This study of Mesoamerican literary history thoughtfully explores the intellectual contexts, generic categories, and cultural forces that shaped and informed a distinctive Mexican literary tradition. David William Foster compiles a set of essays that re-contextualize canonical works from the colonial period to the present. In addition, these essays recover the important contributions of non-canonical texts from the pre-Columbian era forward, pointing to the indelible influence of indigenous peoples on modern and pre-modern Mexican culture. [End Page 167]
The first two essays deal with the pre-Columbian and Colonial periods respectively. Citing the tendency of many literary historians of the Mexican tradition to follow the lead of Francisco Pimentel in dismissing pre-Columbian culture altogether, Joanna O’Connell attempts to recover a tradition of indigenous literary production, a tradition that appears in the Zapotec and Mayan writing systems and the Mayan codices dating from between 600 B.C. to 900 A.D. These extant texts demonstrate a complex Mesoamerican society founded upon a model of social organization not dissimilar to that of the European Middle Ages, a model including a priestly caste that created, maintained, and transmitted cultural knowledge through “the systematic preservation of an orally transmitted corpus.” Lee H. Dowling’s essay details the colonial period of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and, through the metalanguage of postcolonial theory, recounts the synthesis of indigenous and colonizing influences in works by ethnographers such as Fray José de Acosta, Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, Fray Diego Durán, and literary artists like Francisco Bramón, among others.
Three essays in the volume deal with romanticism, with the various works of nineteenth-century prose fiction, and with the rise of modernism. In the first of these, Margarita Vargas distinguishes the Mesoamerican romantics from their European counterparts, suggesting that Mexican romanticism “not having neoclassicism against which to rebel” was a rather benign unifying influence rather than a violent oppositional movement. Vargas explores the progressivist impulses of figures such as José Joachín Fernández de Lizardi, Ignacio Manuel Altamirano, and Fernando Calderón. In another essay, Mario Martín-Flores demonstrates the influence of realism and naturalism in Mexico, locating these movements within the context of a “late-blooming romanticism.” While many critics such as Fernando Alegría and John S. Brushwood see realism and naturalism as a “fifth derivative of romanticism,” Martín-Flores suggests that the realism of figures such as Rafael Delgado and José Tomás de Cuéllar leads to novels that reject romantic introspection for “the conscious and precise reproduction of societal phenomena, the social milieu.” Bart L. Lewis explores a distinctive Mesoamerican modernism that emerged out of the period from the 1880’s to the 1970’s called modernismo. This literary impulse involved the combination of romantic style and the narrative conventions of the French novel. Mexican modernism as a form of romance, from Lewis’s [End Page 168] point of view, can only be revealed in a revision of the canon to include not only the “continental modernists” such as Jesús Valenzuela and Micheal Gutiérrez Nájera, but also the work of Justo Sierra, Augustín F. Cuenca, and Juan de Dios Peza, among others.
The volume somewhat awkwardly shifts from primarily historical to generic concerns in a set of three essays dealing with twentieth-century poetry, theater, and fiction. Adrianna Garcia explores the development of Mexican poetry as a complex admixture of social, political, and religious concerns. The relative social stability and peace associated with the Diaz dictatorship allowed for a resurgence of literature and the arts, and the success of literary journals lead to a modernism in poetry not dissimilar to that expressed by the French symbolists and surrealists who were in turn influenced by the mysticism of Swedenborg. This appears in the works of figures such as Octavio Paz, Salvador Díaz Mirón, and Enrique González Martínez. In another essay, Kristen F. Nigro accounts for the social and political circumstances that led to the generation of a Mexican theatrical tradition. While a rich history of theater...