*Sarmiento, Domingo Faustino
Sarmiento, Domingo Faustino
Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, one of 19th-century Latin America’s most accomplished essayists, also had a distinguished career in education and government, culminating in his term as Argentina’s President from 1868 to 1874. No other leader of that century accomplished more to benefit the masses through promotion of technology, social and economic reform, and universal public schooling.
Until the age of 28 this autodidact in languages and new ideas resided in Argentina’s isolated Andean province of San Juan, which was nearly devoid of libraries, educational institutions, and newspapers. Exiled to Chile in 1840, he found instant success as a journalist with his forceful writing style and stellar intelligence. In the next 15 years he wrote several of his most acclaimed book-length essays, which are a written testimony of his impassioned personal life and his participation in the turbulent social and political events of his time. From 1854 until the end of his life he lived primarily in Buenos Aires, the country’s capital, where he combined his chosen profession of journalist—or “public writer”—with a long succession of positions in government and public administration.
Writing for Sarmiento was largely a means of furthering a worthy social cause. He disdained poetry and fictional narrative, but found the essay to be a valuable tool for his ideological struggles. The 53 volumes of his Obras completas (Complete works) unite the short essays written for the daily or weekly press throughout his long career of public service: costumbrista (essays on customs or personality types), sketches, reviews of books and theater productions, all with reformist intention; his 1842 polemic in defense of Romanticism and against classicism; promotional pieces for public education, highways, innovative industrial practices, and trade; studies on the impact of governmental policies for immigration or the sale of public lands; and considerations on constitutional and political issues. Also included in the Obras completas are his longer essays, which circulated widely in book form, and are variously classified as literature, biography and autobiography, travel commentary, and sociological and political studies.
Since the greater part of Sarmiento’s essays were first published in the press, it is not surprising that the style, tone, and focus of these writings were influenced by that medium. His was political writing at its best, conceived in the passion of polemic and intended to move the reader to action. Logic and system were often sacrificed in favor of effect. He wrote with the “performative” goal of altering reality rather than merely describing it. Writing for him was a type of action, and its impact on the reader was often as important as what it said. Critics have called attention to how Sarmiento’s emotional or irrational “intent” overshadows a conscious or prescribed “intention,” how he dynamically incorporates his own person into the narration, and how his prose persuades through affective rather than logical conduits. For these and other reasons literary anthologies often place Sarmiento’s name at the head of Latin America’s Romantic literary tradition.
Yet Sarmiento’s essayistic prose defies such easy classification. His defense of Romantic literature in the 1842. polemics in Chile was primarily a means of shaking up that country’s complacent intellectual elite, whose members still ignored the fertile literary and ideological contributions emanating from Western Europe since the late 18th century. Romanticism, Sarmiento believed, already belonged to a preterite age.
Nevertheless, he recognized the insurrectional value of that literature in the face of tradition, and was conscious of the need for writers of his own age to forge an original expression that would agitate on behalf of liberal institutions and material progress. In this respect he embraced the dictum accredited to Victor Hugo, that Romanticism was nothing less than liberalism in literature. So although certain characteristics of his essayistic writing were undeniably “Romantic,” it was a Romanticism at the service of progress. Early on he and his renowned cohorts of the Argentine Generation of 1837 labeled this orientation socialista—not to be confused with the collectivist and proletarian orientation that Engels and Marx later lent to the term—which they borrowed from the writings and thought of Claude-Henri de Rouvroy, the Count of Saint-Simon, who was a precursor of positivism.
This pre-positivist orientation found expression in Sarmiento’s style. For example, one passage of his most acclaimed work, Facundo; o, Civilizacion y barbarie (1845; Life in the Argentine Republic in the Days of the Tyrants; or, Civilization and Barbarism) portrays the emotional authorprotagonist who is moved to tears upon observing the intense religious devotion of a cattle rancher living in the isolated countryside. Reason, however, finally prevails when the narrator, now sounding like a social scientist, ends the passage with an explanation of how the barbaric countryside causes a degeneration in the people’s religious practices and in their social institutions in general. A similar procedure is observed with Sarmiento’s description of a pampa storm: few writers have captured in more forceful words the destructive power of nature over humble humanity. But then there is an abrupt stylistic transition: “Romantic” prose is followed immediately by a physiological explanation, perhaps influenced by the theories of galvanism, whereby untamed nature activates the “electrical fluid” in man’s brain, arouses his passions, and clouds his reason. Sarmiento then concludes the passage by underlining how the untamed physical setting is a major contributor to the stunted intellectual faculties of the rural inhabitant. Here again, the writer initially builds toward the reader’s “Romantic” appreciation and then destroys it. Other examples could also be given of positivistic literary stratagems whereby rationality predominates over emotion and science over Romanticism. On the written page and in his public career Sarmiento always placed literature and the essay at the service of politics.
One could argue that, on account of this tolerance of textual contradiction and propensity for stylistic movement, Sarmiento exemplifies well the model of writing offered by the essayist who baptized the genre, Michel de Montaigne. For both, the process of writing was in itself a search for truth whereby different ideas would be registered, treated, digested, and discarded. Neither feared self-contradiction and ideological or stylistic inconsistency. But here the similarities end. Whereas Montaigne wrote for himself and a small coterie of readers, Sarmiento wrote primarily for the public forum. With justification his detractors have called attention to Sarmiento’s ideological expediency whereby writing was his form of denying or overwhelming other interpretations and making his own ideas prevail.
Facundo was composed, in the author’s own words, in a “rapture of lyricism” for publication by installments in Chile’s weekly press before circulating throughout the Río de la Plata region (Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and southern Brazil) in book form. The essay unites three highly contrasting sections. The first, inspired by sociological or ethnographic theory and heavily flavored by the biases and idiosyncratic beliefs of the author, attempts to account for the state of Argentine society after 20 years of devastating civil skirmishes. As such, four successive chapters of this first section focus on the region’s landscape of endless pampas; the psychology of rural inhabitants that resulted from their residence in that primitive environment; the social institutions arising in that physical setting and in accordance with the particular values and orientations of its inhabitants; and the historical events of recent years that were the product of all the geographical, psychological, and social factors previously discussed. Within these chapters Sarmiento includes memorable costumbrista passages that romantically portray character types of the Argentine pampas: the pathfinder, the cattle hand, the bad gaucho, and the singer. The work’s second section, which is Sarmiento’s subjective incursion into biography and romantically rendered history, re-creates in negative terms the events surrounding the life and exploits of the Promethean caudillo, or charismatic rural leader, Juan Facundo Quiroga. The work’s third section, excluded entirely from the English translation, analyzes the tyrannical practices of the Buenos Aires dictator, Juan Manuel de Rosas.
Over the years critics have disputed the work’s generic classification on account of the wide range of materials treated. The term “essay” was not then in current usage.
Sarmiento himself characterized the work as a form of “poem, political pamphlet, history.” Informed readers have agreed about only two issues: the intense impact of Sarmiento’s forceful prose, and the immense influence of this uneven and untidy essay over thought and politics, and subsequent conceptual writing, in Argentina and Latin America.
Three other essays merit consideration here. First, Viajes en Europa, África y América (1849–51; Travels through Europe, Africa, and America), which compiles the long letters that Sarmiento wrote during his extensive travels a few years earlier. The work features penetrating observations of customs and practices flavored by familiarity with a not insignificant number of written sources. Also important is De la educación popular (1849; About public education), only one of many studies he published to promote free and universal schooling for the masses of his continent. The work unites observations and studies of educational systems across northern Europe, and presents the author’s own practical plan for implementing such practices in the South American republics. More important for literary readers is Recuerdos de provincia (1843; Memories of provincial life), demonstrating Sarmiento’s considerable talents as historian and describer of customs. With autobiographical focus, the work venerates the personages and progressive institutions that prevailed in San Juan’s patriarchal society at the time of his youth.
Born 15 February 1811 in San Juan, Argentina. Studied at the Escuela de la Patria, San Juan, 1817–19; moved to the province of San Luis with his uncle, 1825, and tutored by him. Lieutenant with the Unitarist forces against General Facundo Quiroga’s army, captured and held for four months, 1829–30, then escaped briefly to Chile; returned to San Juan, then fled again to Chile, 1831, where he taught in Los Andes, worked in a store, and in a silver mine in northern Chile. Had one daughter (possibly by María de Jéus del Canto), 1832. Contracted typhoid fever and allowed to return to San Juan, 1836.
Founder, Colegio para Señoritas, San Juan, 1839; copublisher, El Zonda newspaper, 1839. Imprisoned for conspiracy and almost executed, but saved by intervention of governor and exiled to Chile again, 1840. Founder, El Progreso newspaper, Santiago, early 1840s. Traveled to Europe and the United States to inspect educational systems, 1845–47. Married Benita Martínez Pastoriza, 1848 (separated, 1862): one son (probably his). Lived mostly in Buenos Aires, from 1854. Appointed minister of Mitre, 1860; governor of the province of San Juan, 1861–64 and 1874. Leader in the repression of the Peñalosa rebellion, 1863–64. Argentine ambassador to the United States, 1865–68.
President of the Argentine Republic, 1868–74. Appointed director of schools, Province of Buenos Aires, 1875, minister of Avellaneda, 1879, and general superintendent of Argentine schools, 1881. Unsuccessful candidate for President, 1879. Died in Asuncion, Paraguay, 11 September 1888.
Essays and Related Prose
Recuerdos de provincia, 1843; edited by Guillermo Ara, 1966
Civilización y barbarie: Vida de Juan Facundo Quiroga, 1845; as Facundo; o, Civilización y barbarie en las pampas argentinas, 1868; edited by Emma Susána Speratti Piñero, 1971, Jorge Luis Borges, 1974, Luis Ortega Galindo, 1975, Nora Dottori and Silvia Zanetti, 1977, and Robert Yahni, 1990; as Life in the Argentine Republic in the Days of the Tyrants; or, Civilization and Barbarism, translated by Mrs. Horace Mann, 1868
Viajes en Europa, África y América, 2 vols., 1849–51; edited by Delia S.Etcheverry, 1940, Alberto Palcos, 1955, and Javier Fernández, 1993; Part as Travels in the United States in 1847, translated by Mrs. Horace Mann, 1868, and Michael A.Rockland, 1970;
part as Travels: A Selection, translated by Inés Muñoz, 1963
De la educación popular, 1849; as Educación comun, 1855; edited by Gregorio Weinberg, 1987
Discursos populares, 1927
Ideario, edited by Luis Alberto Sánchez, 1943, and Bernardo Movsichoff, 1988
A Sarmiento Anthology, edited by Allison Williams Bunkley, translated by Stuart Edgar Grummon, 1948
Sarmiento: A través de sus mejores pdginas, edited by Andrés Iduarte and James F.Shearer, 1949
Cartas y discursos políticos, edited by José P.Barreiro, 1963
Other writings: many political works, biographies of Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin, memoirs, and correspondence.
Collected works editions: Obras, edited by Augusto Belín Sarmiento, 53 vols., 1885– 1903; Obras completas, 53 vols., 1948–56.
Becco, Horacio Jorge, “Bibliografía de Sarmiento,” Humanidades 37, no. 2 (1961):119– 44
Anderson Imbert, Enrique, Genio y figura de Sarmiento, Buenos Aires: University of Buenos Aires, 1967
Barrenechea, Ana María, “Notas al estilo de Sarmiento,” Revista Iberoamericana 41–42 (1956):275–94
Borello, Rodolfo, “Facundo: Heterogeneidad y persuasión,” Cuadernos
Hispanoamericanos 263–64 (1972):283–302
Bunkley, Allison Williams, The Life of Sarmiento, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1952
Carilla, Emilio, Lengua y estilo en Sarmiento, La Plata: National University of La Plata, 1964
Crowley, Frances G., Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, New York: Twayne, 1972
Gálvez, Manuel, Vida de Sarmiento: El hotnbre de autoridad, Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1945
Halperín Donghi, Tulio, Prologue to Campaña en el Ejército Grande Aliado de Sud América by Sarmiento, Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1958: xx–xxvi
Jitrik, Noé, Muerte y resurreccion de “Facundo”, Buenos Aires: Centro Editor de América Latina, 1968
Jones, Cyril Albert, Sarmiento: “Facundo”, London: Grant and Cutler, 1974
Katra, William H., “Discourse Production and Sarmiento’s Essayistic Style,” in Simposio el ensayo hispánico: Actas, edited by Isaac Jack Levy and Juan Loveluck, Columbia: University of South Carolina, 1984
Katra, William H., Sarmiento: Public Writer (Between 1839 and 1852), Tempe: Arizona State University Institute of Latin American Studies, 1985
Katra, William H., “Facundo as Historical Novel,” in The Historical Novel in Latin America: A Symposium, edited by Daniel Balderston, Gaithersburg, Maryland: Hispamérica, 1986: 31–46
Katra, William H., Sarmiento de frente y perfil, New York: Lang, 1993
Katra, William H., “Sarmiento in the United States,” in Sarmiento: Author of a Nation, edited by Tulio Halperín Donghi and others, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994
Katra, William H., The Argentine Generation of 1837: Echeverría, Alberdi, Sarmiento, Mitre, Rutherford, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995
Lugones, Leopoldo, Historia de Sarmiento, Buenos Aires: Babel, 1931 (original edition, 1910)
Martínez Estrada, Ezequiel, Sarmiento, Buenos Aires: Argos, 1956
Palcos, Alberto, Sartniento: La vida, la obra, las ideas, el genio, Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1962 (original edition, 1929)
Patton, Elda Clayton, Sarmiento in the United States, Evansville, Indiana: University of Evansville Press, 1976
Pomer, León, “Sarmiento, el caudillismo y la escritura histórica,” Cuadernos
Hispanoaméricos: Los complementarios 3 (1989): 7–37
Rockland, Michael A., Introduction to Travels in the United States in 1847 by Sarmiento, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1970
Rojas, Ricardo, El profeta de la pampa: Vida de Sarmiento, Buenos Aires: Losada, 1945
Salomon, Noël, “À propos des éléments ‘costumbristas’ dans le Facundo de D.F.
Sarmiento,” Bulletin Hispanique 52 (1968): 342–412
Verdevoye, Paul, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento: Éducateur et publiciste (entre 1839 et 1852), Paris: Institut des Hautes fitudes de l’Amérique Latine, 1963
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