*Martínez Estrada, Ezequiel
Martínez Estrada, Ezequiel
Ezequiel Martínez Estrada came to be the most important Argentine essayist of his generation, but could just as easily have become one of the country’s leading poets. He received the active encouragement of Leopoldo Lugones, Argentina’s leading modernista poet and a huge literary presence in the country, and subsequently won the Third National Prize for Literature for his poetry collection Nefelibel (1922). His motive for largely giving up poetry and opting for the essay as his definitive genre (he also wrote drama and short stories) can in great part be ascribed to his friendship with the reclusive Uruguayan writer Horacio Quiroga (one of Spanish America’s finest exponents of the short story), which Martínez Estrada himself described in detail in El hermano Quiroga (1957; Brother Quiroga). As a consequence of that relationship, Martinez Estrada began to “write with his right hand,” saying that it was Quiroga who “extinguished in me the dying lamp of poetry that had illuminated the dark paths of my youth …He swept from me the final remnants of a deficient, academic education and [my] ignorant, schoolboyish acceptance of the deceitful opinion of the critics…” Thus the essayist’s encounter with Quiroga was an act of self-discovery and a confirmation that the “dark paths of his youth” in fact constituted a personality trait that was to last throughout his life.
In a literary career that comprised some 30 major essays, beginning in 1933 with Radiografía de la pampa (X-Ray of the Pampa), his most famous essay, and ending with his work on the 19th-century Cuban writer Jose Marti, he embarked upon a systematic demolition of Argentina’s past and in particular what he saw as the shameful, collaborationist role of the country’s writers and intellectuals in the creation and perpetuation of myths that traduced the real nature of Argentina’s history and culture.
This work, “the Bible of pessimism” as it came to be termed, set him apart from contemporaries such as Eduardo Mallea who, if sharing a sense of the polemical nature of the nation’s cultural identity, formulated much less negative conclusions.
X-Ray of the Pampa offered an analysis of the region starting from the earliest colonial times, and ascribed the roots of cultural poverty and a deep spiritual malaise or “neurotic anguish” to the fruitless search for an El Dorado, to the failure to come to terms with the land, and to the development of a mixed Spanish-Indian society. That experience, according to Martmez Estrada, was to leave an indelible mark on the Argentine soul, and from it flowed the engendering of a false society, built as it was upon seriously flawed beginnings. The essay itself was not really an essai—neither the exposition of a reasoned hypothesis nor an implied dialogue with the reader—but rather a relentless deconstruction of Martínez Estrada’s contemporary society that left little room for dissent.
The consequences of this position were twofold. First, so stark and unyielding was the essential message of X-Ray of the Pampa that the essayist found himself with few kindred spirits who were willing to share his analysis. Indeed he left few disciples, the most famous being H.A.Murena, whose principal essay El pecado original de América (1954; The Original Sin of America) reveals in its title the affinity with the master. Unlike, say, a Jorge Luis Borges, the greater part of Argentine youth of the day did not flock to Martínez Estrada’s lectures and talks in search of direction and inspiration. This in turn led to the second consequence: the engendering in Martínez Estrada of a persecution complex, a conviction that publishers had ostracized him and shunned his work. He was in fact always ready to see himself as a biblical prophet (a modern-day Ezekiel) crying in the wilderness, as it were, of an Argentina that could not and would not heed his message. This conviction would remain with him and was a principal motive in his decision to seek temporary exile in Cuba in the early 1960s.
The irony of all this is that in the almost three decades from X-Ray of the Pampa to his departure for Cuba, Martínez Estrada went on to write (and publish) his best work in Argentina. These titles include Sarmiento (1946), Los invariantes historicos en el “Facundo” (1947; Historical invariables in the Facundo), Muerte y transfiguración de Martín Fierro (1948; The death and transfiguration of Martin Fierro), and the largely overlooked Diferendas y semejanzas entre los países de la América Latina (1962;
Differences and similarities between the countries of Latin America). His chief bibliographer, Carlos Adam, following the essayist’s recommendations, organized his writings under “literary,” “historico-sociological,” and “polemical” headings; examples of each would be Realidad y fantasía en Balzac (1964; Reality and fantasy in Balzac), La
cabeza de Goliat (1940; The head of Goliath), and Exhortaciones (1957; Exhortations) respectively. While the essayist’s output supports these classifications, it could equally be argued that at least until 1960 (the year of his departure for Cuba) his writings essentially stemmed from the same basic world view, which was expressed in X-Ray of the Pampa (grouped under the “historico-sociological” essays) and would appear in different types of essays, as is the case with this quote from Para una revisión de las letras argentines (1967; Contributions to a revision of Argentine literature), which would fall under the “literary” category: “Self-betrayal is the central and radical problem of our lives…the problem of our historical existence as a people, of a great nation having been misgoverned and impoverished yet with no awareness of the world in which it lives, nor of the peoples that coexist within it, nor of reality itself to which it hasn’t yet resigned or adapted itself.”
This message was to be repeated in various forms over the years, but Martínez Estrada could never persuade enough of his compatriots to accept it. He arrived in Cuba in 1960, at the invitation of the publishing house Casa de las Américas, an embittered expatriate.
What no one counted on, including the essayist himself, was the effect the life and work of the legendary Cuban writer José Martí was to have upon him, lifting his spirits to heights of unusual optimism and self-confirmation, and causing him to write seven essays about Cuba and Martí. From this period are essays such as El verdadero cuento del Tío Sam (1963; The real story of Uncle Sam) and Martí, revoludonario (1967; Marti the revolutionary). Martínez Estrada was convinced that the latter, published posthumously, was the best work he had produced, a view not generally shared by critics, although there can be no doubt that his firsthand experience of Cuba between 1960 and 1962. (and visits to Mexico during the same period) in his view compensated to some degree for the tribulations and rejectíons he had perceived in earlier years in Argentina.
Born 14 September 1895 in San José de la Esquina, province of Santa Fe. Studied at the Colegio Avellaneda, Buenos Aires; largely self-taught. Worked for the General Post Office, Buenos Aires, 1915–46. Married Augustina Morriconi, 1921. Taught at the Colegio Nacional, University of La Plata, 1923–45. Traveled in Europe, 1927 and 1957, and Brazil, 1947. Founding member, and president, 1933–34 and 1942–46, National Society of Writers. Taught at the National University of the South, Bahía Blanca, from 1949. Suffered from a painful skin disease, a form of neurodermatitis, from 1952. Moved to Mexico, 1959, where he taught at the School of Political Science, National Autonomous University of Mexico. Lived in Cuba, 1960–62. Moved back to Bahia Blanca, 1962.
Awards: five major Argentinian prizes, 1922–48; Casa de las Americas Prize, 1960. Died (of cancer) in Bahia Blanca, 3 November 1964.
Essays and Related Prose
Radiografía de la pampa, 1933; edited by Leo Pollmann, 1991; as X-Ray of the Pampa, translated by Alain Swietlicki, 1971
La cabeza de Goliat, 1940
Panorama de las literaturas, 1946
Los invariantes históricos en el “Facundo”, 1947
Muerte y transfiguradón de Martón Fierro: Ensayo de interpretadón de la vida argentina, 2 vols., 1948
El mundo maravilloso de Guillernto Enrique Hudson, 1951
Cuadrante del pampero, 1956
¿Qué es esto?, 1956
El hermano Quiroga, 1957
Las 40, 1957
Heraldos de la verdad: Montaigne-Balzac-Nietzsche, 1958
Diferencias y semejanzas entre los países de América Latina, 1962
El verdadero cuento del Tío Sam, 1963
En Cuba, y al servicio de la revoludon cubana, 1963; as Mi experiencia cubana, 1965
Realidad y fantasía en Balzac, 1964
Marti, revoludonario, 1967
En torno a Kafka y otros ensayos, 1967
Para una revisión de las letras argentinas, edited by Enrique Espinoza, 1967
Leopoldo Lugones: Retrato sin retocar, 1968
Leer y escribir (selection), edited by Enrique Espinoza, 1969
Panorama de los Estados Unidos, edited by Joaquín Roy, 1985
Other writings: poetry, short stories, and plays.
Adam, Carlos, Bibliografía y documentos de Ezequiel Martinez Estrada, La Plata: National University of La Plata, 1968
Anderson Imbert, Enrique, “Kafka y Martinez Estrada,” Nueva Revista de Filología Hispánica 36, no. 1 (1988):467–76
Earle, Peter G., Prophet in the Wilderness: The Works of Ezequiel Martínez Estrada, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971
Earle, Peter G., “Las soledades de Martmez Estrada,” Cuadernos Americanos 7, no. 42 (November-December 1993):148–56
Fernández Retamar, Roberto, “Desde el Martí de Ezequiel Martínez Estrada,” Cuadernos Americanos 7, no. 42 (November-December 1993):131–47
Maharg, James, A Call to Autbentidty: The Essays of Ezequiel Martinez Estrada, University, Mississippi: Romance Monographs, 1977
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
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