*Picón-Salas, Mariano

Mariano Picon-Salas

Mariano Picon-Salas



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Picón-Salas, Mariano

Venezuelan, 1901–1965
Before Mariano Picon-Salas, the Venezuelan literary tradition had produced several prominent essayists: Andrés Bello, Simón Rodríguez, Rufino Blanco Fombona, and Manuel Díaz Rodríguez. As was the case with his predecessors, not only did Picón-Salas attempt to reconcile nationalistic and purely aesthetic concerns in his work, but his direct involvement in politics proved to be decisive for the evolution of his career. When he was a young man, his liberal convictions strengthened in response to the atrocities of Juan Vicente Gómez’s dictatorship (1909–35). In 1922, escaping the repressive and stagnant atmosphere of his homeland, Picón-Salas settled in Chile, where he obtained an advanced degree in history and later worked as a university professor until Gómez’s death. This first international experience gave the young writer a truly continental scope, which continued to expand throughout his life. In 1948, he had to abandon Venezuela again after the overthrow of Rómulo Gallegos and, once democracy was restored years later, served as ambassador to Mexico, UNESCO, and Brazil.
Picón-Salas’ works may be roughly defined by setting them within a Latin American literary and artistic trend that prevailed from the 19105 to the 19505 and has been called mundonovismo (from Nuevo Mundo—“New World”) by some critics or, simply, americanismo (“Latin Americanism”). At the end of the Hispanic Modernist era (which began in the 1880s and started to decline in 1916, after the death of its leader, Rubén Darío), some poets and prose writers felt the need to compensate for what they considered to be an excessive cosmopolitanism among the Modernists. The mundonovistas’ reaction against what they saw as escapism, occasional political indifference, and egotistical distance from the problems of the Latin American masses was full of irony, and they soon tried to distinguish themselves from their predecessors by depicting Modernists as irresponsible inhabitants of ivory towers. In contrast, the mundonovistas described themselves as incarnations of the voice of the people or as pedagogues whose basic aim was to educate their fellow countrymen and prepare them for modern political reform and material progress. As simplistic as this ideology may sound, it was sometimes combined with true stylistic mastery or solid erudition. In fact, some of the most respectable Spanish American writers in the first half of the 20th century were, at one time or another, mundonovistas, including the novelists José Eustasio Rivera and Ricardo Güiraldes, the poets Gabriela Mistral, Nicolás Guillén, and Pablo Neruda, and the essayists Alfonso Reyes, Pedro Henríquez Ureña, José Carlos
Mariátegui, and Eduardo Mallea. Rómulo Gallegos’ novels, as well as Arturo Uslar Pietri’s and Picón-Salas’ essays, are the best Venezuelan contributions to a movement that deeply shaped the first half of the 20th century in all of Latin America.
The topics chosen by Picón-Salas were always related to the definition of a continental identity, a goal he sometimes attained by portraying exemplary historical personages, as in Miranda (1946), Pedro Claver: El santo de los esclavos (1950; Pedro Claver: the saint of the slaves), and Simón Rodríguez (1953). At times he studied aspects of an isolated nationality, as in Intuición de Chile (1935; Intuiting Chile), Comprensión de Venezuela (1949; Understanding Venezuela), and Gusto de México (1952; Savoring Mexico).
Finally, he tried to grasp the totality of the New World essence in classic essays such as De la Conquista a la Independencia: Tres siglos de historia cultural latinoamericana (1944; A Cultural History of Spanish America, from Conquest to Independence) and Europa-América: Preguntas a la esfinge de la cultura (1947; Europe/America: questions for the sphinx of culture).
Although his first book, Buscando el camino (1920; In search of a path), was still permeated by the modernista exquisiteness of vocabulary and syntax, Picón-Salas’ work opposes the egocentrism he attributed to the turn-of-the-century intellectuals.
Interestingly enough, his belief that the essayist must act as a social conscience soon clashed with his own conception of the essay as a genre. In fact, on some occasions Picón-Salas acknowledged Montaigne as the patrono de los ensayistas (patron saint of the essayists), which forced him to try to explain why the French author insisted on referring to his inner world. This desperate endeavor produced shallow and unconvincing conclusions in short texts such as “En torno al ensayo” (1954; On the essay), where Picón-Salas asserts that “Montaigne described in himself the supreme chaos of his time.”
It is, however, precisely the tension Picón-Salas felt between his private life and his public obligations that fuels the volume considered to be his masterpiece, Regreso de tres mundos (1959; Returning from three worlds), an autobiographical essay that synthesizes his philosophy and his Latin Americanist passion. In this work the representation of the essayistic “I” splits into many different subpersonalities that do not always co-exist harmoniously: the young man from the Venezuelan Andes, the human being, the intellectual, the man from the 20th century, the ambassador, and others. The result is a poignant and dramatic polyphony of viewpoints that surprisingly subverts the monotonous magisterial attitudes typical of other mundonovistas less concerned about the contradictions inherent in their aesthetics.
Juan Liscano, Francisco Rivera, Guillermo Sucre, and Óscar Rodríguez Ortiz, the best Venezuelan essayists of the second half of the 20th century, have always avoided assuming the role of the voice of the people, perhaps taking into account the problematic example set earlier by Picón-Salas, who, nevertheless, is still revered as one of the most influential writers Venezuela has produced.


Born 26 January 1901 in Mérida. Studied privately with a tutor; studied law at the Central University of Venezuela, Caracas, 1920–22; moved to Chile, 1922, living in Santiago for 13 years; studied history in Santiago. Librarian and history professor. Returned to Caracas, 1936. Appointed chargé d’affaires, Prague, 1936–37. Professor in Santiago, 1937–38. Lived in Caracas for four years. Founder and editor, Revista Nacional de Cultura (National review of culture); also contributed to El Nacional, Cultura
Universitaria, Sardio, and other journals and newspapers. Traveled to the United States and taught at various colleges and universities, 1941–44. Founder, Faculty of Philosophy and Letters, Central University of Venezuela, Caracas, 1946. Venezuelan ambassador to Colombia, 1947–48, Brazil, 1958–59, UNESCO, Paris, 1959–62, and Mexico, 1962.
Organized founding of the Instituto Nacional de Cultura y Bellas Artes (National institute of culture and fine arts), Caracas, 1964 (founded 1965 after his death).
Awards: National Prize for Literature, 1954. Member, National Academy of History.
Died in Caracas, 1 January 1965.

Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
Buscando el camino, 1920
Hispano-América, posición crítica, 1931
Intuición de Chile y otros ensayos en busca de una conciencia histórica, 1935
Formación y proceso de la literatura venezolana, 1940
1941: Cinco discursos sobre pasado y presente de la nación venezolana, 1940
De la Conquista a la Independencia: Tres siglos de historia cultural latinoamericana,
1944; as A Cultural History of Spanish America, from Conquest to Independence, translated by Irving A.Leonard, 1962
Europa-América: Preguntas a la esfinge de la cultura, 1947
Comprensión de Venezuela, 1949; revised edition, 1955
Dependencia e independenda en la historia hispanoamericana, 1952
Gusto de México, 1952
Suramérica, 1953
Crisis, cambio, tradición: Ensayos sobre la forma de nuestra cultura, 1955
Ensayos escogidos, edited by Juan Loveluck, 1958
Regreso de tres mundos: Un hombre en su generación, 1959
Los malos salvajes: Civilización y política contemporáneas, 1962; as The Ignoble Savages, translated by Herbert Weinstock, 1965
Hora y deshora: Temas humanísticos, Nombres y figuras, Viajes y lugares, 1963
Suma de Venezuela: Antología de páginas venezolanas, 1966
Viejos y Nuevos Mundos, edited by Guillermo Sucre, 1983
Las formas y las visiones: Ensayos sobre arte, edited by Juan Carlos Palenzuela, 1984

Other writings: novels, works on Spanish American cultural history, three biographies, travel, and autobiography.

Further Reading
Azzario, Esther A., La prosa autobiográfica de Mariano Picón-Salas, Caracas: Equinoccio, 1980
Gomes, Miguel, Poéticas del ensayo venezolano del siglo XX, Cranston, Rhode Island: Inti, 1996:121–38
Morin, Thomas D., Mariano Picón Salas, Boston: Twayne, 1979
Rodriguez Ortiz, Óscar, “Picón Salas y la imaginación del presente,” in Placebo, Caracas: Fundarte, 1990:74–80
Rosenblat, Ángel, “Mariano Picón-Salas: El estilo y el hombre,” Thesaurus 20 (1965):201–12
Sucre, Guillermo, Prologue to Viejos y Nuevos Mundos by PicónSalas, Caracas: Ayacucho, 1983:ix-xli
Uslar Pietri, Arturo, “El regreso de los mundos de Mariano PicónSalas,” in his En busca del Nuevo Mundo, Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1969:161–67

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