Alfonso Reyes was one of the leading essayists from Mexico—indeed, from all of Latin America—during the first half of the 20th century. His literary production excelled in quantity (comprising 24 large volumes in his Obras completas [1955–91; Complete works]), in breadth of scope, and in quality. While his vast output lacks the exotic originality of Jorge Luis Borges, for instance, Reyes’ eloquent essays reveal an extensive knowledge of the classic Greco-Roman world and, at the same time, of pre- Hispanic indigenous Mexico, along with past and present literatures of Spain, France, England, Germany, and Latin America. Reyes’ stylistic versatility in several genres— novels, short stories, poems, and plays—is obvious, but it is unquestionably in his essays that the broad humanism of his production is most evident. They range from brief, casual, impressionistic sketches to well-composed, serious, precise studies—and yet all are personal in spirit.
Reyes published his first book, the collection of essays titled Cuestiones estéticas (1911; Aesthetic questions), when he was only 21. It contained unusually penetrating and far-reaching comparative studies of aesthetic approaches from ancient to modern periods.
Its immediate success augured well for the work to follow, as Reyes became the undisputed dean of Mexican letters, writing prodigiously for the next 48 years and influencing generations of writers in his native land and elsewhere in Latin America.
An accomplished linguist, Reyes reveled in puns and wordplay. Among charming works in a light vein were essays on razor blades (used ones, no less), onions, and flies, published in popular journals and various collections. On a more sober level, along with his interest in the complexities of Greek and Roman classical texts, Reyes maintained a consuming fascination with European (especially Spanish) and Latin American (especially Mexican) literature. He wrote insightful essays on authors as diverse as Goethe, Stéphane Mallarmé, Oscar Wilde, and George Bernard Shaw, but his major European passion was for Iberian figures, ranging from Miguel de Cervantes and Pedro Calderón de la Barca to Miguel de Unamuno and José Ortega y Gasset—all examined in his scholarly Capítulos de literatura española (1939–45; Chapters in Spanish literature).
Reyes resided for many years outside of Mexico, in France and Spain, as well as in both Argentina and Brazil as the Mexican ambassador. Yet despite the years of absence, he was a devoted student of his native land, its origins and character. From his youth Reyes was caught up in a search for Mexican identity and the influences of the conquered indigenous and the conquering Spanish cultures on the development of Mexico. The genesis of this interest may have been his membership as a young man of the Ateneo de la Juventud (Atheneum of youth), an organization which had as one of its tasks a search for national identity (necessary because of, among other things, Mexico’s multiple cultural heritage).
In the prologue he wrote for a Mexican film, Raíces (Roots), Reyes announced:
“Mexico is at once a world of mystery and clarity: clarity in her landscape, mystery in the souls of her people.” This statement was written after decades of endeavors by Reyes to scrutinize carefully, if not to dispel, this mystery. In the essay “México en una nuez” (1944; “Mexico in a Nutshell”), he described concisely the development of colonial Mexico: “During three centuries the races mixed as they pleased, and the colony was governed and maintained through a miracle of respect for the monarchic idea and
through religious submission to the categories of the state… Meanwhile a new nation— with Indians underneath, the Spaniards on top, and the arrogant and domineering creoles and the astute and subtle mestizos in the middle—was quietly being evolved.”
Much earlier in Visión de Anáhuac (1917; Vision of Anahuac) Reyes presented colorful, poetic depictions of ancient Tenochtitlan (now modern Mexico City), whose mansions and palaces, zoos and gardens, and perhaps most impressive of all, giant marketplace left the Spanish invaders dazzled. Recent archaeological studies of this magnificent ancient site have expanded and refined details about it, yet none has surpassed the cogency or beauty of Reyes’ descriptions.
Over the years Reyes became more concerned with questions concerning the relative importance of regional and universal expressions of culture; he came to view the significance of Mexican cultural and artistic values as contributing to a universal art and culture. During the 1930s he developed this philosophy of culture in such collections of essays as Discursos por Virgilio (1931; Discourses about Virgil) and Homilia por la
cultura (1935; Homily for culture), while during the 19405 his concerns shifted to issues of social philosophy in books like Norte y sur and Los trabajos y los días (1944; Works and days).
In later years Reyes wrote a series of essays on strictly literary topics, published in such works as La experiencia literaria (1942; Literary experience) and Letras de la Nueva España (1948; Letters of the New Spain). There were also a whole series of essays on Greek and Roman philosophy, religion, and literature in his Obras completas, many of which appeared in a wide variety of journals but were not published originally in book form.
Special mention must be made of El deslinde (1944; Demarcation), Reyes’ most developed, systematic elaboration of literary theory. It was based on four lengthy “lessons on the science of literature” he presented at the College of St. Nicholas in Morelia, Michoacán in 1940. In several essays Reyes established the differences between literature with and without an extrinsic purpose (“pure literature and service literature”) as well as within the disciplines of science, mathematics, history, and theology. This was clearly his scholarly tour de force.
If there is a weakness in Reyes’ writings, it is a tendency at times to oversimplify, and to rely on poetic license. This may be because he was so prolific—perhaps if he had written less he would have written better.
Unfortunately for non-Spanish-literate readers very few of Reyes’ essays have been translated into English, with ten appearing in The Position of America, and Other Essays (1950) and 12 included in Mexico in a Nutshell, and Other Essays (1964). Each volume is composed of essays from a wide variety of sources dating from 1915 to 1948. This dearth of sources in English is unfortunate, for Reyes’ works are a vital part of a rich literary tradition.
Born 17 May 1889 in Monterrey, Mexico. Moved to Mexico City, 1906; part of the Centennial Generation lecture society, and the Ateneo de la Juventud literary society; cofounder and secretary, 1912, School of Higher Studies, National Autonomous University of Mexico, Mexico City, where he also took a law degree, 1913. Married: at least one child. Second secretary of the Mexican legation in France, 1913; moved to Spain because of the war, 1914; editor of cultural section, El Sol (The sun) newspaper; second, then first secretary of the Mexican legation in Spain, 1920–24; diplomat in Paris,
1924–27; Mexican ambassador to Argentina and Brazil, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, from 1927. Publisher, Monterrey literary bulletin, Rio de Janeiro, 1930–37.
Returned to Mexico City, 1939. Cofounder, El Colegio Nacional, Mexico City, 1945; professor, College of St. Nicholas, Morelia, Michoacán, 1940, and the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Mexico City, 1941. Helped to form, and honorary president, 1954, Fédération des Alliances Françaises, Mexico. Elected director, Mexican Academy of the Language, 1957. Awards: National Prize in Literature, 1945. Died (of a heart attack) in Mexico City, 27 December 1959.
Essays and Related Prose
Cuestiones estéticas, 1911
Cartones de Madrid, 1917; edited by Juan Velasco, 1988
El suicida, 1917
Visión de Anáhuac, 1917; as Vision of Anahuac, translated by Harriet de Onís, in The Position of America, and Other Essays, 1950, and translated by Charles Ramsdell, in Mexico in a Nutshell, and Other Essays, 1964
Retratos reales e imaginarios, 1920
El cazador: Ensayos y divagaciones, 1911–1920, 1921
Simpatiás y diferencias, 5 vols., 1921–26
Cuestiones gongorinas, 1927
Discursos por Virgilio, 1931
Tren de ondas (1924–32), 1932
Horas de Burgos, 1932
Homilia por la cultura, 1935
Las vísperas de España, 1937
Aquellos días (1917–1920), 1938
Mallarmé entre nosotros, 1938
Capítulos de literatura española, 2 vols., 1939–45
La crítica en la edad ateniense, 1941
Pasado inmediato, y otros ensayos, 1941
La antigua retórica, 1942
La experienda literaria, 1942
Últitma Tule, 1942
El Brasil y su cultura, 1944
Los trabajos y los días, 1934–1944, 1944
El deslinde: Prolegómenos a la teoría literaria, 1944
Dos o tres mundos: Cuentos y ensayos (includes stories), edited by Antonio Castro Leal, 1944
Norte y sur (1925–1942), 1944
Tentativas y orientaciones, 1944
Letras de la Nueva España, 1948
Entre libros, 1912–1923, 1948
Junta de sombras: Estudios helénicos, 1949
Tertulia de Madrid, 1949
De viva voz, 1920–1947, 1949
Sirtes (1932–1944), 1949
The Position of America, and Other Essays, edited and translated by Harriet de Onís, 1950
Trazos de historia literaria, 1951
Marginalia, 3 vols., 1952–59
Memorias de cocina y bodega, 1953
De la antigüedad a la edad media, 1954
Trayectoria de Goethe, 1954
Quince presencias 1915–1954, 1955
Estudios helénicos, 1957
Las burlas veras, 2 vols., 1957–59
A campo traviesa, 1960
Al yunque, 1944–1958, 1960
Antología: Prosa, teatro, poesía, 1963
Mexico in a Nutshell, and Other Essays, translated by Charles Ramsdell, 1964
Universidad, política y pueblo, edited by José Emilio Pacheco, 1967
Ensayos (selection), edited by Roberto Fernández Retamar, 1968
Monterrey (Correo literario de Alfonso Reyes) (facsimile edition), 1980
Última tule y otros ensayos, edited by Rafael Gutierrez Girardot, 1991
Other writings: many volumes of poetry, several novels, prose narratives, plays, memoirs, and correspondence. Also translated Homer’s Iliad (1951).
Collected works edition: Obras completas, edited by Reyes and Ernesto Mejía Sánchez, 24 vols., 1955–91.
Robb, James Willis, Repertorio bibliográfico de Alfonso Reyes, Mexico City: National Autonomous University of Mexico, 1974
Cepeda Adan, Luis, and others, Comiendo con Reyes: Homenaje a Alfonso Reyes, Mexico City: Posada, 1986
Olguín, Manuel, Alfonso Reyes, ensayista: Vida y pensamiento, Mexico City: Andrea, 1956
Perea, Hector, España en la obra de Alfonso Reyes, Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1965
Robb, James Willis, Patterns of Image and Structure in the Essays of Alfonso Reyes (abstract of a dissertation), Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press of America, 1958
Robb, James Willis, El estilo de Alfonso Reyes, Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1965
Robb, James Willis, Estudios sobre Alfonso Reyes, Bogotá: El Dorado, 1976
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