, 1970
Escritos desconocidos, edited by Carlos Ripoll, 1971
Ensayos sobre arte y literatura, edited by Roberto Fernández Retamar, 1972
Nuestra América, edited by Roberto Fernandez Retamar, 1974, and Hugo Achugar, 1977
Inside the Monster: Writings on the United States and American Imperialism, edited by Philip S.Foner, translated by Foner, Elinor Randall, and others, 1975
Prosa escogida, edited by José Olivio Jiménez, 1975
Discursos selectos, 1977
On Education: Artides on Educational Theory and Pedagogy, and Writings for Children from the “Age of Gold”, edited by Philip S.Foner, translated by Elinor Randall, 1979
Our America: Writings on Latin America and the Struggle for Cuban Independence, edited by Philip S.Foner, translated by Elinor Randall, 1979
On Art and Literature: Critical Writings, edited by Philip S.Foner, translated by Elinor Randall, 1982
Ideario, edited by Cintia Vitier and Fina García Marruz, 1987
Political Parties and Elections in the United States, edited by Philip S.Foner, translated by Elinor Randall, 1989
Ensayos y crónicas, edited by José Olivio Jiménez, 1995
Other writings: poetry, the novel Amistad funesta (1885), a play, stories for children, political works, and correspondence.
Collected works editions: Obras completas, edited by Gonzalo de Quesada y Miranda, 74 vols., 1936–53; Obras completas (Editoriai de Ciencia Sociales edition), 27 vols., 1954; Obras completas (Nacional de Cuba edition), 27 vols., 1963–66.
Blanch y Blanco, Celestino, Bibliografía martiana (1954–63), Havana: Biblioteca Nacional, Departamento Colección Cubana, 1965
González, Manuel Pedro, Fuentes para el estudio de José Martí: Ensayo de bibliografía clasificada, Havana: Publicaciones del Ministerio de Educación, 1950
Peraza Sarausa, Fermín, Bibliografía martiana (1853–1953), Havana: Comision Nacional de Actos y Ediciones del Centenario, 1954
Ripoll, Carlos, Indice universal de la obra de José Martí, New York: Torres, 1971
Ripoll, Carlos, Archivo José Martí: Repertorio Crítico; Medio siglo de estudios martianos, New York: Torres, 1971
Cárdenas, Eliana, “José Martí y la identidad latinoamericana,” Plural: Revista Cultural de Excelsior 11, no. 5 (1981):16–14
Fernandez Retamar, Roberto, Introducción a José Marti, Havana: Casa de las Americas, 1978
Schulman, Iván A., editor, Nuevos asedios al modernismo, Madrid: Taurus, 1987
Schulinan, Ivan A., Relecturas martianas: Narración y nación, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994
Terrazas Basante, Marcela, “Nuestra América y la otra América,” Cuadernos Americanos zj (May-June 1991):137–43
Urrello, Antonio, Verosimilitud y estrategia textual en el ensayo hispanoamericano, Mexico City: Premiá, 1986
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